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Vision for sustainable mobility discussed

Is sustainable mobility an oxymoron?

The general consensus among more than 200 policy makers, transportation researchers and other professionals attending a May 3 conference on the subject was that sustainable transportation is viable, but solutions must be interdisciplinary and policy-relevant.

"Clearly, sustainable mobility falls into the integrative territories between the fields of social science and engineering," said Professor David Marks, director of MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. "Much better solutions can be developed through conversations among engineers and social scientists."

Marks was among 21 speakers at "Sustainable Mobility: Global Challenges for the 21st Century." The conference highlighted the report "Mobility 2001," released last fall as a first step toward developing a vision of more sustainable mobility in the future.

Prepared by researchers from MIT and Charles River Associates, "Mobility 2001" is the most comprehensive and large-scale global initiative in sustainable transport. It was commissioned by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Conference speakers addressed the seven grand challenges identified in Mobility 2001, reflecting an integrative approach needed in both developed and developing countries. They included MIT researchers, transportation consultants from the U.S. and United Kingdom, the former mayor of Bogot������, Colombia, and industry and WBCSD executives.

John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory and the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said that "the environmental impacts [of transportation] are significant, growing and unsustainable." Nonetheless, "there is hope that technology will allow us to continue to indulge our appetites ... Improving mainstream technology can make transportation more efficient and provide more effective emission control systems." He noted, however, that petroleum-based fuels will continue to dominate.

Traditional mindsets may continue to dominate, too. As transportation consultant C. Kenneth Orski noted, "Americans remain stubbornly attached to their cars. Over 88 percent use them to get to work, most driving alone. Car sharing would be a viable option."

In a panel on urban transportation in developing countries, George Eads, vice president of Charles River Associates, said that "the grand challenges are ones that companies can't solve on their own. There is need, therefore, to reinvent the process of planning, developing, financing and managing the mobility infrastructure."

Enrique Pe�alosa, former mayor of Bogot������, gave an impassioned talk about needs and priorities in developing countries. He discussed several successful projects related to sustainable development in his city. Among them: a new bus-based transit system, regeneration of plazas and green space for children and lower-income citizens, and construction of hundreds of miles of sidewalks, bike paths and pedestrian streets.

"In a city where 90 percent of the people still go without shoes and only a small minority have cars, the issue was not pollution," he explained. "It was about designing systems that were more egalitarian, more sustainable and within reach of our very reduced economic capacities."

"Mobility affects so many things--accessibility, the economy, land use, the environment. But in all of today's sessions there is a remarkable amount of consensus. People are working together to develop solutions and an institutional framework," concluded Daniel Roos, associate dean for engineering systems and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems.

The conference was cosponsored by the MIT Engineering Systems Division, MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the WBCSD.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 15, 2002.

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