Transportation @ MIT Rethinks Everything
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
“We’re literally reinventing the wheel,” says William Mitchell, director of the Media Lab Smart Cities Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mitchell points to the revolutionary in-wheel traction and steering system of the CityCar, a stackable, all-electric, two-passenger vehicle that could radically alter personal urban transportation. Mitchell is right — with no steering wheel, no central motor or drive train, and the ability to be picked up and dropped off at multiple charging stations in virtually any city in the world, CityCar owes little if anything to conventional automotive thinking. And that’s a good thing.
A new program applies MIT’s collective smarts to the problem of moving around.
Transportation @ MIT is a vast undertaking that brings together multiple disciplines and schools within an institute that is, by myth and reality, the geek capital of the world. What better place to take on a problem so inextricably linked to data and technology? Where else to analyze the world’s urban infrastructure and how it can best facilitate the efficient and ecologically sound movement of people and goods?
Because of the size and complexity of both the issue and the institute, it’s not surprising that the initiative is made up of a sometimes confusing alphabet soup of acronyms and project names: ITEAM (Integrated Transport, Energy and Activitybased Model), CityMotion, Smart City, SENSEable City Lab, and Mobility-On-Demand, among many others. But leaders of Transportation @ MIT believe that, collectively, all of these efforts can galvanize public awareness of transportation as an urgent national issue, attract research funding, and encourage cross-disciplinary academic collaboration.
“As a starting point, we did a survey of 1,200 MIT faculty members and asked them if the research they were doing could be applied to transportation,” said Cynthia Barnhart, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Engineering and director of the initiative. “We were amazed when 338 — more than a quarter of them — said yes. So we decided to start a program that would leverage all of this expertise.” While officially under the auspices of the School of Engineering, Transportation @ MIT bridges that sector with the School of Architecture + Planning and the Sloan School of Management.
For more than a century, architects and urban planners have recognized the interdependence of transportation and the design of buildings and cities. But it’s historically been a top-down process — planners and designers foisting their grand visions on an often-reluctant public. Witness Le Corbusier, who in his epochal treatise Radiant City, felt it was well within his purview to dictate the exact route that residents of a high-rise would take to their cars. Now, technology is allowing researchers to mine a rich store of information from the bottom up — gauging how people actually live and making transportation planning decisions accordingly.
“There’s a wealth of data already there, with iPhones and GPS systems,” said Christopher Zegras, an urban planner and one of the researchers behind ITEAM, the transport and energy component of the initiative. “The problem with urban-planning data in the past was that you’d do surveys and traffic counts, but people tended to tell you what you wanted to hear, so it was very unreliable.” But now, in a program called CityMotion that has been applied in places like Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, volunteers agree to have their exact modes of transportation (rail, car, bus), time of day, walking routes, origins, and destinations all tracked in real time, which in turn informs decisions about transit subsidies and urban-planning interventions. Paired with this, transit agencies around the world are increasingly making available to the public real-time, GPS-generated information about the exact location of trains and buses.
John Attanucci, an MIT civil engineering lecturer, is frustrated that more American transit agencies don’t leverage this valuable information. “Most of the agencies already have this data and are not using it to best advantage,” he said. “Every semester, I get computer-science students asking me why the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] won’t release their automatic data location system, which the students want to load onto their iPhones.” He added that a pilot program at MIT has a microchip embedded into volunteer student and faculty ID cards, tracking their to-and-fro much as an iPhone can. The institute then plans to review the data as part of its parking and mass-transit subsidy program — with the goal of promoting greater use of public transportation.
Indeed, understanding where people want to go proves to be just as important as considering how they get there. “Subways and high-speed rail lines are fixed infrastructure, and that’s where our little cars come in. The train station is never your point of origin or final destination,” said the Media Lab’s Mitchell, former dean of the MIT School of Architecture + Planning. The CityCar resembles, and is about the same size as, the increasingly ubiquitous Smart Car. And yet it is fundamentally different. Motors embedded in each of the four wheels propel it forward, and a “drive by wire” system controls the steering instead of the usual mechanical arms and gears. This leaves a surprising amount of passenger room — about as much interior space as a 3-Series BMW, according to Ryan Chin, a research assistant at the Media Lab.
