The University Record, January 18, 1999

McCray honored for work on transportation needs of low-income women in South Africa

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan

Keeping low income women and their babies healthy is more than a public health concern. It’s also a complex challenge for transportation researchers, says graduate student Talia McCray, whose studies of the transportation needs of women in South Africa and Detroit have caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

McCray is one of 10 students from around the nation who received the transportation department’s University Transportation Centers Program Student of the Year Awards. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer Downey presented the awards during a ceremony Jan. 11. In addition to a certificate, the students each received $1,000 and the opportunity to attend the annual Transportation Research Board meeting, being held here this week.

McCray’s projects in Detroit and in two locations in South Africa explored how transportation systems affect low income women’s access to prenatal care.

“When you look at the health care literature, you often see that transportation is mentioned as a factor, but few studies have tried to identify exactly which aspects of transportation have an effect,” says McCray. In her research, she looks at a variety of factors—everything from the reliability of public transit and the availability of private transportation services to the condition and safety of bus stops. She also tries to determine how women decide where to go for health care—do they always use the nearest clinic, or will they travel farther to find one where they feel the care is better and the waits are shorter?

“All these different factors—travel time, waiting time, being pregnant, crime rates at bus stops, plus the fact that many of the women have more than one child—affect a woman’s decision of whether to get health care or not,” says McCray, a doctoral student in the Urban Technological and Environmental Planning Program of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

In her Detroit research, McCray is working with Healthy Baby Service, a private transportation service organized in 1988 to try to reduce infant mortality by overcoming transportation barriers to prenatal care. The service relies on a single dispatcher who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Detroit street system and uses paper maps as a backup. But concerned about what might happen if that one person were ever unable to do his job, McCray is helping the organization automate the process. By using computer programs for routing and scheduling, she expects to lower the service’s costs, while getting women to their appointments on time and reducing their travel and waiting time.

With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, McCray spent four months in South Africa in 1998, doing research to find out whether something like Health Baby Service could succeed there. In interviews with 500 women and detailed observations of the transportation system, she found many similarities with Detroit, but also some daunting differences. For example, some South African women feel it is not worth the trouble to travel to clinics that often run out of medicine and supplies. The country’s long history of apartheid resulted in a fragmented transportation system that still has not been made whole. And territorial disputes among operators of private van services called Kombi taxis often erupt into violence and complicate plans for improving transportation, says McCray. Currently analyzing the data she collected in South Africa over the summer, she hopes to come up with a realistic plan for improving women’s access to health care.

Students who receive the Outstanding Student Awards are selected by the Department of Transportation’s 10 regional University Transportation Centers. McCray was selected by the Great Lakes Center for Truck and Transit Research (part of the U-M Transportation Research Institute), where she held a graduate assistantship. Patricia Waller, director of the U-M Transportation Research Institute, says McCray’s unusual combination of interests and experience make her ideally suited for the kind of research she is doing. Before coming to U-M, McCray earned dual bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and engineering and a master’s degree in engineering and then worked as an engineer for AT&T Bell Laboratories for three years. But she had long been involved with social service work through her church and was looking for ways to use her expertise to help other people.

“I strongly believe that it is this ability—to cross boundaries and reach out to populations and problems that we have not traditionally considered to be in our domain—that is essential to the solution of many of the major issues confronting society today,” says Waller. “Talia has both the ability to see the relationships and the expertise to bring to bear on the problems. I think she is a most unusual student and a most unusual person. I also believe that she will make innovative and important contributions to the field.”

This is not the first time McCray has had national recognition. In 1990, she was one of 20 students named to USA Today’s All USA College Academic First Team. The same year, she was one of five outstanding young people to win the Young American Award from the Boy Scouts of America.

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