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Reducing our reliance on cars: The shifting future of urban transportation

“We need to start thinking broadly about mobility.”

By Dylan Walsh  |  December 13, 2017

fastersmarter-cover

People should have a range of transportation options, such as bus, trains, and bike shares.

Why It Matters

Our reliance on cars has led to increased air pollution and congestion in cities. But cultural shifts and new technologies have presented a new way to think about urban transportation.

In 2005, 66 million cars were sold worldwide. By 2025, Goldman Sachs predicts that number to increase to 112 million.

The prevalence of cars has had unintended consequences, though. “Across the world we have high levels of local air pollution in cities, high levels of carbon pollution leading to greenhouse gas effects, and high levels of congestion,” said Charles Fine, a professor at MIT Sloan and whose research focuses on supply chain strategy. “The continued growth of automobile usage is not sustainable.”

In “Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility,” Fine and co-authors Venkat Sumantran, chairman of Celeris Technologies, and David Gonsalvez, CEO and rector at MIT’s Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation, outline an answer to the problematic dominance of cars in urban mobility. The convergence of new technologies and shifting culture offer a new way to think about transportation, centered on what the authors call the “CHIP architecture.”

What are the core issues addressed in this book?
We have numerous sustainability challenges in today’s automotive, or mobility, industries. Our book, which looks primarily at urban mobility, is about understanding these challenges and looking for paths to improvement. For many people, the current solution is to own a car. You keep that car in your garage or in a parking space. Whenever you need mobility, you get in your car, go where you need to go, and look for parking.

So how do we get people to use alternative modes — walking, biking, buses, trains, and subways? The answer is going to be driven by improving our mobility systems to encourage a significant fraction of people to get out of their cars. In order to do that, those alternative choices have to be made more attractive and useful using the CHIP architecture: increasing connectivity, heterogeneity, intelligence, and personalization.

These four factors are universal, whether you’re in New York City, Mumbai, London, Shanghai, or Rio de Janeiro. Different cities will come up with different solutions based on topography, culture, and existing infrastructure, but these core principles can guide innovation in mobility.  

What’s CHIP?

C = Connectivity. Cities need to make it easier for residents to move between different modes of transportation — walk from home to the train, take the train to a bike share. “Create high connectivity between modes so that the transition costs are low,” Fine said. Also make payment systems seamless; people don’t want to pull out their credit cards every time they change modes.

H = Heterogeneity. People should have a range of options when it comes to getting where they want to go: bus, trains, car-shares, and bike-shares, among others. These options should be more energy efficient than single-occupancy cars. Cities also need to support an array of infrastructure solutions like bike lanes and sidewalks to connect the various modes.

I = Intelligence. Big data and analytics should be used to build smart CHIP infrastructure, with apps available that help people find routes and read about weather and traffic. “Data is about having the state of the system available at your fingertips,” Fine said. “What are the different options, and where, when, and how are all these options available?”

P = Personalization. All trips must be optimized on a person-by-person basis, and different people prioritize different things when traveling: cost, speed, carbon footprint, aesthetics, safety. “Personalization implies not just an app that crunches numbers, but one that does it for what you want at any given point,” Fine said.

You make a distinction between the car — historically a cornerstone of American culture — and mobility. Why is that important?
For 100 years, the car has been a super attractive mobility solution. That’s because cars are relatively cheap to operate, comfortable, have entertainment in them, feel safe, and are relatively speedy. In many countries, governments have also invested a huge amount in roadways. So cars have long been the mobility solution. 

But cars have their problems, such as pollution and congestion, and we’re now paying the price as we try to figure out how to redesign our cities to respond to the effects of relying on them for so long. We need to start thinking broadly about mobility.

How do public and private spheres work together to facilitate this infrastructure development?
Big car companies played a huge role in developing cars as attractive. General Motors notoriously bought up all the rail lines in Los Angeles to pave them over. The Eisenhower administration decided to build interstate highways; the famous saying at that time was “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” In some sense, the car company’s agenda became synonymous with government objectives.

We now live in a world where these objectives are not as well-aligned. Maybe the objective of a car company is to sell more cars, but most cities are actually trying to figure out how to have fewer cars.

Cities and other levels of government need to reassert themselves and, in some sense, take over the governance of regional mobility systems. This is a challenge in places where every suburban town and city has its own laws and governance processes. So how do you work across all these government entities to build consensus around a different set of solutions?

There aren’t easy answers, but government has to get in front. We need a regulatory structure and government actors who push for the wellbeing of society as a whole. The system needs to encourage innovation; we want to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with new ideas, like Uber, Tesla, or Zipcar. But at the same time, we need to create a framework whereby entrepreneurs are going to enter into the system in a way that’s going to help it, not hurt it.

Is there technology you see on the horizon that is going to accelerate this shift? 
One important technology is big data analytics — the ability to gather, organize, and analyze large amounts of data effectively and to write applications that utilize that data to come up with better solutions at both individual and collective levels. Broadly, this technology is going to be helpful for addressing these problems.

But, to a significant degree, this is a people challenge: How do we influence the behavior of companies and entrepreneurs? How do we influence the behavior of government officials and city planners? And how do we influence the behavior of consumers? Even if we have CHIP, how do we get people to change their behaviors? It’s not immediately obvious.

Did you change your mind about anything while working on this book?
One of the refinements of my thinking was the realization that reducing the number of cars on the road is more important than electrifying them. We just have too many, and congestion problems are not going to be solved by electrification. Rather than invest in more electrics, perhaps we should take the same amount of investment dollars and put them into CHIP instead — get more people out of their cars as opposed to get more people into electric cars.