Personable robots, advanced prosthetics and entrepreneurship figure prominently in campus visit.
Automobile cooperatives in Germany, "weekend cars" in Singapore, stop-free electronic toll booths in Japan, dedicated highways for freight, personal real-time navigation units for each automobile. These are some of the many transportation ideas being studied by the International Cooperative Mobility Research Program, established this year and based at MIT.
The program's objective is to improve understanding of world motorization, and to help implement policies that will realize the benefits and also alleviate the social and environmental problems that increased motorization may bring.
In the emerging markets of Asia and South America, traffic infrastructures are overloaded. Commuters in Sao Paulo, Brazil, have set up mini-offices in their cars because it often takes several hours to get to work. In Bangkok, it is usually faster to walk than to drive. Yet there are only 54 vehicles per 1,000 people, compared to the US ratio of 750 per 1,000.
"Mobility is fundamental to our economic and social vitality," said Daniel Roos, professor of civil and environmental engineering, director of the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development, and co-chair (with Ralph Gakenheimer, professor of urban planning and civil/environmental engineering) of the mobility program.
"Increased mobility and economic development have progressed in union; investments in transportation and associated infrastructures have been leading indicators of a nation's prosperity" Professor Roos said. "In recent years, however, there have been numerous signs of our inability to maintain-let alone improve-mobility."
The program has gathered information about mobility strategies worldwide, from which it has produced an exhaustive summary of more than 100 exemplary mobility initiatives and systems. This compendium will be the foundation for the Mobility Observatory, a multifaceted, easily accessible data resource of successful transportation policies, strategies and technical innovations.
The Observatory, which will be updated semiannually, will identify promising solutions as they are put into place in cities around the world. It will serve as a basis for more in-depth case studies, catering to individual countries' needs based on things like cultural composition or funding availability. Complementing the Observatory are separate research studies on global warming, fuel efficiency, recycling options, strategic planning and travel behavior.
Policies toward automobiles, area-wide management of travel demand, public transport innovations, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), innovative financing for transportation infrastructure, and land use and urban design strategies are some of the issues that will be examined.
IDEAS BEING TRIED
One interesting mobility experiment underway in Singapore is the concept of weekend cars. Cars with special "weekend" license plates are substantially cheaper to purchase and operate but can only be used on the weekend or on weekday nights. This has eased traffic congestion by encouraging public transit use without discouraging auto ownership.
Other approaches include car sharing, an experiment in several German and Swiss cities. Drivers can borrow a car when needed by paying a membership fee, which is cheaper than renting. In a few New York suburbs a minibus provides children with door-to-door service to malls and neighborhood activities-a useful option in homes where both parents work. In Japan, an electronic toll system uses a sensor to read a transponder attached to each car and deducts the toll from a driver's prepaid toll account, thus eliminating congestion at toll booths.
The financial, environmental and safety issues raised by increased motorization are now a worldwide concern. Over the last 15 years, the number of urban areas in the United States with major congestion problems has increased from 22 percent to nearly 50 percent, costing billions of dollars a year in lost time, energy, efficiency and compensatory pollution control. The increase in auto ownership and use is even greater in Japan and Europe, where severe congestion has led to a prohibition on cars in some city centers.
In the industrialized world, changes such as decentralized cities, an aging population and more women in the work force have resulted in a greater demand for mobility and a consequent need for either public transportation or a second household automobile.
Automobile use has increased steadily in Korea, China and India, which collectively hold more than 2 billion people. In Korea, the number of vehicles has increased by 23 percent each year since 1986. There have been many predictions as to India's and China's mobility needs for the next century. Even the most conservative estimates foresee an unprecedented demand for resources.
This increased mobility has caused serious social concerns: allocation of scarce land resources for transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.), depletion of finite energy resources, reduced safety and environmental problems such as global warming.
Despite its crucial role in providing personal mobility, the car has come under particular scrutiny, leading to such mandates as zero-emission vehicles for California, auto-use disincentives, auto-free zones and road pricing. A few metropolitan areas have considered stricter measures such as limited bans on driving if severe pollution conditions develop.
"We seem to be trapped," Professor Roos said. "On one hand, we recognize the need for mobility to facilitate social and economic well-being. On the other hand, we are unable to find mechanisms to provide that mobility in an efficient, socially responsible manner." Future mobility systems, he added, must take into account obstacles such as obtaining both money and public support for building and maintaining transportation projects.
(This article originally appeared in the fall 1996 CTPID newsletter).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 20, 1996.