Kyle Shelton began his role as director of CTS on August 2. He takes over from Interim Director Dawn Hood, who assumed the role when previous director Laurie McGinnis retired in January.
Shelton previously was the deputy director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, a multidisciplinary think-and-do tank focused on translating academic research into on-the-ground improvements in urban communities. He holds a PhD in American History from University of Texas at Austin.
Below, Shelton gives a personal look at his introduction to Minnesota—including how U of M transportation research aided the transition—and shares his goals and priorities for CTS.
Safe, comfortable, and affordable mobility
It took me about four hours of being a Minneapolitan before I used a piece of University of Minnesota transportation research in my life. On my first day in Minnesota, walking around the Twin Cities searching for a neighborhood and home to call our own, I realized I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was. But, I also remembered that CTS had recently shared a story about an app—MN Bike and Go—made for bikers and pedestrians to use to locate public bathrooms that were open during the pandemic. Not only did the app help me find a bathroom (phew!), it also led us to the edge of Lake Nokomis and introduced us to a jewel of our new town’s park system.
For me, the use of the app was a small example of an idea that I talk about all the time when I explain why I study and work on transportation and mobility issues. Movement underpins everything we do in our daily lives. Whether we can move safely, quickly, and comfortably defines a great deal about our quality of life. Transportation and mobility systems connect us to our workplaces, homes, houses of worship, and, yes, bathrooms. When the constitutive elements of these systems—a car, a street, an app, a bus—work well, we often take them for granted. It’s only when we cannot access something we need—because of a late train, a delayed delivery, a faltering technology, or an inaccessible entrance—that we become fully aware of the systems that help us move through our day and their limitations.
Working to improve those systems so that everyone has the ability to move in safe, comfortable, and affordable ways is what drives me to study transportation. It’s also something I see in the research, engagement, and education we do at the Center for Transportation Studies. With our partners across the University of Minnesota system, the state, and the nation, our work aims to address the seen and unseen elements of our transportation system. We are working to understand existing limitations and offer ways to improve them. We are identifying new opportunities, asking new questions, and pioneering new approaches to help build a safer, more accessible, and more equitable mobility system. And movement from the federal government on a major infrastructure bill means that the time is ripe to take on even bigger challenges and push for new interventions.
Stronger listening muscles
A central aspect of transportation research, too, is listening. By engaging our stakeholders and refining projects and questions alongside them, we move our work toward implementation and impact. One of my goals as director of CTS is to build up our listening muscles even further. That means strengthening our existing ties with local, state, tribal nation, and federal leaders and agencies. But it also means listening closely to a wide array of other partners as well, whether that be a single bus rider or a Greater Minnesota farmer, companies working to rethink home deliveries or nonprofits advocating for sustainable transportation options, school districts looking to get children safely to class or economic development officers focused on connecting rural communities with good transportation options. Each of these partners has transportation needs and experiences that can shape research. Through our convenings, trainings, and partnerships, CTS and University researchers learn about our stakeholders’ priorities and then work alongside them to craft responsive, informative research that guides public policy and translates directly into everyday infrastructure. Building more such exchanges is one of my top priorities.
Transportation equity and access to opportunity
Another of my goals is to use the work of the University to spotlight issues surrounding transportation equity and access to opportunity. Our mobility system does not offer every resident the same quality of life. For folks with limited mobility and few transit options or for neighborhoods that have been negatively impacted by major infrastructure for decades, our system offers more obstacles than opportunities. To address specific challenges, we need to wrap our heads around their magnitude, their durability. We need to root our research in the experiences of the affected communities and work alongside them to find effective solutions. We can also use research to frame our equity problems in new ways. Consider the work done at CTS’s Accessibility Observatory, which provides agencies and leaders with a different way of seeing accessibility challenges. Armed with this information, stakeholders have a better grasp of how to respond.
Global warming and climate change
Finally, we know that we collectively face immense challenges presented by global warming and climate change. Our transportation system and the policy choices that have shaped it are a major contributing factor. But, we also know that by improving those systems, reducing emissions, altering our policies, and building a sustainable transportation system, we can slow climate change and reduce its impact. While we undertake that effort, we can also build in co-benefits with every transportation intervention. When we redo a street, we can add pedestrian and bike improvement or add elements that improve water and air quality. We can coordinate transit investments with housing and land-use choices to improve access to opportunities and provide more modal choice. Recognizing transportation’s central role in our larger, interconnected systems can ensure that we are solving for multiple issues at once. This, in turn, will allow us to work on reducing our impact on the climate while also finding new ways to strengthen our local economies, connect people to opportunities, and improve our overall quality of life.
CTS staff and partners are already working on each of these priorities. As the new director I am fortunate to be on a team with dedicated, experienced folks who have tackled these issues for years and are constantly working to improve our transportation system. I look forward to continuing to work alongside them and all of our partners toward our shared goal of building a transportation system that provides opportunity, access, and safety to all.