Car free cities, a dream that cannot come true? The example of France

By Clementine Contat

Cars are certainly a very convenient way to commute, but they offer multiple inconvenient, especially in an urban context. First, they’re a major source of urban pollution and according to the French ministry of environment, air pollution would diminish life expectancy by 9 months in France and exposure to fine particles would cause 40,00 deaths each year.[i] Still in the heath side, cars contribute to the lack of physical activity observed in the modern population and are detrimental to health. They also generate traffic and accidents and are majors source of noise and visual pollution, which create unnecessary stress. And last but not least, cars are also harming the city budget. A study from the European Commission carried in 1991 showed that “car free” town would be 2 to 5 times less expensive than cities with cars.[ii] Continue reading

Collaborative Consumption: Un-settling the situation

By Brett

I recently attended an excellent presentation by Robin Chase, the founder of ZipCar[1], in which she described the early obstacles to implementing ZipCar in the US.[2] In this post I will focus on Professor Macomber’s Framework #3 and argue that the innovation of collaborative consumption is that it blurs or ‘moves’ situations within the matrix framed. Zipcar used a new business model specifically to unsettle the transit situation in the US, thus creating an investment opportunity.

Chase explained how the settled systems of hard and soft infrastructure—including zoning, parking, and wireless technology—stood in the way of effective collaborative consumption of rental cars. For example, ‘normal’ (non-ZipCar) renters are charged a small tax (~$10) by the state for every rental.[3] An additional $10 fee for every single Zipcar use would have been a serious blow to Chase’s business plan. Instead (with the help of a good lawyer) Zipcar builds one $10 fee into the annual membership for Massachusetts users and every subsequent use is part of the same initial rental. As this example shows, entrenched interests had settled the system in favor of their own designs and ZipCar had to disrupt the infrastructure to create a viable market for its product. Continue reading

Time to Rethink the Urban Freeway

By Kevin McDonald

The limited-access highway has deemed by planners, environmentalists and much of the public at-large to be an unsustainable urban form of transportation. The unsustainability is driven by three elements of this facility: 1) non-renewable gasoline to power automobiles that use the highway, 2) the noise, disruption and pollution created by the automobile’s engine and operations, 3) energy-intensive forms of the built environment.  These key issues are juxtaposed against the indelible strength of the limited-access highway: point-to-point transportation that efficiently and quickly delivers goods and people.  In the US, those arguing against the sustainability of the urban freeway appear to have the day- the country has only added 2% to its 1980 levels of urban mileage. Recent technology innovations have mitigated the negative externalities of the urban freeway. This begs the question: is it time to rethink opposition to new investments in urban highway lane miles? Continue reading

Beijing Commuting System: Challenges And Reactions In Urbanization

 By Lynsey Mengchen He

Every time I’ve been stuck in traffic for hours, I have always imagined myself driving a car like the one Christian Bale drove in the Batman movies. No matter how quickly a city expands geographically, transit can hardly keep up with the exponential growth of population as urbanization progresses.  Central areas usually receive the major commuting pressure, and existing infrastructure within those areas is almost impossible to reconstruct.  The “TransMilenio” case reminded me of how Beijing, a city with population of over 20 million[1], has fought for the better functioning of its commuter transit system. Continue reading

Dynamic Tolling: Good for Most

By Jane Silfen

Variable toll pricing is used to regulate demand and, therefore, capture the value of motorists’ time savings.[1] Dynamic toll pricing is popular in Europe and limited U.S. evidence seems positive. However, faced with environmental, budgetary, and socioeconomic challenges, how should transportation authorities consider the benefits and complications of variable pricing?

Dynamic tolling does seem effective in reducing congestion and capturing perceived time savings.  A study of SR-91 in California concluded that most drivers use the express lane some, but not all, of the time dependent largely on the hour-by-hour price differentiation. The study also found that drivers overestimated—and thus were willing to overpay for—the amount of time they saved.[2] Increased interested in managed lanes is evident from Texas to Colorado to Virginia, among others, suggesting perceived environmental benefits from reduced emissions and economic benefits from reduced congestion and incremental revenues.

