Associate Professor Manish Shirgaokar Examines the Intersections of Transportation, Technology, and Equity

Associate Professor Manish Shirgaokar Examines the Intersections of Transportation, Technology, and Equity

March 27, 2024

Manish Shirgaokar's headshot.

Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Manish Shirgaokar’s research addresses transportation policy challenges including accessibility, equity, and the economic and environmental factors that impact how we travel day-to-day.

Shirgaokar’s career is built on studying how existing tools and technologies can expand wins from innovation to everyone in society. Shirgaokar recently joined four CU Denver faculty and faculty from North Carolina State University and Gettysburg College in National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research to explore how to use idle, electric vehicles to power buildings, and the availability and accessibility of this technology.   

Shirgaokar’s teaching focuses on transportation planning and policy, data analytics, and geographic information systems. His research is centered on transportation systems and how these systems help or prevent the mobility of disadvantaged populations. More broadly, under his guidance, students in the Urban and Regional Planning Department are taking a data-centric approach to policy analysis by joining forces with several local organizations including the Regional Transportation Department (RTD), the Denver Airport, and the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) to find solutions to issues around paratransit, the quality of sidewalks, and equitable mobility.

Evolution in Spending on Transportation

In his ten-year academic career, Shirgaokar has observed broadening societal acceptance around expanding travel options. “Though American cities have been built around the car, there is now a clear and distinct appreciation in North America for the idea that the car won’t save us,” said Shirgaokar. 

“We can’t be so beholden to the car. We need to build infrastructure differently. We need to spend more on transit. We need to spend more on bicycling networks, on sidewalks,” said Shirgaokar. “Even people who would have thought they would never bicycle, now can, at least, entertain the idea, which is a huge leap.” 

Adapting to Smart Mobility

“Smart mobility” does not necessarily refer to modes of transportation like autonomous cars but primarily looks to improve efficiencies using existing technologies, creating solutions to challenges brought on by climate change, and expanding equity across various groups in society (e.g., older adults, people with disabilities, women, and immigrants).

In Denver, for example, the local government has implemented technology to monitor traffic in the metro region to improve traffic efficiencies and shorten commute times. 

“If they drop the speed limit on the freeway a little bit, five miles let’s say, does it reduce congestion? Does such a policy decrease greenhouse gas emissions? Or does it make things worse?” asks Shirgaokar. “How do they evaluate this? They look at volumes of smartphones going through points in the network. It’s a data tunnel—a freeway or even arterials like Colorado Boulevard or Colfax. That is smart mobility in action.”

Slowly but surely, society is adapting to the idea of smart mobility. With more efficient and clean modes of transportation like bicycles, electric scooters, electric cars, and public transit, travel options are expanding for the masses. In 2023, the federal government proclaimed that 50% of vehicles in production in 2030 will be electric. These advances may also have even greater effects on, and opportunities for, our power grid. 

E-VIBES: Leveraging Existing Resources to Power Our Homes

A new CU Denver-led study funded by the National Science Foundation titled “e-VIBES” aims to demonstrate that there are even more options to maintain a healthy power grid and reduce carbon emissions with support from leaders in our government and utility companies. Smart mobility is about to get even smarter.

The e-VIBES project looks at electric vehicles (EVs) as “batteries on wheels” and asks questions like “How do we use EV batteries when cars are idle?” Shirgaokar and his colleagues are investigating when to charge an EV to become a more effective tool to power a house. They will also explore equity issues related to individual access to EVs and charging resources.

“Electricity prices are largely controlled in a systematic way,” said Shirgaokar. “Energy production is regulated, and there are very few players in the utility space. There are only a handful of companies that can manufacture and control the distribution of power. It’s not something I can do out of my garage. But guess what? With EVs, I just might be able to do exactly that, albeit at a smaller scale.”

“I load up my battery when it’s downtime for the grid, and then when the utility company is struggling to keep the grid effective, maybe in the evening when everyone comes home and everyone’s microwave and furnace starts going—that’s when my home battery on wheels powers my house,” continued Shirgaokar. “That’s the idea of a bidirectional charger. It’s not just a charger that takes from the grid and stores power in a battery on wheels, but a charger that’s able to send the power back to the grid, or at least to my house.”

Urban Planning’s Role in e-VIBES

Shirgaokar and Serena Kim, assistant professor of research methods with the North Carolina State University School of Public and International Affairs, are leading the charge on the equity component of e-VIBES, specifically studying how this technology might impact customers from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Bidirectional charging could be a long-term solution to future-proofing our power grid and overall energy infrastructure. E-VIBES intends to assemble a plan to demonstrate how a full-scale EV charging network can function, including supporting disadvantaged communities.