UC ITS Scholar Spotlight: Brian Taylor

Professor of Urban Planning & Public Policy, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

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

I work in three main areas of transportation. I study travel behavior: How people decide where to live, where to work, where to shop, where to play, and how they get around. In other words, how they access the things important for a high quality of life. Recently, my work in this area has looked at how the pandemic caused long-term changes to travel behavior. 

The second topic I work on is public transit, which is specifically about the buses and trains that operate on fixed-schedules and fixed-routes. My primary focuses are on who uses transit and how they use it. There are mainly two very different groups of people who use transit: those who travel to places where it’s difficult or expensive to park; and those who ride because they aren’t able to drive due to their age, income, or ability.

And the third area I work in is the politics of transportation finance and how we go about deciding how to collect and spend money on transportation. Currently, I’m writing a book with UCLA colleagues on ballot tax measures for transportation and how they influence the transportation planning process. I also just published a book looking at the history of freeway development in the United States and how the politics of finance played an enormous role in shaping the freeway systems we see today. 

How did you become interested in finance?

Before my academic career, I worked as a transportation planner in the San Francisco Bay Area. While there I realized we could do all the cool planning we wanted, and work with communities, developers, and others to come up with grand ideas, but unless we had the money to pay for those plans, nothing happened. I also learned that how we got the money was a highly political process, something that planners and engineers weren’t really plugged into. This experience, among others, motivated me to leave transportation planning practice and become a professor. 

 What is one of your most significant research findings thus far?

I’m really excited about a project I’m working on right now with a current student and a former student who is now a professor. We’re interested in how people decide what to do at home, when to go out, and where they go when they do go out. And how this all varies by gender, income, education, race/ethnicity, and all sorts of factors. In a nutshell, we found that personal travel was notably declining well before the pandemic – and that leaving home and traveling to places has declined much more dramatically post-pandemic. 

I think this has big implications for transportation as well as social relations and mental health. People leave home to go to work, go shopping, see friends, go to the movies, and all sorts of things. But every year, year-over-year, they are spending a few minutes less each day traveling, on average. This is hard to grasp if you live in a place like LA, where congestion is still endemic. But congestion has eased somewhat, the timing and direction of delays have changed, and commercial trips are increasingly replacing personal travel. These shifts are consequential and appear to be enduring.

Can you give us some examples of other changes to travel?

When looking at different age groups, we see predictable patterns, such as people in their 80s going out less than those in their 20s. However, the time that people spend traveling, across generations, is going down. And worryingly, travel times for people in their 20s and for those who have never married are going down the fastest. Not only are people not commuting to work as much, they aren’t meeting other people as they did in the past, such as by going to hear music, or movies, or to bars…they’re meeting people online, I guess. And they are spending a lot more time at home gaming and streaming. This is getting out of my expertise as a transportation person, but it’s remarkable that these activity shifts have pushed personal travel down so much. We published a paper recently about this remarkable change. And then we got post-pandemic data and in a forthcoming paper show that these trends have accelerated dramatically since 2020.

How much of the decline in travel is due to working from home?

We did some statistical modeling and about a third of the decline is from working from home, but about a third of it is due to increased “screen time.” For example, instead of going to the movies, people are staying home and streaming, or instead of going to the beach or to play miniature golf or whatever, people are spending more time gaming and doing things like that. In regards to the remaining third, we couldn’t really account for what’s causing that change. 

Do you think a lot of people will continue to work from home? Is this trend here to stay?

Working from home is much, much greater than it was before the pandemic. It went from about 5 percent before the pandemic to 60 percent in May of 2020. Since then it’s gone down to about 25 to 30 percent and has stayed there, which is five to six times greater than before the pandemic. This suggests that the world has changed in a fundamental way.

How has this change affected travel patterns overall?

Rush hour has gotten much longer in duration each day, but the worst part of rush hour is not as bad as it was before the pandemic. Before you’d be on, for example, the 405 freeway here in LA and you’d be crawling along between 3:00 and 7:00 pm. But now speeds are often faster in the peak-of-the-peak, but delays are stretching earlier and later, from, say, 1:00 pm to 8:00 pm. We have a paper just out on the underlying causes of these changes in Southern California. 

What’s another example of how your travel behavior research has influenced the field of transportation?

