Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sustainable transportation discussion highlights the Swiss way

The transportation sector accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s energy usage and more than half of its petroleum consumption. As climate change concerns intersect with an economic crisis and a new U.S. administration, now is the time for a dialogue about sustainable transportation, experts say.

On the highest outdoor cogwheel railway in Europe, two trains cross near the mountain village of Zermatt in Switzerland. (Photo courtesy of the Swiss Embassy)

At a panel discussion on March 11, international, state and local officials and experts will discuss what U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) Director Peter Sweatman calls the $64,000 question: How can the nation make transportation more sustainable?

“It’s the $64,000 question for the nation and the state,” Sweatman says. “We’ve got these potential new technologies that will be reducing greenhouse gas emissions and oil dependence, but we’ve got a huge transportation system out there, with billions of trips every day. We need to understand the systems elements as well as how these new technologies can be deployed and made more attractive and cheaper. There’s a lot of work to be done in understanding how this is going to happen.”

Sweatman will be joined on the panel by Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation; John Hieftje, mayor of Ann Arbor; and Urs Ziswiler, ambassador of Switzerland to the United States.

Ziswiler will outline the approach in his country, where residents take public transportation for 19 percent of their trips, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. By contrast, in the United States, residents take 2 percent of their trips by public transportation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Switzerland is in the middle of an ambitious 20-year railway project to tunnel through the Alps, increasing passenger and freight capacity on one of the main European north-south routes. At 35.5 miles, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will be the longest in the world when it’s finished in 2017. Its $8.7 billion price is being covered by a $28.5-billion, 20-year transportation fund that Swiss voters approved in 1998. That’s equivalent to a $1.5 trillion commitment in the United States, according to the Swiss Embassy.

“Switzerland has a tremendous focus on public transportation,” says professor Thomas Zurbuchen, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering. Zurbuchen, who is from Switzerland, organized this event.

“It’s going to be a really interesting discussion, because you have two ends of the spectrum, with Switzerland and Michigan. The speakers will address to what extent public transportation and electric vehicles can bring Michigan forward.”

The panel discussion takes place from 5-6 p.m. March 11 in the Boeing Lecture Hall in the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Building at 1320 Beal Avenue on North Campus.

On display from 4-8 p.m. March 11 will be the Embassy of Switzerland’s traveling exhibit, “ThinkSwiss: The Challenge of Sustainable Transportation for the 21st Century: The Prospects for Switzerland and the U.S.” The exhibit shows the strengths and challenges of the Swiss public transportation system, including its New Rail Link through the Alps. This will also be on display from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. March 12 in the Duderstadt Connector in front of the Chrysler Center on North Campus.