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How The New Mobility Grid Can Spark Transportation Solutions

3p Contributor | Friday October 26th, 2012 | 0 Comments

Bike share in Beijing.  Photo credit Sue Zielinski

By Sue Zielinski, Managing Director, SMART, University of Michigan

Imagine a day when steps from your door, or even from inside your home or office, you could enter a vital network or grid of New Mobility options, places that connect a whole range of transport amenities including buses, trains, parking, streetcars, clean fuel taxis, auto rickshaws and car share or bike share vehicles, and in some cases, day care, satellite offices, cafes, shops and entertainment.

At its most basic level, the New Mobility Grid is simply a network of connection points in a community where transportation modes and services physically connect. In more technologically advanced communities or regions, this is all brought together by a telecommunications framework or “cloud” that offers real-time information on arrival and departure times and availability (either through kiosks at connection points or hubs or through mobile phones or PDAs). The telecommunications framework also allows you to quickly and easily pay for these affordable modes and services with a single click or a wave past the reader through a mobile phone or a card or a kiosk. This way you can transfer seamlessly from one mode of transportation to the other, informed of schedules and options as you go, using the best mode for the purpose, gaining access to car share at one hub, and dropping it off at another to pick up a waiting bus or train. It’s easy, convenient, affordable accessible and very 21st-century.

For the user, these networks connect an integrated set of services, products, and technologies door-to-door, addressing the “last mile” challenge and the connectivity gap throughout the trip. For the developer and operator, implementing the grid is scalable, starting first by linking what already exists and then adding and enhancing as budget and political will allows. Since the key is connecting rather than competing interests, the process and the product includes rich and poor, a range of backgrounds and needs, and urban and suburban dwellers.

For government leaders, this begins to address social, environmental, and economic goals, fostering livability, social equity, green industry and green jobs. For businesses in the emerging New Mobility Industry, this offers an opportunity to generate a new “open source” transportation infrastructure, spur “Public-Private Innovation,” and supply the emerging and rapidly growing market for sustainable urban transportation globally.

What is spurring this evolution? One key factor: the world is urbanizing. Currently half the world lives in cities, and soon that proportion will rise to two thirds. So we can no longer think of experiencing or implementing transportation the way we used to. It’s becoming more universally clear that the most commonly pursued solutions don’t fully address transportation’s increasingly complex human, physical, and political context. For example, alternative fuels alone, while focused on environmental and climate change concerns, don’t address issues of land use, health, infrastructure supply, or safety implications associated with personal vehicles. At the same time, applying pricing mechanisms alone as a deterrent to car use without providing affordable and practical alternatives only adds to the economic burdens of the working poor and elderly on fixed incomes.

And last but not least, an emerging cultural shift among the young millennial generation coupled with a rapidly growing population of seniors means that more and more seniors are not able to drive, and young people are less interested in driving or at least in owning a car.

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 especially 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.

Supported by the Alcoa Foundation Advancing Sustainability Research Initiative, SMART (a cross-university initiative at the University of Michigan) has been collaborating with local and regional partners to understand and accelerate development of the New Mobility Grids, and related economic benefits and opportunities specific to the Beijing and Detroit regions. The Advancing Sustainability Research Initiative supports innovative research that advances knowledge and develops actionable solutions to today’s most pressing sustainability challenges.

Our mission at SMART is to innovate multi-modal, systems-based transportation solutions and approaches, and to accelerate their implementation, commercialization and uptake. This project’s goal is to transcend barriers to sustainable transportation in city regions worldwide by learning from applied research in the two test regions. By working with other regions in India, South Africa, Brazil, the Philippines, and the U.S., SMART has evolved an approach to implementing systems rather than just single modes. We have also focused on the emerging global industry cluster that will supply the future of transportation, and regional opportunities building on regional strengths.

But Beijing and Detroit are two very different regions. For example a key barrier to adoption of sustainable transportation in the Detroit region is the sheer lack of options and economic base to support it. A key barrier in the Beijing region is the lack of connectivity between options (modes, services, technologies) to enable a sustainable door-to-door trip along with a rapid move towards motorization (and related status) that has accompanied China’s economic growth. It is also a challenge to secure data to work with in China. The two cities are also very different in terms of how public policy does or doesn’t work to support transportation solutions. Where Chinese decision-making is generally highly centralized, top down and government driven, the Detroit region’s political structure is more fragmented, rendering coherent decisions of regional significance very difficult at this time. However the Detroit region has strong industry roots and related business opportunities that could be nurtured whereas change through individual enterprise and innovation is a little less prominent in Beijing at this time.

The questions we are asking for both regions include: what does sustainable transportation look like in such diverse regions as Beijing and Detroit? What are the barriers to adoption of multi-modal, IT-enhanced door-to-door transportation? How do individuals and policy makers make decisions about transportation? What industries clusters, enterprises and policies will/must arise to support (and take advantage of) the transformation? How can we mobilize and accelerate these industries and policies? Who needs to be at the table?

This project works in collaboration to transcend the challenges and take advantage of the particular regional strengths in developing systems-based transportation solutions and opportunities. In this way we hope that the big and small lessons to be learned from each region, however different from each other can perhaps be applied elsewhere to support sustainability and economic vitality globally.


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