MnDOT Scholar-in-Residence shares lessons from experience

Professor Image of Greg LindseyGreg Lindsey of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs is completing his appointment as Scholar-in-Residence at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) this summer. Lindsey spent part of his sabbatical in the Office of Transit’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Section. The unique appointment built on his work for the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative, a collaborative effort between MnDOT, the Minnesota Department of Health, local planning agencies and departments of public works, nonprofit organizations, and the University. He shares highlights and advice below.

What were some benefits of the residency?

Our principal project was to help MnDOT institutionalize bike and pedestrian monitoring in the state. “Institutionalizing” means we want to make the practice a cultural norm and routine in both MnDOT and the organizations MnDOT works with throughout Minnesota. I could have worked on the project from the U, but cultural norms aren’t changed by an outsider. That’s why my residency was important for this particular project.

My residency also allowed me to establish relationships. For example, Commissioner [Charles] Zelle asked that I serve on MnDOT’s Bicycle Law Advisory Task Force. He asked that we review the existing state statutes, administrative rules, and design manual and make recommendations to streamline and integrate those three documents. Our recommendation is to make bike planning and design comparable to highway planning by eliminating the administrative rules. We also recommend strengthening the statutes and design manual. The proposal was introduced to the legislature but wasn’t passed this year.

Overall, I was able to engage with the agency in multiple ways that would not have been possible if not for the residency, developing relationships with professionals in Traffic Data Analysis, Safety, and other units in addition to the Office of Transit.

What’s next for your research and outreach efforts?

I’m continuing work on other MnDOT-funded research and plan to participate in activities to pass the Task Force legislation during the next session. 

My residency also strengthened my ability to link students with public agencies, especially on projects related to our institutionalization efforts. For example, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials became interested in monitoring traffic on state trails and contacted us. Humphrey students prepared a plan for them, and we held a capstone course focused on trail monitoring. This work led to a connection with the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trail Commission, which is also interested in measuring use. I’ll be meeting with commission members later this summer.

What cultural differences did you observe between academia and an agency?

Researchers have the luxury of posing interesting questions and working to resolve them—finding the best possible methods to complex questions. But public agencies are under deadlines and face resource, legal, and political constraints. Through collaboration, researchers can better appreciate the challenges agencies face and the way they define problems, and then move from the theoretical “best way” toward real-world solutions. Unless researchers understand the agency perspective, the likelihood of our work being used is minimized.

Are there any broad lessons to share?

The public sector often seems to be maligned, but one thing that stands out for me is the dedication of the professionals at MnDOT to meeting the state’s needs. State policy has historically focused on major transportation modes, but now we need new data and new ways of doing business. Officials are committed to doing the highest quality job possible to address evolving policies and issues.

What would you recommend for future residencies?

I’d recommend scholars talk at length with the collaborating agency, identify project priorities, and work jointly to address them in a way that produces new knowledge and meets the organization’s needs. I encourage agencies to reach out to faculty and explore deeper ways to work together and build enduring relationships.

Lisa Austin, planning coordinator with MnDOT’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Section, adds her perspective.

How did MnDOT benefit from the residency?

A strong focus of our office is to make sure research is practical and usable. By having someone on site periodically, we were more likely to have hallway conversions and get day-to-day benefit from Professor Lindsey’s research and expertise. In turn, we were able to help Greg be more grounded in terms of what practitioners need. With MnDOT’s focus on measuring use and getting the most value of our transportation funds, we need to be sure that research dollars are directed toward things that help us.

What would you recommend for future residencies?

With Greg so accessible, we sometimes turned to him for guidance on smaller matters not directly connected to his research. In the long term, some of these things could lead to projects. So, a scholar at mid-career might benefit from a longer horizon for research and project development.

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