Kari Watkins

Welcome Professor Watkins!

The Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at UC Davis is excited to have Prof. Kari E. Watkins join our department as an Associate Professor. Prof. Watkins is a leading expert in transit, whose research contributes to the goal of expanding mobility options by improving transit, walking, bicycling, and other alternatives to driving. Her work supports societal efforts to reduce the climate impacts of transportation and improve transportation equity. Her projects are wide-ranging, including basic behavioral research that identifies factors influencing individual travel choices and overall travel patterns as well as applied research carried out in partnership with transportation agencies that leads to innovation in practice. Technology-based tools are an important component of her work, both for collecting data for her analysis and as a product for use by the agencies with which she partners.

She is especially well-known for her development of the award-winning OneBusAway program, which paved the way for providing real-time next-bus countdown information to riders. Some of her more recent efforts are an avid cyclist using novel survey research, crowdsourced data, and instrumented bicycles to understand cyclist infrastructure preferences.

Prof. Watkins joins the UC Davis community coming from Georgia Tech, where she has been on the faculty since 2011. She obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 2011, before which she worked for a decade as a senior transportation engineer.

Q & A with Prof. Watkins:

What made you want to pursue teaching?

I taught my first college course after doing my MS at the University of Connecticut. I had a few professors who were going on sabbatical and they thought I might be interested. I had grown to love giving presentations and I taught presentation skills for my consulting firm, so it was a natural fit to combine my engineering skills with teaching. I absolutely fell in love with the experience of being in the classroom. I love generating discussions, especially in a field like transportation, where people who are interested in it have a lot of intuition already. I also love doing projects with my students, so that we can apply the things we are learning to real world situations that are much trickier to navigate.

Tell us about your path to UC Davis or what attracted you to teach at UC Davis?

I visited Davis twice in the decade that I have been a professor and it was love at first sight both times - the adorable college town, bikes everywhere, the California sun. I had always wanted to do a sabbatical here, but the opportunity arose to make it a permanent move and we think it is a great fit for our whole family. What really struck me during the interview process was how kind everyone is. I feel like we are gaining a family rather than just a job!       

What is your area of research?

I work in sustainable transportation, trying to understand how to make cities more bike-friendly and transit more user-friendly. On the bike side, a lot of my work is in perceived and actual safety of cyclists in the road environment. On the transit side, I assess ridership change and how to use technology and innovation to make using transit easier.

What is your favorite part about your research?

My favorite part is working with communities, including transit agencies, city, regional and state governments to push the envelope together in terms of how they design and operate their transportation systems. I love taking theoretical research results and applying them in the real world to actually make our systems work better.

How long have you been working on this research?

I worked in consulting for a decade before I got my PhD, but I was already the person in my firm who took on the more creative research-type projects. I completed my PhD at the University of Washington from 2007 - 2011. I have been doing sustainable transportation research as a professor at Georgia Tech, my undergrad alma mater, since then.

What are you looking forward to most about teaching at UC Davis?

As I said, the community was so warm and welcoming during my interview process. Davis seems like a magical place and I cannot wait to meet the rest of my colleagues and the students. I also look forward to being able to bike to campus without being worried I might perish on the way!

Is there anything else you would like to share?

My other passion is travel. I am excited to get back out there as we enter a new phase of COVID and I hope to be able to take students along to see how transportation works in other countries. I lead study abroad in Japan and the Netherlands for Georgia Tech and I hope to get at least one sustainable transport abroad course going at Davis!


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