It you fly into many of Alaska's remote villages, chances are you will see few, if any, private cars and trucks. Some villages even lack roads--buildings are connected by long boardwalks raised above the swampy ground. Residents get around on all-terrain vehicles, bicycles, and snowmachines or on foot.
Over the past few years, some of the larger hub communities such as Unalakleet, a village of about 700 on the shores of Norton Sound, have received paved roads. But engineers are finding such improvements may bring unintended consequences, says Billy Connor, director of the Alaska University Transportation Center on the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus.
"The day after it was paved, all the kids were in the streets on those push scooters," Connor says. Parents, seeing an opportunity for their kids to have fun on a smooth surface, had bought the scooters, but it wasn't what the engineers expected. That led to the question: how does one design safe transportation networks for isolated villages that may have never had roads, much less stop and yield signs?
'Critical Transportation Safety Issues'
That question led to the creation of the Center for Safe Equity in Transportation (CSET), a federally funded project that will focus on transportation in rural, isolated, and tribal and indigenous communities. The Institute of Northern Engineering (INE) and Alaska University Transportation Center is the hub of the project, with Connor serving as director and Nathan Belz, an assistant professor of engineering at UAF, as assistant director.
CSET, a partnership between UAF, University of Hawaii, University of Idaho, and University of Washington, will receive $7.9 million in funding over a five-year period to work on safer, smarter transportation solutions for communities in which dog sleds, ATVs, and snowmachines are common modes of transportation.
"We made an argument that these areas have critical transportation safety issues that need to be addressed," Belz said in a news release announcing the grant this winter. "Our goal surrounds the idea that if you have a right to get there, you have a right to get there safely."
CSET has three missions, says INE Director Bill Schnabel: teaching, service, and research.
"The Institute of Northern Engineering is in charge of the research mission of the College of Engineering and Mines," he says. "The faculty that teach in the different departments do their research through INE. We also have faculty that...