Daniel Posen: new CivE faculty explores the relationship between public policy and the environment

In an increasingly interconnected and interdisciplinary world, the Department of Civil Engineering was pleased to welcome Prof. I. Daniel Posen as a new faculty member in January 2017.

We asked him a couple questions about his new appointment:

Could you explain the focus and (potential) impact of your research?

I usually describe my research as ‘system-scale environmental sustainability analysis,’ which basically means that I’m trying to understand the big picture when it comes to how both public and private decisions impact the environment. A key goal of this work is to help government and industry tailor their policies and investment decisions to improve environmental outcomes. Much of my work focuses on prioritizing greenhouse gas reduction strategies, especially when choosing among competing uses for biomass (energy/materials derived from plants), and within the urban environment. I also plan to incorporate a broader range of environmental metrics (e.g., related to air & water quality or resource use) to provide a holistic evaluation of these systems, and others.

Your academic background is unique, can you explain why your interests have varied from chemistry to economics to public policy to engineering?

There is actually a common theme linking my degrees together: sustainability. The research I do is inherently interdisciplinary, using tools from natural sciences, engineering, economics, and policy analysis. There is a lot of important work being done in each of these disciplines, and one of the biggest challenges is about how to link these different areas together to design systems with the best social and environmental outcomes. This is a key goal of my work, so it has been a real asset to have a background in these different fields.

Why did you choose U of T?

I’m originally from Toronto, and am passionate about doing research that benefits both Canada and the world. U of T is a top university in Canada, which has both a rich set of colleagues with whom I can collaborate, and allows me to work with some of the best students. The city of Toronto is also a great place to live and is an excellent environment for researching urban-scale sustainability.

 

What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

I really do love all aspects of the job: research, teaching, engaging with young researchers, being in an academic environment, etc. One thing that’s particularly exciting about being new here is the prospect of building new collaborations and starting to work with a whole new group of students and colleagues.

As a new professor, what one piece of advice would you give to new students?

For undergrads, I’d say it’s important to focus on key foundational skills in engineering, math, statistics and the like, but don’t neglect the broader picture – take advantage of your elective courses and make sure to step outside your field once in a while. For graduate students, likewise, start thinking early on about what skills you want to develop, and put in place a plan to develop them. At the same time, don’t fall into the temptation of only using those skills – make sure the tools you’re using fit the problem you want to answer.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new position/during your time at U of T Engineering?

Like most professors, I’d say my mission is two-fold: make an impact with my research, and train the next generation of practitioners and scholars. In my case, that means I hope to help craft sensible environmental strategies at the local, national and global scale, while training our engineering graduates to think carefully and holistically about how they influence the systems around us.

Infrastructure’s impact: How public transit investments affect our environment

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, informing policymakers as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) analyses the environmental and social impact of large public transit infrastructure projects, equipping policymakers with data as they decide which investments to make. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

 

This story originally appeared at U of T Engineering News

The benefits of building public transit include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, relieving traffic congestion and expanding a growing city. Yet each transit project is unique, and predicting its future effectiveness is difficult. Professor Shoshanna Saxe (CivE) crunches the numbers on existing infrastructure to provide key decision-makers with a ‘reality check’ on the environmental and social impacts of today’s transit investments.

“Engineers usually aren’t involved in policymaking, and policymakers usually aren’t involved in engineering,” says Saxe. “I’m trying to bridge that gap.”

Saxe joined U of T Engineering in August 2016. Before completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge, she spent three years at a major consulting engineering firm in Toronto, working on projects such as the Eglinton Crosstown transit line and the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension.

“I love design, it’s amazing,” she says. “However, when you’re building things that people are going to use, you have to stay well within the limits of what you know for sure. I was curious about questions that we didn’t already know the answers to.”

During her PhD, Saxe conducted a detailed analysis of the London Underground’s extension of the Jubilee Line, completed in 1999. She gathered data on the greenhouse gases produced during construction and operation of the line, then used transit and land-use surveys to estimate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to people using the line and living near it. By combining the two, she could calculate the net environmental benefit of that transit project.

“It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag,” she says. “If you make some optimistic assumptions, you could say that it broke even in terms of greenhouse gas emissions around 2012 or 2013. If you are more pessimistic, you’re looking at a greenhouse gas payback of twice as long.”

Saxe says that the Jubilee Line extension sees approximately 175 million trips per year. On projects where ridership is low, the environmental payback period can be much longer. Saxe also studied the Sheppard subway line in Toronto, and found that with a much lower ridership it initially struggled to provide greenhouse gas savings. Over time, the Sheppard Subway Line has benefited from the decreasing emissions associated with electricity in Ontario. The results of the Sheppard Subway study were recently published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

“If you’re at Don Mills station, and you want to go north, east, or even southeast, the network doesn’t serve you yet,” she says. “We still see people from that area driving 70 per cent of the time, so unfortunately there’s just a lot less opportunity for savings.”

Saxe says that her dream project would be to follow a major piece of infrastructure, such as a new transit line, from its conception through construction and use for 20 or 30 years — essentially throughout her career.

“I want to answer questions like: why did we originally build it, how did we originally build it, how did it perform over its lifetime, how did we maintain it and what did it need?” she says. “If we know how our present decision-making affects things decades from now, we can make better decisions.”

