PennDesign's Erick Guerra Seeks to Improve Transportation Safety, Efficiency and Access

by Erica Andersen

Erick Guerra doesn’t own a car. Given his occupation, it’s clear that this personal choice reflects the principles of his professional life.

Guerra is an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. He’s both a bike commuter and an urban-planning researcher who has worked to encourage alternatives to private car ownership in growing cities, and he sees little need for a car of his own.

At PennDesign, Guerra studies how land use, development and technology intersect with transportation. He also currently serves as the director of education and outreach for Mobility21, a federally-funded initiative led by Carnegie Mellon University that brings together researchers from various disciplines to improve transportation systems, safety and efficiency.

Guerra describes city planning as a “generalist” field, though he finds himself becoming increasingly specialized in his own research.

“We work across a broad range of subjects,” he says. “I like the focus on design, on history, on social movements and social work.”

Guerra studies how the “built environment,” such as the streets, houses, parks and buildings that people spend most of their time in or around, connects with socioeconomic factors to influence how people get from one place to another. For example, in low-income urban areas, biking is an important means of transportation. But uneven road surfaces and narrow bike lanes with abrupt endings can also make it dangerous and difficult. Establishing bicycling as a safe and appealing option for everyone doesn’t happen by accident; it requires specifically designed city planning.

​​​​​​​Last fall, Guerra led a graduate design studio focused on improving the cycling infrastructure of Querétaro, Mexico. As part of the semester-long studio course, he traveled with eight students to the city of almost 1 million people located 132 miles northwest of Mexico City to identify weak points in the existing cycling framework. They worked with the city’s secretary of mobility to develop and publish a strategic cycling plan.

“A cycle network is only as good as its worst spots,” he says. “If conditions get really bad at an intersection, no one wants to ride.”

The group from Penn identified several key junctions that hampered the ability of cyclists to reach their destinations safely, and they proposed possible improvements.

“One of the first things I did was take the students on an all-day ride,” Guerra says. “It's really hard to think about planning for transportation systems that you haven't used.”

The ride was the first of several biking excursions, which included a nighttime ride with a group of local cycling advocates.

How did the students fare on the extended rides?

“I think most of them enjoyed that,” Guerra says. “A few might have been fed up by the end.”

Guerra spent his own undergraduate years at Penn and was delighted to return to PennDesign’s Meyerson Hall as a faculty member in 2013.

“I had spent so much time at 34thth and Walnut,” he says. “It was really fun to come back.”

He arrived back at Penn via a circuitous route that included a stint in the Peace Corps and a few years at home in Boston, where he worked as a “bicycle and traffic-calming intern” for the city of Cambridge and earned his master’s degree in urban planning at Harvard University. He later pursued a Ph.D. in city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

Guerra had originally turned down the Peace Corps, as he planned to complete his master’s degree at Penn while working at the Penn Museum. But he had a change of heart and called up the Peace Corps to ask if his spot was still available. It was, and he was off to Gabon.

His time in the Peace Corps intensified his interest in different modes of transit because Gabon has pretty limited road infrastructure, he says. Combined with high traffic-fatality rates, this made transportation “expensive, exhausting and also unsafe.”

When it’s difficult to get around, basic goods also become much more expensive, particularly in rural locations.

In Gabon, Guerra also encountered what urban planners call “informal” transit. With the exception of the very wealthy, most people got around using shared cabs and minivans known as bush taxis. Such methods of transportation don’t exist on the same scale within the United States.

In the U.S., Guerra says, it's often very limited service. People either use public transit or have a private car. But minivans, minibuses and motorcycle taxis operated by a range of owners from large companies to individuals form an integral part of the transportation network in other parts of the world.

“The systems in Africa and Latin America and Asia tend to be quite different,” he says. “There's this entrepreneurial transit provision.”

Informal transit has a somewhat flexible definition and sometimes involves just one aspect that might not meet a formal standard. In Mexico City, where Guerra has worked extensively, companies both large and small operate fleets of minibuses and minivans.

“They're highly regulated, and they run specific, fixed routes,” Guerra says. “So, if you refer to them as informal, it's probably that the drivers are paid somewhat informally, or the vehicles may not be up to standard.”

In addition to his work close to home with Mobility21, Guerra also sees value in studying systems different from those in the U.S.

“I enjoy working internationally in places with high rates of transit use and high rates of walking and also in cities that are on the verge of motorization,” Guerra says.

Studying these areas offers the opportunity to improve the transit infrastructure and experience at a critical period. His work aims to better the lives of the people already using public transportation or walking/cycling infrastructure as well as reduce the number of cars that might be added to the road by encouraging more people to use these networks. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, keeping cars off the road limits traffic fatality rates and reduces health complications from air pollution.

Guerra continues to work in Mexico, and is currently examining the relationship between urban form, transit investments and mode choice (such as bike, car or bus) in Mexico’s 100 largest cities. On that work, he is collaborating with Jorge Montejano and Camilo Caudillo of CentroGeo, a Mexican research institution, and Paavo Monkkonen of the University of California, Los Angeles. He also recently authored a paper on urban accessibility for the Brookings Institution with Gilles Duranton of Penn’s Wharton School. Mobility21 collaborations with Louis Merlin of Florida Atlantic University and Michelle Kondo of the USDA Forest Service’s Philadelphia Field Station are reviewing findings and conducting an analysis in the Philadelphia region of how city design affects traffic fatalities and collisions, particularly for pedestrians.

Though he is an avid cyclist, Guerra doesn’t fully abstain from the open road.

“I do drive,” he says, explaining that even an urban-planning professor sometimes rents or borrows a car as needed. On longer trips, he resents the sting of rental-car expenses.

“At the same time,” he says, “owning a car is really expensive.”

Does he ever feel the urge to own one?

“Not in my day-to-day life,” Guerra says. “Actually, probably almost never.”