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Sustainable Transportation–Twists, Turns and Potentially Huge Rewards

For the visionary who transforms America’s transportation system, the potential payoff is enough to make even Bill Gates blink. Transportation and related challenges—from gridlock and long commutes to the loss of farmland and decline of inner cities—were examined from multiple perspectives at “Mobility in a Sustainable World: A Complex Systems Approach,” a conference held at the Michigan Business School and supported by such high-profile sponsors as Ford Motor Company’s Research and Advanced Engineering Group and the National Science Foundation.

At the conference organized last summer by the University of Michigan’s Erb Environmental Management Institute and Center for the Study of Complex Systems (CSCS), participants used for the first time the science of complex systems to begin to create a road map for transportation’s future. In essence, the ultimate question is who will be the Henry Ford of the new millennium? Who will transform transportation as we know it?

When Henry Ford designed the Model T in 1908, the inventor promised “to build a motorcar for the great multitude,” giving “a large number of men employment at good wages” and enabling families to enjoy “the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” The automobile has brought unparalleled economic and social benefits in the form of convenience, empowerment, independence, economic productivity and accessibility to markets, healthcare, education, culture and employment. Unfortunately the American dream—car ownership and a home in the suburbs—also has a darker side.

“Our love affair with fossil fuel-based, sprawl-inducing, auto-centered transport systems is ruining the environment,” says Thomas N. Gladwin, MBA ’71, PhD ’75, the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Business School.

Gladwin’s proof points, numerous and discouraging, include: greenhouse gas generation leading to climate disruption, air and noise pollution, biodiversity loss induced by habitat fragmentation, polluted runoff and stratospheric ozone depletion.

“We live in a world of interlocking systems. We can’t separate things into politics, economics, science, ecology and culture. Everything is intertwined,” Ford Motor Chairman and CEO William Clay Ford Jr. recently observed. Scholars, researchers, urban planners, government officials, corporate executives and environmental advocates explored how to ensure future generations can expand upon Henry Ford’s dream—to have good jobs and enjoy nature’s open spaces with a next-generation transportation system that is life-supporting, both ecologically and socially. “It’s the grand challenge of our time,” Gladwin says.

The Science of Complexity

A mobility system, like a family or ecosystem or economy, can be viewed as a complex system, said Michigan’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems Director Carl P. Simon. The University of Michigan is a pioneer in complexity science. Simon described the workshop’s mission as “beginning to harness the emerging science of complexity to design mobility systems that serve to secure a sustainable human future.” Think of the players involved: consumers, politicians, transport and energy companies, land developers, bankers, regulators, planners, voters and action groups, all with different interests, preferences and strategies. They interact with each other in complex, convoluted ways shaped by history, context and institutions. It is a system that is unsustainable, Simon explained. It represents trillions of small-scale, short-term decisions made by individuals. All of the decisions appear to be rational actions by individual decision makers, but when taken together the decisions often produce collectively adverse results.

Although the science of complexity is still in its infancy, workshop participants concluded it offers potential for providing new questions, concepts, design principles and methodologies for modeling, simulating and developing strategies for human mobility systems in harmony with nature, justice and the future. The complex systems approach may help pinpoint a small set of critical variables and processes that control and guide the evolution of mobility systems, thus discovering the “leverage or tipping points” through which these systems are capable of promoting positive change, says Gladwin, adding, “Complexity science may be the key to the transformational change and to out-of-the-box solutions that will be required.”

For example, Brad Allenby of AT&T described how teleworking saved AT&T more than $150 million in real estate costs, productivity increases, and retention and recruitment benefits. Sue Zielinksi, of Moving the Economy in Toronto, provided an upbeat vision of the “New Mobility,” i.e., integrated, smart, clean, service-oriented and user-focused, made possible by Internet, wireless, smartcard, electronic payment and e-commerce applications.

Communities must focus on accessibility rather than mobility, said Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, who called for “transit-oriented development” that mixes higher residential density with shops and employment, yielding fewer and shorter automobile trips. Gladwin, director of the Erb Environmental Management Institute, urged participants to consider nature’s wisdom as a source of design inspiration:

“From 3.8 billion years of R & D we know that natural systems move and access things via a diverse array of strategies and processes; powered by the sun; working through mutual associations; relying on local sourcing, adaptation and expertise; minimizing travel by working and living in the same place; producing little waste; paying attention to limits and curbing excesses via self-regulation; employing artifacts self-assembled in water without toxins, all according to a logic of getting better rather than bigger. Surely we can learn from this.”

Kenneth C. Hass, manager of the Physical & Environmental Science Department of Ford Motor Company, praised workshop participants for embracing the full scope and diversity of the issues and outlining a research agenda that offers new ways of thinking about how global transportation systems have evolved and what changes might be needed to ensure a more sustainable path forward.

The conference offered a glimpse of a larger and longer-term partnership, the “Initiative on Mobility in a Sustainable World,” launched by the Erb Institute, CSCS and Ford to develop a program of research and policy formation and implementation to create mobility/accessibility systems consistent with a sustainable human future.

Created in 1996 through the generosity of Frederick A. Erb, BBA ’47, and his wife Barbara, the Erb Environmental Management Institute is jointly administered by the Business School and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. As part of an agreement with the World Resources Institute (WRI), the initiative will collaborate with WRI to explore agent-based modeling of the transport systems of such congested, polluted megacities as Mexico City and Shanghai.

The initiative will include graduate seminars, senior executive programs, workshops, speaker series and faculty research projects focusing on complexity, mobility and sustainability. Three dozen Michigan professors, deans and external scholars are participating. The initiative is one of the first research projects to be supported by the University’s new Center for the Advancement of Behavioral and Social Science designed to provide opportunities for faculty to work with scholars and non-academics from around the world on innovative, high-risk collaborative projects addressing some of society’s most pressing problems.

Noting the University’s tradition of encouraging transformative research that crosses disciplinary boundaries, University Provost Paul Courant saluted workshop participants for “working on problems that are too hard to solve,” adding “this is exactly what the University of Michigan ought to be about.”

To learn more, visit:

Also, see "More About Mobility in a Sustainable World" in this Special Report for links to two dozen conference presentations at and additional links to Web sites devoted to sustainable mobility.

For more information, contact: Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847

(Back to the Sustainable Transportation Special Report)