Resilient cities need to be financially resilient too: Sandford Fleming Forum

The dining hall in the Faculty Club hosting the Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2 | Future Proofing: How Resilience Planning Supports the Future Functionality and Value of Fixed Assets and Infrastructure

Exploring the financial aspects of resilience, The Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure hosted its twice-annual Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2. Tania Caceres (Senior Real Estate Expert at RiskNexus), Lisa Prime (Director of Environment and Innovation at Waterfront Toronto) and Michael Kosturik (Regional VP for Intact Insurance) weighed in on the risk, reward and responsibility of building resilient infrastructure.

Previous Forums concluded that resilient communities have five key components; community focus, community identity, balanced infrastructure, strategic framework and confidence in leadership. When all of these characteristics are present, a community can withstand various shocks and stresses, whether natural or man-made, like the 2013 floods in Calgary’s downtown.

The May 2 Forum discussed resilience in Toronto, the costs of funding resilience and insuring communities that have not resilience planned.

The dining hall in the Faculty Club hosting the Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2 | Future Proofing: How Resilience Planning Supports the Future Functionality and Value of Fixed Assets and Infrastructure

Sandford Fleming Forum on May 2 | Future Proofing: How Resilience Planning Supports the Future Functionality and Value of Fixed Assets and Infrastructure

In Toronto, the focus for resiliency is on affordable housing, flood protection, major event infrastructure, green space, accessibility, multi-use/future uses and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Furthermore, all proposed developments require design excellence, green building standards and link to sustainable transportation links. Planning for the future is achieved through intelligent communities and innovative, integrated systems in Toronto.

One challenge for GTA policy makers is to remedy past infrastructure mistakes, like the early diversions of the Don River, whereby straightening the curved waterway causes flooding near the mouth of the river.

But there is a cost associated with achieving resiliency. The cost to update infrastructure for resiliency cannot always be justified based on the risks of catastrophic events associated with the community. And without resiliency, the costs to insure a community can be just as large.

The frequency and severity of natural catastrophic losses have appeared to be worse because more events occur in areas of high concentration of people. More people means that they own more belongings, which need to be insured. In 2015, there was $66.5 billion in damage from catastrophic events, of which only $35 billion was insured. Insurance premiums will continue to rise to accommodate the increased cost of loss.

Read more about the Sandford Fleming Forums, the speakers and the Centre for Resilience and Critical Infrastructure

 

*Operating under the Chatham House Rule, the Sandford Fleming Forum facilitates open dialogue by ensuring the anonymity of all speakers. It is for this reason that no ideas or quotes in this article are attributed.

Clean air map from U of T Engineering researchers helps cyclists avoid air pollution

Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)
Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Civil engineering post-doctoral researcher Sabreena Anowar and Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE) are studying the risks of air pollution on cyclists and their impact on route choice. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

This story originally appeared on U of T News.

Cyclists face a difficult dilemma: on one hand, cycling is good for your health and the environment; on the other, cyclists are more exposed to risks such as accidents and air pollution. New research from U of T Engineering is helping cyclists map cleaner routes to minimize this exposure.

“In general, the benefits of cycling certainly outweigh the risks,” says Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou (CivE). “If you are a healthy person, you are better off to continue cycling than stop.” Nevertheless, when it comes to air pollution, cyclists are at a disadvantage.

“Studies have shown that the concentration of air pollutants tends to be higher inside vehicles than outside them,” says Hatzopoulou. “However, cyclists have a higher breathing rate, which means that they inhale more of these pollutants, and they go deeper into the lungs.”

Such pollutants include ultra-fine particles, as well as nitrogen oxides. Hatzopoulou cites studies associating increased exposure to these pollutants with respiratory problems and certain types of cancer. Her own research has shown that they can even have immediate, measurable effects on the cardiovascular system.

To help address this challenge, Hatzopoulou has created a tool called the Clean Ride Mapper for both Toronto and Montreal. It is essentially a Google Map with an extra layer representing the average concentration of pollutants in a given area, as measured by her team and collaborators. Using this data, algorithms can be constructed to work out not only the shortest route between two points, but also the one that exposes the cyclist to the lowest levels of air pollution.

Hatzopoulou and Anowar outfit a bicycle with equipment to detect the concentration of pollutant particles in the nearby air. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Hatzopoulou and Anowar outfit a bicycle with equipment to detect the concentration of pollutant particles in the nearby air. (Photo: Tyler Irving)

Hatzopoulou intends to further refine the maps — for example, by incorporating real-time pollution concentrations instead of static data — but lately she has been pondering another question: are such tools actually useful to cyclists?

“There are a lot of factors that influence the choice of a cycling route besides pollution,” she says. “For example, there is safety, separation from traffic, elevation, distance, etc. Which ones would cyclists be willing to trade off in order to decrease their pollution exposure?”

Sabreena Anowar (CivE), a post-doctoral researcher on Hatzopoulou’s team, is working on an answer. She’s designed a survey that proposes several different cycling routes and asks cyclists to choose which one they would prefer.

“No route is perfect,” says Anowar. “They all vary in terms of traffic volume, pollution, elevation, travel time and other attributes.” By measuring which routes people would choose for either a recreational ride or a commuting ride, Anowar and Hatzopoulou hope to better understand how cyclists factor the risks of pollution into their activities. This in turn can help improve the design of tools like the interactive maps.

The survey was launched in Toronto, Montreal, Orlando, Austin, New York in collaboration with researchers in those cities. It will be open at least until June, and Anowar and Hatzopoulou are hoping to get at least 3,000 participants. In addition to their own research, Anowar says that the data could also be useful for city planners. “It will help identify how people value road infrastructure like separated lanes or signage,” says Anowar. “If we build more infrastructure like this, perhaps we can encourage people to cycle more.”

To help Hatzopoulou and Anowar in their research, complete the online survey for either a recreational ride or a commuting ride.