Research at the MIT Transit Lab is carried out principally by faculty and students in MIT’s Master of Science in Transportation program. Specific research topics are defined jointly with each agency sponsor on an annual basis, and each topic has a designated transit agency liaison who provides essential data and who works closely with the research team in formulating the problem, evaluating alternatives and implementing results. MIT faculty take the lead in interactions with the agency, based on years of professional experience directing the planning, design, financing, construction and operation of public transportation systems. Student researchers are prepared to conduct individual projects through a combination of class work, field trips and interaction with practitioners. Guided by the faculty, these projects enable the students to develop in-depth knowledge of a particular area, and their research provides new thinking on topics of importance to the transit agency.


Research Areas

Service and Operations Planning, Management, and Control

In the area of service and operations planning, the MIT program faculty are led by Nigel Wilson and John Attanucci. As Principal Investigator, Dr. Wilson has a long history of focusing research on techniques to improve both rail and bus operations, many of which are detailed in his intensive week-long summer course designed for transit managers. These efforts begin with a focus on the operations planning and scheduling procedures used on a daily basis by transit practitioners, and then proceed to techniques to ensure reliable field operations through effective management and control “on the street.” A wide range of research projects have produced implementable tools and realistic recommendations in such areas as:

  • effective scheduling for increasing network connectivity
  • planning express and limited-stop bus services
  • rail service disruption recovery strategies
  • determining appropriate corridor operational characteristics for BRT services
  • utilizing AVL (Automated Vehicle Location) data to develop a bus route simulation model

A current focus of the group is on determining the best uses of the new ITS technology which is transforming a once data-starved arena into one of the most data-rich planning environments in any industry.

Transit Policy, Finance and Strategy

The program faculty, led by Frederick Salvucci, former Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has extensive policy and finance leadership credentials. The research team has actively participated in the development, design and construction phases of major capital investments such as San Juan’s Tren Urbano rail transit system, Chicago’s proposed Circle Line and Airport Express projects, and Boston’s MBTA Silver Line bus rapid transit project, as well as in numerous transit improvement projects in the Boston area while in previous positions.

A key contribution of the team has been its ability to position an agency’s capital program to attract Federal ‘New Starts’ funding and to maximize the local impact of these Federal funds. The MIT team has undertaken a variety of policy and strategic planning projects including organization studies, contract management analyses, development impacts of transit improvement projects, fare policy reviews, and examination of the appropriate mix of state and local funding sources. An ongoing focus in this area has been to identify innovative funding strategies for the operating budget to relieve the pressure on traditional funding sources.

Transportation Modeling

In the area of transportation modeling, the program faculty is led by Mikel Murga. Models are applied at different scales, depending on the specific research focus. These modeling tasks usually cut across all other areas of work, whether the task at hand is a policy question, an operations problem or even the need to improve the service quality of a given facility.

The program aims to build in-house agency capabilities by encouraging the transition from a GIS description of the system to a full transit network model. This allows a precise description of system accessibility, including behavioral aspects that explain individual choices. The growing availability of realtime operations and demand data enhances our ability to calibrate these models. Examples of recent research projects include a new project which needed a quick and transparent evaluation method to rate a number of options; the estimation of transit transfer parameters describing the user perceptions at a given transfer facility; and a microscopic representation of bus operations in mixed traffic, to analyze the impact of traffic growth and the feasibility of transit priority.