UCLA masters student Akshay Sreekumar has often found himself at ease within the technical side of problems, surrounded by data and the potential clarity it can bring.
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in electrical engineering and computer science, he quickly found himself in an enviable position — working at one of the country’s signature corporations: Apple. He helped produce popular electronics including the Apple Watch. But something was still tugging at his heart.
“I loved working for Apple, but I wanted to try tackling a different kind of challenge,” he said. “Some of the biggest challenges our society’s facing include decarbonization, climate change and making a clean energy transition — I really wanted to make a pivot in my career to work on those types of problems.”
Over the course of his life, Sreekumar has witnessed the devastating impacts of climate change — from overwhelming floods in Kerala, India, where he was born, to the ongoing threat of wildfire in Northern California, where he’d spent his education and early career.
“Coming from a position of privilege, I was really close to these events but still able to escape the full weight of their consequences. I think having that background, you’re a little more exposed to what the inequity of climate change is, and the reality of that,” he said.
Sreekumar went back to school, enrolling at UCLA to work toward his masters in electrical and computer engineering. Then he stumbled upon the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Fellows Program.
“I thought this was a really good opportunity with the kinds of things I wanted to do,” he said. “It was especially appealing because it offered a research component while also interfacing with real organizations to make an impact.”
The EDI fellows program pairs graduate students with a UCLA faculty mentor and an external partner from the Greater Los Angeles community. For Sreekumar’s project, he chose to examine the idea of offering fareless mass transit in Los Angeles County, a policy advocated for by the nonprofit group SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy). His external mentor with SAJE was Chelsea Kirk, its director of policy and research for building equity and transit.
Sreekumar saw an opportunity to leverage his interest in infrastructure networks and how they can be adapted for the growing pains of climate change. While some of the arguments for fareless transit were obvious — saving money for low-income riders in need, for example — it hadn’t ever been examined whether the change to fareless would take cars off the road, reduce emissions and improve air quality. Sreekumar paired with civil and environmental engineering professor Jiaqi Ma to work on advanced modeling to find out. Dr. Yueshuai He of UCLA civil and environmental engineering and part of Ma’s research group, also contributed.
“No one from the SAJE side really had the bandwidth or proper tools to formulate and look at a problem like that,” Sreekumar said. “We had the tools to help them answer questions like this and it could inform some of their policy work.”
Using an advanced modeling system that considered massive demographic data (across race, age, education, income level and more) culled from the U.S. Census, Sreekumar and the team could game out the transportation activities of the entire metropolitan population, tweak metrics like fare-free ridership, and watch what happened.
They concentrated on three main environmental metrics: vehicle miles traveled (VMT), greenhouse gas emissions and air quality index (AQI). The results, however, have been a lesson in the nuance and difficulty of getting into the weeds of climate policy.
“What we found is that fareless transit can be a very powerful means of empowering communities by giving them access to mobility and reducing their economic burden, but it actually doesn’t have a huge impact on a lot of these environmental metrics,” Sreekumar said.
Changing to fareless transit (buses and trains) would likely take 11,000 vehicles off the roads permanently — leading to a 1% decrease in vehicles and a 1% increase in metro ridership. Similarly, the AQI change saw no more than a 4-point shift, and that was in the most generous modeling.
“Typically, the people who have the ability to trade off money for time are the people who own the cars in the first place,” Sreekumar noted of the miniscule change in driving habits versus the convenience and culture of having a car. “There’s already this inequity baked into the system. The people who rely on public transportation, they’re not the ones creating vehicle driven pollution.”
Demographically, setting the model to a fareless system saw the greatest gains in ridership from people aged 0-18, who have less than a high school diploma, making $20,000 to $250,000, and Hispanic populations relative to other racial groups.
While not the smoking gun advocates would hope for, fareless transit does improve some metrics, if only a little. Therefore, the research cannot stand on its own as a gamechanger, Sreekumar said.
“If you’re looking for a policy just to improve the environmental metrics, then you might need to have fareless transit in conjunction with other kinds of policies,” he added. “It can’t be the only lever you are using to adjust for this problem.”
Having an opportunity to combine this data driven assessment, while staying grounded to a community organization like SAJE has been invaluable, Sreekumar said.
“Coming from a very technical and engineering background, I think I had a really great time working with people more on the policy and advocacy side. A lot of these issues aren’t a pure science problem or engineering problem or political problem — you kind of need everyone to come together.”
He was glad to work with SAJE and see what matters to them most. “They’re the boots on the ground and it’s important to hear from that side.” One way or another, the results will continue to help drive the conversation.
“I think as someone who does research, that it is important to have negative results,” Sreekumar said. “Those results aren’t always published, or there’s not a lot of attention on them, but it is important. Science is not about having an agenda ahead of time. You see what happens so others perhaps don’t have to go down the same path.”
Sreekumar graduated in June and is looking to continue working on infrastructure networks —maybe next time in renewable power grids that transport solar or wind energies.
Whatever he does, he will have had a great experience that informed his perspective. “It pays off to listen to the people who are working on this every day and see where you can lend a helping hand, but really letting them drive the space you’re operating in. I think that makes a lot of sense,” he said.