Alumni Spotlight: Yi-Chang Chiu
Name: Yi-Chang Chiu
Currently Residing: Tucson, Arizona
Current job: Associate Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Arizona and founder of Metropia Inc.
Graduated from UT: PhD in 2002
Hobbies outside of work: Back when I had the time, I loved to watch and play sports, and sing. I played volleyball, ping-pong, and badminton. I also once sang in a UT choir.
What projects did you work on while you were at CTR?
I worked on an FHWA project on Dynamic Traffic Assignment (DTA), among others. My dissertation was titled “Generalized Real-Time Route Guidance Strategies in Urban Networks.” My advisor was Hani Mahmassani, who left UT the same year I completed my PhD, but as a GRA I also interacted with other professors like Clyde Lee, Robert Herman, Mike Walton, and Randy Machemehl.
How did your time here prepare you for your career?
I knew I definitely wanted to be faculty and CTR helped with this ambition in numerous ways. First of all, I received solid academic training. Also, my very active ITE student chapter helped me develop leadership skills. Because UT has students from all different backgrounds and countries, I learned how to work with a diverse group of peers. In addition, CTR facilitated multidisciplinary research, encouraging us to work with students and faculty in other groups or departments, and we all benefited from that. Finally, CTR’s library was a tremendously useful resource.
Overall, having a research center on campus is a great way to extend the university’s identity.
What CTR relationships have proved the most significant?
After I completed my PhD and became a faculty member at UT El Paso (prior to accepting my current position at the University of Arizona), I continued to have a strong relationship with many CTR research staff, such as Professors Walton, Machemehl, Rob Harrison, Jolanda Prozzi, and Lisa Loftus Otway, as we put together proposals for TxDOT projects that involved both CTR and UT El Paso. I found CTR to be a highly collegial and supportive environment, particularly for young faculty. CTR faculty researchers gave me great advice on writing a successful proposal, and how to manage research projects, which is still useful to this day.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The University of Arizona is a very strong university but as a state institution it does have limited resources—which provides for many great opportunities because the school runs very efficiently and makes faculty very competitive in going after national-level research opportunities. So, this environment has sharpened a lot of my skills in that area. Despite the competition, however, we are a small faculty that is quite collaborative. And University of Arizona encourages cross-collaboration with other departments. Further, teaching undergraduate students and training graduate students are also very rewarding experiences and I continue to maintain very good relationships with my former students.
In terms of Metropia, well, as the inventor of the technology, I filed the patent through the University of Arizona and I wanted to see the technology implemented right away, so I started a company to license the patent from the University. The Metropia technology is a highly complicated system, so only those who have the vision and know the details well would have the passion and capability to implement such a complicated technology. In the first year or two, I was focused on making sure the technology worked and company survived the incubator stage. Now we are into deployment and growth. An experienced management team now effectively runs the company. University support is key – otherwise, a faculty member’s involvement in a private company would be inconceivable. University of Arizona is highly supportive of commercializing technology and I have received tremendous institutional support along the way.
What got you interested in transportation?
Transportation really provides a lifeline for a city to survive and thrive. Transportation provides the most important resource for a city, affecting all aspects. I enjoy the complex dynamic between the different components: engineering, decision making, technology, systems management. That sort of complexity is just fascinating to me.
What is one of the most interesting areas of discussion in your specific field of expertise today?
I see two major research areas gaining momentum: Dynamic Traffic Assignment (DTA) and the complex modeling that DTA represents, and active demand management. DTA will be part of the integrated fine-grained modeling paradigm to gradually shape the future of transportation planning practice. Current practice relies on 60-year-old paradigm and technology; DTA-enabled integrated models allow complex policy or strategy scenarios to be modeled in a more realistic manner, helping policy makers make a more robust and informed transportation investment decision.
Active demand management (ADM) is fascinating because it uses different types of motivational triggers and incentives to positively influence travelers’ behaviors toward personal and system goals. For example, the Metropia app empowers and motivates commuters to venture outside of their habitual domains and patterns, to make them choose different times, routes, and modes (public transit, ridesharing, etc.)—not just driving. In the past, we lacked access to such information in a relevant and timely fashion and hardly considered behavior change a viable traffic management strategy, but now the time is right because the technology, commuter’s mindset, and personalized traveler information combined would allow the exploration of various travel decision aids that would help reach both personal and system optimum goals. This would not have been possible a decade ago. The questions we are asking now are where does technology lead us and where does ADM lead us?
What advice do you have for students considering a career in transportation engineering?
This is the best time to be in this field; it’s much more exciting than 20 years ago when I started. There are a lot more opportunities. In my time, transportation students mostly went to government jobs, consulting firms or universities. Now tech companies are also an option. The tech sector, entrepreneurs, and businesses are starting to hire engineers to advance these technologies and directly impacting society in new ways.
What achievement in your professional life are you proudest of?
I think what I’m proud of the most is that when I graduated from UT in 2002 I decided to create the DynusT open-source DTA model on my own. I worked nights and weekends on this and all my passion went to this project. I have also found a way to sustain its future developments. Now we have over 1,000 DynusT users world-wide and DynusT has been chosen for many high-profile federal and state projects.
I’d say I’m also proud that I decided to dive into the risky field of creating an actual product outside of academia, which helped me better appreciate how things get done outside academia, how much risk entrepreneurs are bearing, and how entrepreneurs measure and manage risk in all decisions. I’d advise students to be adventurous and look for new research opportunities outside academia if you are prepared when opportunity arises.