UCI News

Easing congestion

On the road with Kenneth Small – traffic expert, professor emeritus of economics and Lauds & Laurels winner

by Kathryn Bold | May 7, 2007
Easing congestion

Kenneth Small, professor emeritus of economics, has devoted much of his career to studying traffic, yet he personally doesn’t contend with the long daily commutes and clogged roads that have been a focus of his pioneering research: “Actually, I bike to work,” he says.

Small can appreciate the irony; highway congestion has been the focus of his research for 30 years. “He’s a world leader in understanding the impacts of transportation on urban life and the environment,” says Barbara Dosher, dean of social sciences. Among his recent accomplishments, he was named a fellow of the elite Regional Science Association International in 2006, and he recently received the UCI Alumni Association’s 2007 Lauds & Laurels Faculty Achievement Award.

Despite his emeritus status, Small continues to put in many hours at his office, which he’s decorated with nature prints and an Ansel Adams poster of Yosemite; the expert on urban life enjoys the outdoors and belongs to the Sierra Club.

“I used to lead hikes for a club chapter, which means they’ll let anyone do it,” he jokes with characteristic modesty.

How did someone who loves nature end up studying crowded freeways? In graduate school, Small abandoned physics for economics, which allowed him to use his math training to address social problems.

“Economics captured a lot of my interests, including social behavior and the environment. That naturally merged into studying traffic and its relation to air pollution and energy consumption,” he says.

Over the years, Small’s research has become increasingly important as land for building roads vanishes and traffic gets worse; environmentalists, transportation agencies, energy officials and other policymakers look to his findings for ways to curb congestion.

“They’re now aware of economic approaches to congestion management,” Small says. “They can no longer say it’s impractical to use pricing to manage traffic because it works.” Locally, the 91 and I-15 Express Lanes have provided Small with a perfect test site for collecting data.

“We’ve found toll road users aren’t all the same. Some commuters will pay for time-saving and others won’t, even if they have the same income. It’s how they perceive the value of the service.”

For Small, who joined UCI in 1983, working in social sciences has been ideal because it’s encouraged him to collaborate with experts from other disciplines, such as political science, urban planning and engineering.

“I’ve also found great colleagues within the Department of Economics who have helped hone my skills and interests. In fact, the number of faculty members in economics with interests in transportation is unusual for a university our size and has been a big plus for me,” he says.

“UCI ranks very high in the world of transportation research. It’s a good place to do this kind of work.” Plus, it’s close to home.