Fundamental Principles for Sustainable Metropolitan Mobility Systems
(and Some Examples of MIT’s contributions)

Notes prepared for visit of U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood
By Chris Zegras, Assistant Professor of Transportation and Urban Planning
MIT, Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning/Engineering Systems

(comments welcome)

3 May 2010

      I.            INTRODUCTION

It’s an honor to have you visit us today, Mr. Secretary, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to offer a few thoughts on metropolitan mobility.  I’ll do so by introducing five basic principles that I view as key to sustainable metropolitan mobility in the 21st Century:

I. The Three I’s (Information, Intelligence, Integration)

II. Sustainability

III. Multi-Scale (from local to global)

IV. Practical Innovation

V. Education

I will discuss these principles in light of some of the ongoing and new relevant research and educational activities that I am involved in here at MIT, including via:

·        The MIT Portugal Program, a multi-year, multi-university research and education program in engineering systems, funded by the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education;

·        The Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Future Urban Mobility Inter-disciplinary Research Group, funded by the Singapore National Research Foundation;

·        The recently awarded Centre of Excellence for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT-Across Latitudes and Cultures), a multi-university collaborative research center funded by the Volvo Research and Education Foundation.

   II.            The Three I’s

Integration represents a fundamental necessity for metropolitan mobility today.  We need integration:

       of modes, requiring multi-modal planning and operation of the mobility system, including human-powered mobility (i.e., biking and walking…);

       of purposes, or end uses, treating the passenger and freight systems in a coherent fashion;

        of hardwares and softwares, capitalizing on innovative network computing and control technologies to communicate between systems and users;

       of disciplines, including civil engineering, computer science, operations research, planning, economics, and environmental sciences;

       of analytic approaches, models and so forth; and,

       of institutions and sectors, bringing together land use, transportation, environment, information and communication, and other relevant actors.

Clearly the Obama Administration has shown active interest in advancing some of the integration agenda at the metropolitan level, through, for example, the DOT-HUD-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the TIGER grant funds, and your own calls for integrating the needs of human-powered mobility into our system.

In terms of Information, the networked society of advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs) has particular relevance for our metropolitan mobility systems, because the ICTs, as we now know well, have now gone fully mobile – our metropolitan areas and their transportation systems have evolved into broad sensor and control networks.

The main challenge now is getting the right information into the right hands at the right time for the right purposes:

       User decisions (before they travel)

       Provider decisions (deployment; when travel is taking place; accurate pricing of the assets)

       Planning decisions (what to provide, when, and where).

In other words, how can we effectively deploy these data sources for improved tactical, operational, and strategic purposes?

The information glut these systems threaten to overwhelm us with also raises important concerns regarding privacy, data ownership (and thus permitted use) and transparency (including for accountability). 

Overall, of course, this falls into the broad area of ITS, which the Federal Government has long be a strong and important champion of, including via recent initiatives such as IntelliDrive.  The Administration’s Open Government Directive is another good example of important movement in the right direction here.

Finally, Intelligence refers the proper use of this new information via: data-collection deployment (e.g., smart phones, and the like, for improved travel and activity surveys), data mining to extract higher level knowledge, and using advance ICTs and resulting computing powers to improve our abilities for short-, medium-, and long-term predictions about system performance – that is, knowing what the system will do and how we can make it do it better. 

As examples of our work in the “Three I’s”, I’ll briefly highlight two projects from MIT Portugal Program Transportation Systems Research, undertaking in collaboration with partners from Univ. Porto, IST, and Univ. Coimbra:

1. Strategic Options to Integrate Transportation and Urban Revitalization

       integrating academics with stakeholders

       integrating advanced microsimulation models of land use and transportation with strategic scenario planning techniques. 

o   The latter is particularly important as we have embraced scenario planning in its “true spirit” – to identify important uncertainties about the future, to enable the design of innovative and robust portfolios of strategic options. 

o   This also poses non-trivial computing challenges (for forecasts); however, it also allows for new data-mining techniques for scenario development and robustness testing.  We are piloting such techniques in this project.

2. CityMotion

       showing the potential uses of information from the increasingly “sensed” city, especially by “fusing” data for new uses;

       successfully convening a large number of information (data) providers from public and private sectors, including a major cel phone service provider, freight fleet operator, taxi operator, toll road company, and several public transportation companies and municipalities.

o   Resulting in a large source of heterogenous data, currently being compiled and “fused” by a university consortium to demonstrate the power of the fusion.

o   Enabling development of applications such as a short-term traffic prediction tool being developed using software (DynaMIT) developed by MIT’s ITS Lab and being deployed by one of the world’s largest toll-road operators (Brisa).