“It can fit two people very comfortably,” Chin said, adding that the entire outer shell is hinged at the center, allowing it to “fold” into the most minuscule parking space and be “stacked” at a train or bus station, where it will recharge until a customer simply swipes a credit card, as with Zipcar, to gain access. Furthermore, the hinge serves as a safety device — absorbing impact in a crash. The car can also turn on its own axis. The Media Lab is at present vying for a grant from the US Department of Energy for a pilot program to place 100 CityCars on the streets of Boston.
A metaphor equating a city to a biological organism runs through the entire enterprise. Professor John Fernandez uses the term “urban metabolism” to describe not just the movement of people but also of material.
The RoboScooter and GreenWheel bicycle round out the “personal transportation” triumvirate currently being developed at the Media Lab. The scooter is also a stackable electric vehicle, with a center hinge that allows it to be folded up to the size of a large suitcase and carried. The GreenWheel bicycle is a standard-issue bike that has an electric motor, battery, and generator all embedded into an aluminum-pancake rear hub. The Media Lab envisions developing kits whereby bike owners can do the simple retrofit themselves. According to Mitchell, the GreenWheel can give a 25-mile-plus range, and more if you choose to pedal. The focus now is on making bike stands and charging stations work as places for casual and spontaneous human interaction.
“Paris has demonstrated the success of bike sharing,” Mitchell said, referring to a program called Vélib’, a Gallic melding of the words velo (bike) and liberté. “But what you want when designing a system is what I call the ‘village well’ effect. I understand that in Paris the place to pick up bikes is also the place to pick up girls.”
For all of the importance of ground transportation, civil aviation remains a crucial transportation infrastructure around the world. MIT aeronautics gurus are working on a program called NASA N+3, funded by the space agency, that envisions what a commercial airliner three generations hence will look like. In addition to trying to develop a more fuel-efficient plane, the teams are working to reduce noise and pollution — both of which make building new airports and runways in the US virtually impossible.
“It took 28 years just to get the most recent runway at Logan Airport open,” said John Hansman, Jr., director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation. “People would rather have a nuclear power plant next to them than an airport.”
Researchers in the N+3 program are doing work that seems equal parts Jetsons and Flintstones — exploring futuristic looking, silent “flying wing” aircraft, as well as alternative fuels that can be grown or extracted from the earth. “Jet fuel has to be liquid,” said Jim Hileman, an MIT engineer on the N+3 team. “But the technology exists to develop jet fuel from natural and biological sources.” Hileman and a team of engineers are already studying the viability of synthetic liquids from coal and the organic matter known as “biomass.”
A metaphor equating a city to a biological organism is one that runs through the entire Transportation @ MIT enterprise. John Fernandez, associate professor of building technology, uses the relatively new term “urban metabolism” to describe not just the movement of people but also of material — an increasingly urgent concern for architects and planners. “We have to be concerned with what materials are needed, where they come from, and how much waste they produce,” Fernandez said. “So someone doing a material flow analysis of Phoenix can use the same standards as someone doing an analysis of Boston.”
Just as the earth’s natural systems underpin the work at Transportation @ MIT, so does economics. John Sterman, a professor of management at the MIT Sloan School, is doing in-depth studies of how, when, and why consumers will adopt private transportation modes using alternative energy. In turn-of-the-19th-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, he notes, electric vehicles, both private and public, were thought to be the future. But the petroleum-powered internal-combustion engine quickly triumphed and remains dominant today due to the rapid construction of the required infrastructure, such as gas stations and highways.
“What would happen today if an alternative fuel source were available with all of the features of a gasoline-powered, standard internal combustion engine? The answer is, not much,” Sterman said. “There’s no alternative-fuel infrastructure. Low gasoline taxes, the dominance of the petroleum industry, settlement patterns, and transportation networks have all favored the gasoline-powered engine.” Now, he said, policy-makers must enable the “diffusion” of alternative fuel sources until their infrastructure reaches a critical mass. In much the same way, he added, they must also use the “lever” of pricing as a means of decreasing reliance on the automobile.
“We’ve long privileged automotive travel at the expense of other modes,” Sterman said. “Pricing of what we call common-good resources — roads, rail, airports, and other infrastructure — is an important tool. People think roads are free, but they’re not.”