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Transportation Researcher

University of South Florida

When Eric Hill gets stuck in traffic, chances are he doesn't pound the steering wheel with his fist or look at his watch every 30 seconds.

Not that gridlock isn't maddening.

As a transportation researcher at the University of South Florida, Hill is more likely to be thinking about the policy decisions that went into building that road and if things could have been done better.

It's that same curiosity and zest to solve problems that prompted Hill to study the travel patterns among black people nationwide during the past decade.

Hill, 36, who works at USF's Center For Urban Transportation Research, says the results of his study have significant implications for state and local transportation officials, who must find affordable, innovative ways to get people to where they want to go.

TRAVEL PATTERNS: Among the findings of the study, "Travel Behavior by Blacks in the United States," was that black people travel nearly 30 percent more today than they did 10 years ago. Looking at travel among all groups between 1983 and 1990, Hill also found that trip rates (number of trips) for black people increased faster than they did for other people. "It's a good trend because it shows we are on the move." Hill points to several reasons for the increase in travel by black people, including more black people moving to the suburbs, more black people entering the work force and an increase in black earning power. Specifically, the study found that between 1983 and 1990, vehicle trips by black people jumped nearly 60 percent. During the same time period, trips to and from work represented the largest percentage of trips for black people.

DISTRIBUTION OF RESOURCES: Transportation officials need to keep that trend in mind when they are deciding how to allocate transit dollars and where to put the next bus or rail line, he said. Too often jobs, health services and entertainment centers are located in the suburbs far out of reach for black people and other minorities, who typically live in urban areas and rely heavily on public transportation. With black people becoming more mobile, Hill said it is time to equalize the amount of transportation money that goes to poor areas. "In the past, black communities haven't been given the resources as well as the attention that have been given to affluent communities in terms of transportation. If you look at some of the road conditions in black communities, they are not up to par compared to affluent communities." It is a subject that is important to Hill, who is black and knows that often minority communities may come up short when it comes to public services. "I feel like this is something that I'm giving back to the community," Hill said of his study.

IMPLICATIONS FOR GOVERNMENT: So what are public officials supposed to do with this information? Hill hopes the transportation gurus in Tampa and across the state use the data to improve services in minority communities. But to do that, he said, officials need to reach out more to the leaders in black communities and hold more public meetings to find out what people want when it comes to transit. It also would help if more minorities worked in the transportation field, Hill said. "If these people don't see the needs of a community, they are not going to put those projects near those communities. The transit system is a viable part of any community." Hill said Tampa does a pretty good job serving the transit needs of black people. He gives special praise to the efforts of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. "But at the same time, you have communities of commuters, in places like Lutz, Temple Terrace and Tampa Palms, who would like to use public transportation. That is another market HARTline is trying to serve."

THE NEED FOR SPEED: At his office at USF, Hill spends most of his time studying traditional transportation systems. But the New Jersey native, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Rutgers University, can't hide his enthusiasm for high-speed transit projects like the bullet train. In fact, he did his graduate thesis on that very topic. When he talks about the mega-train, a devilish smile crosses his lips. "Those things are really exciting, but they are also very, very expensive." For that reason alone, plans for such a rail system will probably remain on the drawing board.

WHAT'S NEXT? Hill plans to follow up the study by looking at travel trends among black people during the next decade. He also wants to look at how well black people and other minorities are represented in transportation jobs nationwide. "I think the most important thing for me is to have more minority input in the process."

TAMPA"S FUTURE: "You'll probably see a lot more telecommuting _ which is people staying at home and tied into their jobs via computer. There's going to be more regional travel, looking at the opening of the Veterans Expressway and the rebuilding of the Howard Frankland Bridge. Those projects will allow people to be more regional." On the development of a light rail (above ground) system. "It's certainly a possibility. The opportunities are there. The infrastructure is in place. There have been forecasts made that there is the ridership to support it, but these are just forecasts."