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Attitudes toward cars must change, speakers say

The developing world must "shift gears" toward policies of car sharing, congestion pricing and urban planning to cope with the crowding and pollution caused by the rise of urban automobile traffic, Professor Ralph Gakenheimer told alumni in Kresge Auditorium at Saturday's Technology Day program focusing on the car.

Pedestrian traffic is decreasing and bicycle traffic is holding steady, while automobile traffic is on the rise in much of China, said Gakenheimer, professor of urban studies and planning and civil and environmental engineering.

"All over China, the government is actively repressing the use of bicycles, which are truly a democratic form of transportation. There are 1.8 bicycles per family in China. And families are small, so that's practically a bicycle for every person," he said.

"Congestion is not a factor of the number of cars, but of the speed of change in that number," said Gakenheimer. He showed a slide with average commute times for cities including Jakarta (82 minutes) and Manila (120 minutes).

On the other hand, Joseph F. Coughlin, a researcher in the Center for Transportation and Logistics and director of the MIT AgeLab, is seeking ways to keep people in their cars longer, or for more years anyway. Coughlin studies the problems of transportation faced by older adults in the United States.

He described the "longevity paradox"--"Now that you're living longer, what are you going to do? Where are you going to live? How are you going to get around?"

Studies indicate that the words most often used by senior citizens in describing their driver's licenses are freedom and independence. "A driver's license is a critical part of their identity," said Coughlin, who described a California study that asked people age 65 and over what driving means to them.

"The worst thing they could imagine happening to them was being diagnosed with a fatal disease. The second worst thing: losing their driver's license. And to show you just how the spouse rates, the number-three worst thing was a spouse being diagnosed with a fatal disease," said Coughlin. "One Boston-area man who was interviewed said, 'You can always get another wife, but you can only get one driver's license.'"

Other speakers at "Shifting Gears," which examined some of the challenges and solutions associated with the automobile, were professors Daniel Roos (S.B. 1961, S.M., Ph.D.), John B. Heywood (S.M. 1962, Ph.D.), Ernest J. Moniz and William Mitchell, as well as Anne Asensio of General Motors Design and Dean Kamen, chairman of Segway LLC and founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 9, 2004 (download PDF).

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