Finally, in our recently awarded Singapore-based Future Urban Mobility research program, we aim to integrate:

       information and communication technologies,

       advanced integrated microsimulation models (short-, medium-, long-term), and

       the policy, planning, institutional and financial framework necessary to create a sustainable 21st Century urban mobility system.

III.            Sustainability

I won’t belabor the sustainability rhetoric as we are all now well-familiar with the concept.  Instead, I’d like to focus on the need for MEASUREMENT.  In short, proper measurement forces us to ask: what are we trying to sustain and how will we know we are moving in the right direction?

As you, Mr. Secretary, have pointed out, we are talking about safe and affordable, and sustainable accessibility.   Indeed, we have designed the Transportation@MIT Initiative around the concept of accessibility – recognizing accessibility as the fundamental objective of a sustainable mobility system.

This introduces a key measurement task: how do we know we are moving in the right direction when we talk about sustainability?   This is indeed new territory and we need a new measurement system, or:

The development and deployment of “metrics that matter”

This implies standardized, meaningful, scale-able and operational performance measures, capable of reflecting accessibility (in its multiple dimensions) on the one hand, and life-cycle-based effects, based on full-cost accounting principles, etc., on the other.   We expect to develop and demonstrate the use of such metrics as part of the SMART Future Urban Mobility IRG.

IV.            Multi-Scale

Urban mobility today must be Metropolitan in scope; metropolitan areas, after all, account for the great majority of the country’s economy.  However, we also must recognize that metropolises are comprised of neighborhoods and municipalities – the specific places where residents live and work – and amalgamate up to regional, national and international networks of competition and innovation.

We work on the neighborhood scale; for example, here in Boston we have an ongoing research project examining how we can design communities for older adults; as the baby boomers enter into later middle age, can we design spaces for active, healthy, safe, secure, and environmentally-friendly living? 

But, more generally, our work spans the globe, as it must, to extract comparative lessons, find robust solutions, and prepare our students to work effectively in a range of metropolitan contexts.

Of course, we are a “northern” university; but much of our work is in the so-called “global south”.  In that sense, we have as much (if not more) to learn as we do “wisdom” to impart.

For, example, perhaps one of the most talked-about urban “innovations” to take the urban transportation field by storm over the past decade or two is Bus Rapid Transit – an approach pioneered in practice in the developing world and only more recently beginning to see deployments in the US.  We have recently been awarded, in a consortium of partners from Latin America, Europe, and Australia, a grant from the Volvo Research and Education Foundation (VREF) for a BRT Center of Excellence – Across Latitudes and Cultures.  This global program will almost certainly bring benefits to the US BRT “movement”, which can definitely learn from the affordable innovation and entrepreneurial spirit which so marks public transportation systems in the global south.

   V.            Practical Innovation

Innovation weaves through the above principles.  But, I’d like to call out two critical dimensions here.   First: innovative pricing of the relevant resources; perhaps the most critical innovation that we have been too slow to adopt into the U.S. system.   I know DOT continues to work on ways in which tolling, pricing, public-private partnerships (PPPs), and other financing mechanisms can be integrated into the system.  But, we need bold political action on this front, and I’d challenge the Administration to allow room for more local innovation in transportation finance, including, perhaps, allowing an opt-out of the federal transportation finance system.

As one example of relevant research here, again as part of MIT Portugal Research, we have been examining precisely the institutional structures and related arrangements that seem to be critical to the successful deployment of PPPs for the delivery of urban transportation infrastructures.

VI.            Education

MIT has been at the forefront of transportation education for several decades.  And, we are well-positioned to lead into the 21st Century, including by increasing our global partnerships to make this happen.  For example, via the MIT Portugal Program we contributed to the successful development and launch of an international professional MSc degree in Complex Transportation Infrastructure Systems, combining the principles of engineering, business and public policy.  In only its third full year of operation, we are already attracting a large number of global, competitive students.

Here, I’d like to make my only truly crass appeal of the morning: please increase the Federal support for transportation graduate student fellowships, such as via the Eisenhower fellowships.  Despite our best efforts we can never raise enough money to fund all of our great graduate students in transportation across the Institute. 

VII.            Summing Up

We are on the cusp of the metropolitan mobility revolution.  Information allows us new forms of intelligence to drive the integration crucial to urban metropolitan sustainability.  To realize this potential, we must take a multi-scale approach, including via increased global partnerships and collaborative research networks and multi-setting experiments.  This will allow us to develop and pilot truly practical innovations and educate the next generation of global leaders in the sustainable mobility enterprise.  

MIT is actively involved in all elements of the puzzle necessary to realize this ambition.  So, if you believe in these principles, we have a lot to offer in terms of partnerships with DOT, FHWA, FTA, etc. in charting a path to sustainable urban mobility.