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Updated 1:00 PM June 30, 2003



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Panel: No fast lane to sustainable mobility

There are many highly interconnected factors to consider when planning for the future of transportation and traffic flow, including public transit, alternative energy vehicles, land-use patterns, air and noise pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, said panelists at a recent conference hosted by U-M.
Dan Brown, associate professor at U-M. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

One panelist at the sustainable transportation session of the workshop, "Mobility in a Sustainable World: A Complex Systems Approach," regularly sees some of the traffic problems these experts are trying to solve.

"When I drive from Chicago to Madison, there always seems to be 17 miles of unhappy people [backed up in a traffic jam] followed by 35 miles of people as happy as can be," said David Griffeath, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It is always funny to know what [the happy drivers] are in for."

Griffeath was a panelist at the June 20 event at the Business School's Hale Auditorium. Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Complex Systems and the Erb Environmental Management Institute, the conference's focus was the sustainable mobility challenge—to ensure that future generations have access to adequate mobility resources to meet their needs and aspirations while maintaining the health, integrity and resilience of supporting environmental and social systems.

The challenges of sustainable mobility come at a time when models show the Earth is at 122 percent of its carrying capacity, said James Motavalli, editor of the environmental publication E Magazine. Motavalli said 75 percent of Americans drive to work alone every day, and of the 1 billion trips Americans make each day, 900 million are by car and only 19 million, or 2 percent, are by public transit.

"I often say that if I was a commuter in 1910, I could probably get to work quicker than I can now," said Motavalli, who is encouraged by a 22-percent increase since 1996 in the use of public transit. "The system in place back then was far more efficient and faster than today."

Griffeath said a mathematician's view of traffic jams suggests that acceleration is the key ingredient. Theoretically there would be an enormous improvement in traffic flow if the slow-start aspect were eliminated, he said.

It is necessary to think outside the box, said George Eads, vice president of Charles River Associates Inc., an economics, finance and business consulting firm. Eads, who serves as consultant on a sustainable mobility project for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said by 2030 the population living solely in urbanized areas in the developing world will equal the world's 1975 population.

"Most people think of cars as the issue, but movement of freight accounts for a very high proportion of transport energy use—much higher than what people think," Eads said. "The issues of sustainable mobility are highly interconnected. It is about the environment, but also more than the environment."

The environment, specifically land use, is an important factor in sustainable mobility, said Dan Brown, associate professor of natural resources and environment at U-M. Brown is working on a time-series study of development patterns in southeast Michigan during the last 50 years. He said mobility and land use share an important interaction.

"To say that one causes the other, or vice-versa, is wrong," Brown said. "The most efficient uses of transportation are affected by land-use patterns, and land-use patterns are affected by modes and efficiency of transportation."

Brown said the problem is best studied through computer modeling. He noted that science makes progress through experimentation; unfortunately, he added, experimenting on cities, landscapes and regions is illegal, immoral and unlikely.

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