CWRU and CSU partner with Cuyahoga County and The Fund for Our Economic Future to address regional mobility issues

It’s a common dilemma for many low-income households in older industrial cities like Cleveland: Without a reliable car, employment options are limited. And without a decent job, it’s tough to afford a reliable car.

A multi-institutional team of Cleveland researchers, public leaders, and urban planners will attack that paradox in a planning effort supported by a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the chance to receive up to $1 million in implementation support.

The award is part of the Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC), a novel national competition to fund research-based pilot projects sponsored by the NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy. Typically, researchers develop topics and questions on their own. CIVIC flips that model, requiring the topics and issues be driven by a community, which then partners with university researchers to address them.

So-called “legacy industrial cities” face several barriers to creating a transportation system that works equally well for all residents. Among them are decades of no-growth sprawl and a public transportation system weakened by underfunding. The goal of the research and planning effort is to provide mobility options that resolve what is often described as an affordable housing and job-location mismatch.

“Our vision is to leverage existing transportation collaborations with technologies to develop a hybrid public-private transportation system to improve transportation equity,” said Pan Li, associate professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering at Case Western Reserve University’s Case School of Engineering, who is serving as principal investigator in the project. “It is our privilege to have this great opportunity to collaborate with our civic partners to address the spatial mismatch problem our local communities are facing.”

In addition to Li, the project team includes Francisca Richter, research assistant professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve; Dominic Mathew, urban and regional planner for mobility innovations at the Fund for Our Economic Future; Hongkai Yu, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Cleveland State University; and Catherine Tkachyk, chief innovation and performance officer for Cuyahoga County. 

The NSF grant will leverage the work of The Paradox Prize, a public-private initiative led by Northeast Ohio’s Fund for Our Economic Future, which is supporting nine pilot projects across the region that are testing various mobility innovations to improve connections of people to jobs.

Specifically, the research team will work with two Paradox Prize pilots, whose partners include Manufacturing Works, the Cleveland Clergy Coalition, The American Association of Clergy and Employers, The Centers, Sway Mobility and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will collaborate with the project team to assist in the use of the Mobility Energy Productivity metric to forecast changes in a neighborhood when new mobility options are introduced.

“There is a growing awareness among leaders in Northeast Ohio that transportation is a workforce issue and that we need to get creative in solving it,” Mathew said. “The strong foundation of community partners we’ve built through The Paradox Prize, as well as the pipeline of great ideas we’re already supporting, helped our proposal stand out among a pool of hundreds of applications nationwide.”

The planning work over the next five months will culminate in a proposal for a $1 million competition to implement the project. If the plan is funded, the project will apply the collaborative’s extensive experience in artificial intelligence and the internet of things, transportation, smart cities, and the social sciences to improve transportation services for low-income communities, connecting jobs to affordable housing and related services.

More specifically, the researchers envision developing a hybrid transportation system, called “Mobility Improvements,” to optimize existing and new transportation options—both public and private—to achieve transportation equity in Northeast Ohio.

“We are excited to have our proposal selected for the Civic Innovation Challenge as we work to enhance mobility and transportation options for Cuyahoga County residents,” Tkachyk said. “At the county, we are always looking for innovative ways to enhance the quality of life for our residents, and we look forward to collaborating with the project team to lessen the mismatch between affordable housing and access to jobs.”

Appropriate metrics will be devised to evaluate the effectiveness and study the tradeoffs in investment decisions. The Internet of Things Collaborative, Institute for Smart, Secured and Connected Systems at Case Western Reserve, and the T.E.C.H. Hub at Cleveland State University got the proposal moving last spring by convening community partners to brainstorm ideas for the CIVIC opportunity, build multidisciplinary faculty teams and then support the proposal development and submission.


For more information, contact Bill Lubinger at william.lubinger@case.edu.

This article was originally published Feb. 17, 2021.