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SMART: working for a systems-based approach to sustainable mobility; Alcoa Foundation support for practical solutions in Beijing and Detroit

One of the key messages of the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Transportation Energy Futures (TEF) project (earlier post) is that deep cuts in transportation petroleum consumption and emissions are dependent on combined reductions across three factors: vehicle fuel consumption (modes); fuel carbon intensity (fuels); and vehicle use (service demand). In other words, while vehicle and fuel technologies clearly play a major role, so does demand reduction and the development of smarter, sustainable transportation systems. Of 9 reports from the TEF project, four deal with reducing transportation demand.

SMART (Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation), a project of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and TCAUP, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is in its ninth year of working on the problem highlighted by the demand-reduction elements of the TEF project—catalyzing systematic and fundamental transformations of mobility / accessibility systems by uncovering a set of “tipping points” along with integrated (not single-fix) solutions guiding the evolution of such systems.

In a white paper published in 2010, SMART Managing Director Susan Zielinski noted:

Recognizing that no single solution will save the day for transportation in this rapidly urbanizing and increasingly complex world, a groundswell of transportation innovation is arising worldwide. However, these innovations are too rarely linked and optimized in a way that can provide a convenient, practical, affordable and sustainable door-to-door trip for the user. The next generation of urban transportation is about connecting transportation modes, services, and technologies, bringing diverse innovations together in ways that favor accessibility (meeting needs) over mobility (moving for the sake of moving), and that work significantly better for people, economies, and the planet.

—“Connecting (And Transforming) The Future Of Transportation”

SMART is focusing on global urban regions, and has identified five “themes” that fill unaddressed gaps and guide and inform the program’s collaborative research, pilot projects, and education activities. Elements of these solution sets were introduced by SMART in a 2006 article entitled “New Mobility: The Next Generation of Sustainable Urban Transportation,” in the Bridge Magazine of the National Academy of Engineers. The five themes are:

  • Systems integration.
  • The accessibility paradigm.
  • New roles for the private sector in sustainable urban transportation.
  • The socio-cultural context.
  • Building capacity for now and for the next generation.

Related to the first theme, with the support of the National Science Foundation, SMART is developing a report on future research directions related to systems-based approaches to sustainable transportation. SMART is evolving a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder, international collaborative research network linking elements related to the five areas of special focus and its on-the ground projects.

In this context, the Alcoa Foundation has provided support for SMART in developing and applying practical solutions to the challenges of sustainable transportation in the Detroit and Beijing regions.

SMART is now part of Alcoa Foundation’s $4-million initiative: Advancing Sustainability Research: Innovative Partnerships for Actionable Solutions. The initiative, which funds 10 global sustainability research projects in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Russia and the United States.

We started to think about Detroit and Beijing, the directions in which their economies are going, and their needs: one city is getting less traffic and one is getting nine-day traffic jams. Globally, in an urbanizing world, we are faced with a lot of complexity. It’s not the world of the 50s. We have a lot of different challenges. The work that we do is to try and implement integrated systems from door to door with a focus on the user.

Lots of time, transportation is focused on one mode of transportation, with no connections with the rest of it. We have found globally that this [connection] is needed. The great thing is that there is huge proliferation of innovation because of the need. The world is urbanizing. City leaders and businesses need to solve this challenge. The innovations have been burgeoning. The innovations are not just in fuels and tweaking cars—they are across a lot of new business models, product, services models, designs, infrastructures.

How do we put that all together in the best way possible, while also needing to customize to a particular region and culture?

—Susan Zelinski

That problem is really interesting in the context of both Detroit and Beijing, Zielinski observed. China is experiencing a great deal of change and growth, with a desire for better sustainability. Detroit is moving somewhat in the opposite direction, with considerations about environmental livability taking a taking second place to the economic side, Zielinski said.

With that in mind, and because the whole world is a global market, there is a huge opportunity in this region [Detroit] to once again become a leader in transportation innovation that is not necessarily automotive. There is a great possibility of linking new technology, a whole range of different sectors, that make up the new mobility industry cluster.

We have been focusing on the economic opportunity side in Detroit and industry development. In China, the things we have begun to explore are how do we understand and move together collaboratively on the integrated approaches.

—Susan Zielinski

The projected outcomes of this SMART initiative are to:

  • Mobilize a diverse partnership base required to collectively describe, develop and apply practical and integrated solutions.

  • Uncover new data and conceptual frameworks: technical, behavioral, economic and policy-focused.

  • Pilot innovations, enhancements and communications approaches that will improve transportation connectivity and sustainability in the Beijing and Detroit regions.

In addition to SMART, the Alcoa initiative includes other partners in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Europe and Russia working on solutions related to Wetlands, Life Cycle Assessment, Voluntary Emissions Reduction and NGO Participation, Energy and Environmental Economics, Lightweight Materials and Design, and more. Over the course of two years, partners will create and leverage this sustainability research, as well as provide opportunities to develop and share solutions worldwide.

If you think about the new mobility grid—all the places where two or more things connect across a region—a whole region of these connection points are nodes—like neurons. If you think about that grid, you can think about an electric vehicle grid, but connected to a bus stop, car share, bike share.

Information technology has become a sort of transportation infrastructure, the next additional transportation infrastructure. We have this revolution in how we can provide seamless multimodal transportation, where you can be on the bus and order your Zip car, or know that a train comes along at exactly the right time.

It’s kind of open source in a way. Once you have interoperability, the way that people make their decisions changes. It used to be more like, well, I’d take the bus, but it’s too far, it’s the middle of night. If you have a system where you have on-demand cabs or car share or everything supplied that links the system, you’re, not moving from one mode to another mode. You’re moving from a mode and evolving into a more sophisticated system.

—Susan Zielinski

SMART’s New Mobility industry development research has been undertaken with the support of a range of partners—in particular Ford Motor Company, which has supported SMART since its beginnings—but also the Alcoa Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, and in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Illinois Institute of Design, the Confederation of Indian Industry, the Prince of Wales Business and Environment Program, the Cambridge Program for Industry, and a range of business leaders, public officials, and community and non-governmental groups in India, South Africa, and now parts of the US.




I am always fascinated by these studies which fail to include a survey of 'what do people actually want' (imagine that) - but in a structured and policy-useful type of way.
For people that have attempted 2 or more types of getting around - drive, transit, car-share, bike - what are the preferences, benefits, failings of each that they have tried? If you could afford to store, maintain, and run a car, would that be your daily preference? If you could commute at staggered hours (1-2 hours before or after normal commute times) or switch in a weekend day would you do that? Is relocating your house or work less inconvenient? How important is commute time to your lifestyle choices? How important is convenience in using a personal vehicle for your daily usage? Does congestion or wait time affect your desire to use public transit? Does the availability of bike support networks affect your choice to commute? ... and on and on...
Urban planners, architects, and other consultants seem to have a simplistic ideal in mind completely removed from the value system of most people, for some reason. They hide behind notions of sustainability or health benefits or commuter congestion to avoid making the really difficult planning decisions that result in transportation layouts that support a happy and productive society - which mostly means getting to and from work, maintaining property value, and ease of completing domestic chores - all else is fluff - nice promenades, pretty transportation corridors, stylish finishes inside transit, snazzy stops or stations. The best way that government can influence improved commuter and movement flow is to facilitate communication between industries and partners that wouldn't otherwise talk - infrastructure, business locations, land developers, and tax payers. Respond to our wants and needs, do not try to adjust behaviour or facilitate 'change'.

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