April 12, 2022

Başar Özbilen: Planning for Sustainable Mobility

Başar Özbilen talks about his research on mobility, transportation, and underserved communities.

Başar Özbilen has been racking up distinctions on the way to completing his degree. The fifth-year PhD candidate in City and Regional Planning and managing editor of the Journal of Planning Literature was awarded a rare Presidential Fellowship, received a second-place award at the Hayes Graduate Research Forum, and won 4th place at the university-wide Three Minute Thesis competition.

All of these accolades are for his research on sustainable development, the implications of new mobility technologies, and the effects of Covid-19 on travel decisions.

Özbilen made time in his busy schedule to talk about his path to Ohio State, his interest in city and regional planning, and his career aspirations.

You received an undergraduate degree in city and regional planning and a master’s degree in city planning while a student in Ankara, Turkey. Can you tell us how you became interested in planning and how this interest evolved during these studies?

During my childhood and youth in Ankara, Turkey, I grew up in a diverse neighborhood with people from different walks of life. The social milieu I was a part of and the neighborhood I lived in helped me to start thinking about the implications of various urban issues like insufficient transportation infrastructure, lack of access to open and green spaces, affordable housing shortage, and air pollution. All these observations laid some sort of footing for which I, sometimes unknowingly, based my future decision to be a planner.

Since my early days in college, I was struck by the inconsistency between the urban environment and urban phenomena I was taught in my classes and the one I was living in. Having seen this inconsistency as a kind of anomaly, I tried to find ways to fix it. This was my point of entry into what then was the unknown territory of transportation. In the face of the fact that sustainable transportation trips (e.g., public transit, walking, and bicycling trips) constituted only a tiny fraction of total trips in Turkey, I chose to focus on ways to find potential strategies for the promotion of sustainable and multimodal transportation in my master’s studies.


Can you explain why you chose to pursue a PhD in planning at Ohio State?

Ohio State is a great place to pursue a PhD degree in planning, a section within the College of Engineering that has wide-ranging research interests with faculty that blend the social and mathematical aspects of planning.

The variety of research projects conducted by nationally and internationally recognized faculty members of our PhD program was another important factor that impacted my decision to choose Ohio. In particular, work by my primary dissertation adviser Dr. Gulsah Akar, ranging from bicycles to autonomous vehicles, helped assure me that she would be a perfect guide as I proceeded in my PhD and the breadth and depth of Ohio State would support me in research that focused on the potential of emerging mobility technologies and sustainable, equitable, and inclusive urban development.


You recently received a Presidential Fellowship from Ohio State for your dissertation research on sustainable development. Can you say more about your work, especially your research on sustainability assessment methods?

Comprised of three essays, my dissertation entitled Planning for sustainability with a focus on mobility: Three essays on the operational tools of urban planning delves into different dimensions of sustainable development with a focus on urban mobility. The primary purpose of my research is to identify relevant sustainable planning strategies that will lower environmental impact, foster social equity, and promote positive health outcomes.

To that end, my first essay focuses on sustainability assessment methods, and I reviewed over 300 sustainability indices at the global, national, regional, and urban levels. My research synthesizes the review results using content analysis and develops a sustainability indicator framework to identify core indicators. In short, what I’ve done is identify an operational set of core sustainability metrics like GHG emissions and renewable energy generation capacity that can be used to track our progress towards sustainable development in an era of data-driven technologies and smart infrastructure.

The second and third essays discuss the implications of sustainable transportation in an era of rapidly evolving mobility systems. My research explores the facilitators of shared e-scooter use and assesses the unequal impacts of COVID-19 disruptions on individuals’ travel and health outcomes. The findings of my dissertation research will impact policy and help authorities make better-informed decisions about the rapidly evolving urban mobility technologies, post-COVID urban resilience, and contemporary sustainable development challenges.


In addition to being a prolific writer, you are the managing editor for the Journal of Planning Literature. Can you tell us a little more about how this focus aligns with your other interests and research?

As an early-career transportation researcher, I follow closely the most recent advancements in the field to the extent possible. My managing editorship role in the Journal of Planning Literature (JPL) is particularly helpful in keeping my knowledge up to date about recent advancements in smart transportation infrastructure and data-driven technologies. Since JPL is the top literature review journal in the planning field, my role allows me to keep up with the most recent discussions in the scientific community.

Additionally, my managing editorship experience for JPL provided me with the opportunity to understand the peer-review and publishing process from an editorial perspective. I consider this excellent experience and one that significantly improved my scientific writing and editing skills and which has been beneficial to my active publishing program.


Can you talk about your plans for future research?

My career goal is to become a sustainable transportation researcher at a leading research university and study the travel behavior of vulnerable groups such as older adults, immigrants and refugees, and ethnic and racial minorities.

The elements that affect the travel behavior of these groups are complex social phenomena such as perceptions toward specific modes, lifestyles, travel patterns, and built environment characteristics. 
Ultimately, I hope to understand the factors that can help promote the sustainable mobility of these groups and to contribute to the design of inclusive and accessible neighborhoods for people from all walks of life.

To do that, I want to continue to work on sustainability and transportation topics as a researcher. Thanks to the research environment at Ohio State, I was able to develop an international and interdisciplinary perspective on sustainable mobility and sustainable development. I am confident this perspective will allow me to develop operational planning policies that can help foster the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of our cities.