Scholar Spotlight: Susan Shaheen

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley

What are your research interests and what types of projects are you currently working on?

My research – including our staff and undergraduate, Masters, and PhD student team – focuses on sustainable transportation and innovation. It is centered on understanding sustainable mobility strategies with the goal of advancing accessible, equitable, low emission and low-energy options, and public health and safety.

This research encompasses many innovations including: autonomy, electrification, shared mobility, and electronic/wireless communication technologies. Policy and behavioral understanding are core to our work. The modes we focus on range from bikes and scooters to cars and buses, vans, and trucks. Our team also researches advanced air mobility. I created our lab in the early 2000s, shortly after I arrived at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). It is called “Innovative Mobility Research.” We are housed in the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC), which I co-direct with Dr. Tim Lipman and Professor Arpad Horvath. In addition, I direct the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS)’ Resilient and Innovative Mobility Initiative (RIMI) and am honored to serve on the California Air Resources Board, as of January 2023.

The Innovative Mobility lab is focused on research that spans across modes, technologies, and propulsion systems. We aim to produce evidence-based research that informs policy making and planning, including understanding/quantifying how innovative mobility strategies impact auto ownership/use and vehicle miles traveled (VMT); what causes individuals to shift modes; and how to foster accessibility and social equity. As part of this work, we quantify VMT and emission changes, benefits and costs, and the impacts of incentives and pricing. We also evaluate opportunities and obstacles to scaling systems across spatial and temporal dimensions (e.g., shared micromobility, microtransit, and carsharing). 

There is a lot of synergy with our work and the objectives/goals of the UC ITS RIMI program. RIMI is a cooperative research and policy engagement initiative led by the UC ITS in partnership with the State of California, regional and local governments, non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, and industry. The mission of RIMI is to direct transportation and mobility innovations toward the public interest through a holistic, integrated, and societal-building approach that addresses technological, environmental, resilient, and socio-economic impacts. RIMI develops informed, empowered, and proactive governments to anticipate future crises and innovative mobility disruptions. The initiative aims to enhance California’s economic and research competitiveness across the globe and train and educate the next generation of transportation leaders for California and the world. The RIMI program was generously funded by the California legislature. Nevertheless, its work can help to inform policy making and planning across the U.S. and the globe.  

What would you consider your most significant research finding or accomplishment thus far?  

While we have studied many research topics in sustainable mobility, I believe our most impactful research has been in defining and characterizing the shared mobility ecosystem (e.g., leading the development of the SAE taxonomy, ranging from shared micromobility to ridesharing and ridehailing to carsharing and microtransit). This work includes quantifying the impacts of shared mobility on auto dependency, modal shifts, energy/environmental metrics, social equity, and cost savings. Key metrics from our research have been employed in policy making and planning in the U.S. and across the globe.  

We have dedicated a lot of our time to securing high-quality data sets (surveys and activity data from vehicles and mobility platforms); cleaning and linking the data to inform our analysis; developing our findings across numerous cities and nations; and sharing our work through publications, blogs and podcasts, and presentations.

What issues in transportation keep you up at night?

As a Master’s student and young professional arriving in Washington, DC, I focused on energy and the environment in my work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. A few years later, I became more focused on transportation/mobility when I started my PhD at UC Davis with my advisor, Professor Daniel Sperling. I was deeply concerned and motivated by sustainability as early as my junior year in high school. I wanted to understand if technologies could be configured into systems that could reduce energy use and environmental impacts and improve society, including quality of life and social equity. I still think about this every day. 

Looking back across my career, I see that we have advanced many innovative technologies and services, but we need to make a lot more progress and faster. There is a lot at stake. We need to scale strategies across the globe to improve air quality and public health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to foster social equity and environmental justice. How can we advance technology without leaving people behind, including the developing world and the workforce? This keeps me up at night.  

 Is there someone or something that has inspired your work?

I grew up in upstate New York. My family had a close connection to farming and agriculture, and I was raised in a beautiful natural environment. I grew up biking, swimming, skiing, and ice skating – spending time outdoors throughout the seasons. I was always connected to nature. Our family had flower and vegetable gardens and supported agriculture in our community in numerous ways. I grew up understanding the close relationship between people and the environment and how much we rely on the earth for our food and health. My family life has deeply impacted and inspired my work throughout my career – starting with my parents and siblings, nieces and nephews, husband, Tim, and children, Rowan and Griffin. Students, colleagues, and friends continue to inspire me and motivate my work.

What is your favorite book or author or what are you reading right now?

I am reading a book called Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less by Roy Schwarts, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. It is about communicating effectively by saying less. I hope the book’s insights will help me with my teaching, research, and professional activities.

What is a fun fact about you?

I love nature and travel. I feel a close connection to the environment, which is what brought me to transportation. Transportation has a big impact on the environment. My upbringing, dedication to family, and connection to the earth are core to who I am.

 What’s something about you that most people don’t know?  

My father was from Lebanon. His struggles upon arriving in the U.S., tireless work to support our family, and deep commitment to my education help to keep me motivated and focused. My parents met at work in upstate New York. Later, they opened their own restaurant; they were fabulous cooks. I am the youngest of their six children. 

What is your superpower?

I would love my superpower to be recognizing the superpowers of others and encouraging them to grow and blossom. It is important to acknowledge the skills and talents of individuals in our lives and to share that with them. It is not always easy to recognize one’s own superpower. I really enjoy helping people accomplish their goals and helping teams to shine.