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Sandip Chakrabarti is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning and Development at the USC Price School of Public Policy. His research interests center on urban transportation planning and policy — in particular, public transit policy and searching for ways to better monitor and manage multi-modal traffic in highly congested cities.

Originally from India, Chakrabarti received a master’s degree in city planning from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in ’08 and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Jadavpur University, Kolkata in ’06.

Where is your hometown?

My hometown is Kolkata, erstwhile Calcutta, in India. Kolkata, former capital of British India (1772–1911) and current capital of the state of West Bengal, is one the biggest cities of India in terms of both population and economic output. Over 4 million people live at a density of about 60,000 persons per square mile in the “City of Joy” — the cultural and intellectual capital of the nation.

Many probably associate Kolkata with Nobel laureates such as Mother Teresa, Amartya Sen, Rabindranath Tagore and C.V. Raman, and with images of slums, pavement dwellers, the worst kinds of environmental pollution, and urban chaos. Indeed, the city of spectacular historic districts, modern financial and IT complexes, and air-conditioned shopping malls needs a miracle to upgrade critical physical and social infrastructures, reduce human suffering, and improve quality of life. I think Kolkata is a great laboratory for scholars involved in the study of cities.

What are your research interests?

I am basically interested in everything that affects and is affected by passenger and freight movement in cities. I am particularly interested in public transit policy, and in searching for ways to better monitor and manage multi-modal traffic in highly congested cities. My dissertation research explores whether improvement in service reliability can promote transit ridership during peak periods by attracting people out of cars in certain contexts.

I am also currently involved in the development of a unique “big” transportation data archive and applying it for regional multi-modal transportation system monitoring, analysis, and planning. I am passionate but critical about intra-urban rail projects. I live close to a Metro Exposition light rail line station, use the line for commuting, and empirically track its impact on travel patterns and traffic system performance across its service corridor.

What sparked your interest in studying these offbeat and unconventional  research areas?

This is a difficult question. My fundamental interest in transportation research was perhaps triggered by Dr. Donald Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking. The book was certainly the inspiration behind my master’s thesis on parking. But my interests evolved as I started reading and thinking about contemporary issues and the state of research and practice within the broad field of transportation planning.

My interest in public transportation and multi-modal system management grew from my personal experience as a resident of the New Delhi region between 2008 and 2010. This was a time when I had to spend anything between 30 minutes and 2 hours driving to work, a distance just over 10 miles with no organized public transport service. And this was when the Delhi Metro rail network was undergoing unprecedented expansion, the city bus system was being overhauled, and new bus rapid transit experiments were being conducted in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. It was a painful yet exciting city to live in. I decided to quit my job and do a Ph.D.

My dissertation research at USC Price over the past four-and-half years has been shaped to a large extent by the physical environment in which I live, work and travel, the people I interact with, and projects I work on. I think it is normal that life experiences will generate and reshape research interests.

Why did you choose to come to the USC Price School?

I applied to only a few Ph.D. programs, primarily considering how well my scholarly philosophy and agenda aligned with faculty research interests. Reputation and location of the university were the other important factors. USC Price was my top choice because working with Dr. Genevieve Giuliano was a dream. When I got accepted into the program with Dr. Giuliano as my advisor, I happily declined the two other offers I had at that point.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a student?

As a Ph.D. student aspiring to be a teacher, getting high scores on teaching (TA) evaluation reports and reading positive student comments have been my most rewarding experiences. It felt great to be recognized with a teaching award in urban planning by the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching. But nothing is more satisfying than assisting students in their quest for knowledge.

What’s the one policy change that you’d like to see made, and why?

I think I would like to see more debates among academics and policy makers regarding why the idea of a nominal fixed cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that is unaffected by fuel price fluctuations and remains unchanged for decades makes sense. In general, I don’t see enough honest intent of implementing some of the most fundamental policies that can reduce disproportionately large subsidies for the automobile mode. This worries me. How can we expect people to walk, bike, ride transit, stay fit, and improve urban air quality if we continue to incentivize, basically reward, auto travel?

What do you hope to achieve – what impact do you hope to make – after going through the Price PhD program?

All of us at the Price School are busy searching for ideas to improve quality of life across the globe using planning, policy, and design-based tools. I would continue this search throughout my career by trying to understand the complex interactions between people, networks and built environments within the metropolitan transportation landscape. It is important that my plans and proposals are actually implemented, and that they contribute towards increasing mobility of people and goods in a just, efficient, and sustainable way.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far through your experiences at the Price School?

That there is no end to education.