Transportation, transformed

Multidisciplinary research will go way beyond the car


When faculty members at MIT began talking about teaming up to tackle large-scale, global problems of transportation, they soon found that these problems were already getting considerable attention across campus. This realization helped spur the creation of Transportation@MIT, a new initiative launched this week that will draw on the strengths of the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"I think everyone was surprised" to discover how much work in various aspects of transportation is already under way at MIT, says Cynthia Barnhart, who will direct the new initiative, describing the results of a survey sent to faculty members and researchers. Survey results showed that at least a quarter of MIT faculty and researchers were already working on transportation-related projects.

"It is amazingly broad, way beyond what I imagined, and I do transportation [as a primary focus]," says Barnhart, the associate dean for academic affairs for the MIT School of Engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems. Transportation@MIT will thus build on what is already in place at the Institute: interdisciplinary collaborations on transportation technology and policy that cut across schools, departments and labs.

This approach is essential, many of the researchers say, because when it comes to designing transportation systems that are more efficient, more sustainable and more pleasant for their passengers, there's only so far you can go by working on each piece of the puzzle separately. It's much more effective to tackle the issues as a whole and to design systems in an integrated way. And that's where MIT has a lot to offer.

Studying the big picture

John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and director of MIT's System Dynamics Group, says that a multidisciplinary approach is essential to solving the problems of transportation. "It's not just the technology, it's the deployment and diffusion," he says, cautioning that in the absence of a strategy that takes into account the big picture, many innovations "have failed, often after a spectacular start," a phenomenon he calls "sizzle and fizzle."

Examples abound: Brazil's attempt to introduce biofuels in the 1970s, and the United States' attempt to introduce electric cars in the 1990s. However, sometimes the same basic idea, managed differently, can produce a different outcome: Brazil's biofuels program of the last few years has been a great success. When Sterman addresses a given technology, he often asks crucial questions that have nothing to do with the technology itself, such as, "What kind of marketing program, such as subsidies, tax credits or other incentives, would be needed to help get it over the tipping point?"

William Mitchell of the Media Lab and the School of Architecture and Planning says that while "we already have useful cross-disciplinary connections" in several areas, the new initiative should "facilitate the further development of a community of interest, enhance interchanges, and encourage and support broad initiatives."

Mitchell's work covers a variety of transportation modes and innovative ways of deploying them. "We have," he says, "been developing some lightweight, energy-efficient electric vehicles -- the CityCar, the RoboScooter and the GreenWheel bicycle -- together with ways to integrate these sorts of vehicles into innovative urban personal mobility systems, particularly mobility-on-demand systems."

Besides inventing new kinds of vehicles and distribution systems, the initiative will look for ways to make existing ones more efficient. "In 2007, flight delays cost passengers, airlines and the U.S. economy more than $40 billion," says Georgia Perakis, associate professor of operations research at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "Finding ways to alleviate congestion and operate airports more efficiently is crucial." One option being studied is "congestion pricing" -- essentially a tax designed to get airlines to adopt more-efficient scheduling.

'All the relevant players'

Overall, the emphasis of the initiative is to focus on whole regional transportation systems. "Our goal is to develop an integrated model of land use, transportation, environmental impacts and energy use based on human activities, for the evaluation of a range of 'green' policies and projects," says Moshe E. Ben-Akiva, the Edmund K. Turner Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Toward that end, Ben-Akiva's group has developed the Integrated Transport, Energy and Activity-Based Model (ITEAM) project, creating a platform and tools to help planners evaluate the tradeoffs between different proposed transportation policies and regulations.

Joseph Sussman, the JR East Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division, also emphasizes the importance of the interdepartmental approach embodied in the new initiative. "That approach is of great value because many of the projects I work on," from an engineering perspective, "have important implementation issues, involving the institutional framework, and the social and political frameworks."

Would it make more sense for a city to expand its airport to allow more flights, or to build a high-speed rail link that would reduce the need for those flights? Typically, such decisions are made separately by different agencies, but the new initiative aims to foster ways to help regional or national planners evaluate these kinds of tradeoffs "with this broader geographic scale, as opposed to the current highly modal way that kind of planning is done," Sussman says.

Such broad-based strategic planning can also be applied at an urban scale. Christopher Zegras, who researches how land-use planning in growing cities can be optimized for efficient transportation and who has been working with communities in Chile, China and Portugal, agrees that having the new initiative will make a big difference. "MIT has all the relevant players" in the different disciplines involved in transportation, including mechanical and electrical engineering, urban planning, operations research and business management.

"Each of those will play a crucial role in solving problems in mobility," he says. The new transportation initiative "will have a major impact if it succeeds in bringing these forces together. MIT is uniquely situated to take this field into the 21st century."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 4, 2009 (download PDF).


Topics: Architecture, Business and management, Civil and environmental engineering, Environment, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Technology and society

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I can't wait for the Greenwheel to be available for purchase!
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