Professor Studies Lasting Impact of I-95 Closure on Public Transit

Septa subway car
NSF RAPID grant supports project to study ridership trends and users’ perceptions of public transit.

Zhiwei Chen, PhD , assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, was recently awarded an NSF Rapid Response Research grant to study the effect that collapse and reconstruction of a section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia has had on commuters’ attitudes toward public transportation.

In the days after the incident, the Southeastern PennsylvaniaTransportation Authority (SEPTA) announced increased capacity on its regional rail lines that travel between the area north of Cottman Avenue and Center City Philadelphia. Using ridership data from SEPTA, GPS requests collected from location service providers, and surveys of people using the trains and buses, Chen and his students hope to understand whether the incident drew more people to public transportation and whether they stuck with it after the road reopened.

“The data from SEPTA could be particularly interesting considering that the temporary bridge opened far sooner than expected,” Chen said. “They had a limited amount of time to make an impression on commuters; it will be informative to see how many people used the service in the short time the road was closed and how many of them continue to do so.”

Chen believes that the data gathered during the project can give insight into overall perception of public transit, especially those have not used public transit regularly before. The results could be instrumental for an industry that has struggled to recover pre-COVID ridership numbers.

“We already have a good idea of what incentivizes or disincentivizes commuters from using public transportation on a daily basis,” Chen said. “Factors like frequency of service, crime, and cleanliness can make the difference between deciding to drive or to use transit. But we do not really know how non-transit riders perceive and weigh these factors. If people feel that they were served well during this incident, it may have shifted their perception and made them more likely to be repeat riders.”

Chen is the lead researcher in Drexel’s Connected & Automated Mobility Lab. The group develops analytical and computational tools to study how emerging mobility systems like automated vehicles and state-of-the-art transit systems can help create more efficient, equitable, sustainable, and resilient modes of transportation for communities.