A lot of people get into the transportation business because they want transportation systems to flow smoothly and they don’t want congestion…nobody likes to sit in traffic: there are more emissions per mile traveled and it’s a waste of time. I did some research a few years ago looking to see if congestion drives firms away and if it inhibits people’s ability to engage in activities. We found that new firms tend to move toward congested areas, not away from them. They’re not moving to the congestion per se, they’re moving to places that are crowded and vibrant. So Silicon Valley, Manhattan, these are places where there are a lot of firms doing very well; everyone wants to be where the action is and that’s also where things get really crowded or “congested.”  

There is also this idea that we shouldn’t build more housing in the center of cities because it would make congestion worse. Well, maybe. But it doesn’t seem to make people worse off. In another paper we found that congestion tends to inhibit people’s participation in activities out on the suburban fringe, but has no effect on activity participation in central urban areas. In other words, increased development densities push destinations closer together, making them easy to get to, even in traffic. New York is horribly congested, but people there are not short of things to do. 

If we’re just trying to optimize vehicle flows, we can get the idea that we don’t want development to occur in the central parts of the city because we want to keep vehicles flowing – that free-flowing traffic is more important than economic and social activities. But we should really care about transportation as a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. The end being people living active, full, and engaged lives. So maybe allowing development to occur in central cities is a good thing because people won’t have to drive so far, and not a bad thing because it might make traffic worse. 

What do you consider one of your most significant career accomplishments thus far?

My most significant accomplishment without question is the opportunity to work with a string of incredible students who have gone on to do really important things as practicing professionals and within academia. I’m really proud of my role as a teacher and mentor for so many students who have accomplished so much and had a real impact in the world.

What issues in transportation keep you up at night?

Climate change and the people who are being left behind. Climate change is an existential threat to our future and transportation plays a big role in that. While I wouldn’t characterize myself as a “transportation and the environment” person, it’s gotten to the point where everybody has to care about this and to some degree be a “transportation and the environment” person. 

A key climate strategy is reducing the amount of vehicle travel and thus emissions. However, our cities and transportation systems are structured primarily around people traveling by car, and goods by truck. If we try to do things to make it harder to travel in cars in pursuit of “green” transportation, then will we end up pushing the least advantaged among us out of cars? 

My colleagues at UCLA and elsewhere have done a lot to show that if you build a city around access by cars, people who have access to cars accomplish a lot more. I also have colleagues who have shown how, when low-income people get access to cars, all sorts of good things happen. They get better jobs, they have greater access to healthcare, they buy more affordable and higher quality food, among other benefits. All these “good” things happen because we’ve designed cities around the car – well other than San Francisco, New York, and a few other places. Making sure we don’t pursue one goal of a greener transportation system at the expense of the least advantaged among us is something I really worry about and struggle with. 

What or who has most inspired you?     

I didn’t go to college out of high school; after high school I worked as a gas-pump jockey and mechanic. But I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a terrible mechanic interested in transportation. So I decided to learn about being a travel agent. I started taking classes at a community college in Long Beach and I wandered into an economics class because I thought it would help me in some aspects of becoming a travel agent. There I met a professor who just blew me away. He made me think about all sorts of questions that I hadn’t really thought about as an 18 year-old kid. He completely changed my life. He challenged me to think about what was right, what was just, what we had information about, and how economics could help us make sense out of complicated problems. I ended up really throwing myself into my academic studies, and he convinced me to transfer to Berkeley. While financial challenges led me to get my bachelor’s degree at UCLA, I went back to Berkeley to study transportation engineering and planning. After a few years as a Bay Area transportation planner, I went back to UCLA for a PhD and ended up becoming a professor – something I thought I’d never do. 

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

That I always, always, wear two pairs of socks. I played basketball endlessly as a kid. Shoes weren’t as good then so at some point a coach said, “Wear two pairs of socks and lace your shoes up tightly and you won’t get as many blisters.” From then on I got into the habit of wearing two pairs of socks. I have a very close friend that, owing to my interest in mysteries, says, “If I ever hear that you’ve been found dead in a ditch somewhere, the first thing I’ll ask is how many socks was he wearing?  If they found the body with just one pair of socks, I will know that it was foul play.”      

What is your superpower?

I don’t have a superpower. I wish I did. 

What would your wife say is your superpower?

Being a naive optimist.