May 03, 2010

Focus on Faculty: Zhan Guo, Assistant Professor, Urban Planning & Transportation

Zhan Guo, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Transportation

Zhan Guo joined the Wagner faculty in August, 2008, as an assistant professor of urban policy and transportation planning, and a research fellow at the Rudin Center for Transportation and Planning. Zhan decided that he wanted to pursue a career in academia while in graduate school. "Before that I thought maybe I wanted to do something industry-related, but when I was in graduate school, I figured out academics and research is probably the best fit for me and my personality."

What are your current research projects?
I'm doing research on people's travel behaviors with the goal of encouraging them to use cars less and to use more sustainable, alternative travel modes such as public transit, bicycles, or walking more. I'm interested in how we can change peoples' behaviors to promote transportation sustainability and reduce car dependency, pollution, carbon emission, and congestion, and to improve health and safety. Under this umbrella, I'm working on several different topics.

I'm studying how the pedestrian environment in Boston affects peoples' walking behavior. How much people like or dislike walking is very much determined by how good the pedestrian environment is, so I want to measure that impact and figure out how to improve the "walkable environment."

In NYC, I'm looking at how the residential parking supply affects the decision whether or not to have a car in the city, and if you have a car, whether or not to use it. For example, if you have only on-street parking available, you may not want to use your car a lot because once you leave your spot, it's hard to find another one. But if you have a garage, maybe that's not so important to you. So the parking supply affects whether or not you use a car and how many cars you have.

I'm also researching a particular transportation-financing mechanism. For example, right now we have a gas tax. Some people argue that the gas tax will be gone in 15-20 years because of more fuel-efficient and electronic vehicles. What if we went to a mileage-based fee and charged people based on the distance they drive and not on the gas consumed? How would that affect peoples' behavior and travel decisions?
I just finished a project on how the transit map affects peoples' travel decisions on public transit in London. The way in which you see the transit map will affect which line you decide to take. However, the map can distort reality and give you wrong message if, for instance, the pass is actually longer in reality and shorter on map. Interestingly, I found that people trust the map more than their own experience.

How did you become interested in studying transportation and land use, public transit, and pedestrian behavior?
I was trained as a designer in college and grad school-I have a bachelor in architecture from Tianjin University (Tianjin, China), and master in urban planning and design from Tsinghua University in Beijing-and all my research is on urban-oriented issues. Much of my research looks at the physical environment and how policy and infrastructure regulate and affect the physical environment.

This summer, you're teaching a class in Shanghai called Urbanization and Sustainable Development in a Transitional Economy: Experiencing China. Can you tell me about it?
I teach urban planning primarily in a U.S. context. The situation is so different in China that it's good to have a comparative perspective. The idea is that the metro areas in China are the biggest labs on urban development. You see all kinds of urban issues that are different than in the U.S. The first issue is rapid urbanization. Within 15-20 years, more than 200,000,000 people (almost 2/3 the population of the U.S.) will move from rural areas to urban areas in China.

The second factor is rapid economic growth: eight, nine or even 10% GDP growth per year for the last 30 years, which will probably continue for the next 20-30 years. That's compared to one or two percent yearly growth in the States. With that type of growth, everything changes very fast. For example, five to 10 years ago, just a very minor portion of people in China owned a car. Now China is the number one auto producer and consumer in the world.

The third factor is institutional transition. Thirty years ago, China had a very centralized economy, but it has rapidly transitioned to a market econony, albeit with no regulations, unions, or labor laws, due to the communist political system that's still in power.
What is the best part about working at Wagner?
From faculty research point-of-view, this is a very interdisciplinary school, and my research into peoples' travel behavior is also interdisciplinary: we are talking about economic leverage, urban planning, transportation infrastructure, psychology, and the social and societal influence. I like that I can reach out to different colleagues to help me refine my thinking from different prospectives. It's a great help to my research.

From a practical point-of-view, the environment of New York City is a good fit for my research, which is tied to empirical analysis. I look at parking behavior and policy, so if I want to talk to decision-makers at the DCP (City Department of Planning) and the DOT (City Department of Transportation), I can. It's a good environment to help me reach my academic goals.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Staying connected to colleagues in the planning academic community, since Wagner's is a small planning program in a school of public policy and management, and most planning programs are in planning schools.

What's the best thing about living in New York?
The public transportation and parking.

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