This narrative makes sense in theory, but I would add a practical concern about the economics of variable pricing. It seems harder to forecast, particularly for greenfield projects. Toll authorities (and potential investors) must speculate on both demand for a route and willingness to pay for that route. Amid tight public budgets and spooked markets, does variable pricing provide net incremental value or risk?

Equity is also a matter of theory versus practice. Dynamic tolling is theoretically fair. Those who ascribe a higher value to their time should use express lanes more frequently and at a higher cost. This argument seems to hold up with both motorists and the public, with the U.S. Department of Transportation concluding that, “the perception that congestion pricing is an inequitable way of responding to the problem of traffic congestion does not appear to be borne out.”[3] Practically, though, this means that rich people—whose time is worth more because they make more—take the express lanes, almost always, and poor people—whose time is worth less because they make less—take the free lanes, mostly. Might this give rich people more time to make more money, and poor people less time to make more money? In  a country marked by widening income dispersion, is good transportation policy good public policy?

On balance variable tolling seems good for most: drivers have more choice, roads make more money, air and noise pollution from congestion goes down. However, there are some additional questions that toll authorities should consider before continuing the rollout of managed lanes across the U.S.

[1] “Managed Lanes: A Cross-Cutting Study,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration Office of Operations, November 16, 2006 accessed via on February 10, 2013


[2] “Continuation Study to Evaluate the Impacts of the SR 91 Value-Priced Express Lanes Final Report,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration Tolling and Pricing Program, April 20, 2011, accessed via on February 10, 2013

[3] “Income-Based Equity Impacts on Congestion Pricing – A Primer,” Federal Highway Administration Tolling and Pricing Program, May 8, 2009, accessed via on February 10, 2013

Why do we drive smart cars but live in dumb homes?

By Jan Dolezal

Cars were very simple thirty years ago, but today an average passenger car contains about 100 microprocessors and 5 miles of wiring. Electronics accounts for about a third of the car cost. Customers are happy to pay that, because they know car intelligence increases safety, comfort and performance while reducing operating costs. But look at your home – it is almost as primitive as homes used to be some three decades ago. Building intelligence could also significantly improve safety, comfort and performance of homes. We spend more time in buildings than in cars so why on Earth do we live in such dumb houses?

We have all the required technology to build smart HVAC systems that reduce temperature when you are not at home and restore it automatically before your arrival, run non-critical appliances in energy off-peaks or automatically control angle of window shades to assist with passive heating and cooling. But a combination of factors has prevented the same smartening revolution that transformed the automotive industry occur in the construction industry.

  • Developing countries are still struggling with sufficient housing quantity and wait for innovation to come from developed countries. However unlike mass-produced cars, majority of houses in developed countries are unique and designing smart systems for individual installations is uneconomical.
  • Building automation is either expensive or unreliable. Bringing together all the smart components into a system is very costly in individual installations due to lots of professional human labor involved. Do-it-yourself wireless systems are cheap, but often fail the same way a DYI car is likely to face problems.
  • The construction cycle for buildings is longer than for cars and therefore innovation slower. Developers don’t possess smart house expertise required to include smart systems cheaply during construction and retrofitting later is expensive.
  • Even though buildings consume more energy and produce more emissions than cars, there is lack of regulations. While there are stringent requirements for car emissions, there are currently no mandatory requirements for energy consumption of residential buildings and very few requirements for commercial buildings.
  • There are split-incentives. For rental properties, the additional fixed investment is borne by owner, but benefits reaped by tenants. Demand response of a house benefits the whole energy sector, but benefits are seldom passed on the owner. Unlike heavily taxed gasoline, electricity, water and gas are often subsidized providing even less incentives for a smart house to conserve them.

Widespread use of smart houses might actually start in China where the government needs to efficiently develop new smart cities for urban migrants and at the same time has to find ways to reduce consumption of energy and other resources, because of current severe environmental situation. The scale of Chinese build-out might produce standardized cheap smart house systems to be widely adopted in other countries. Adoption will be aided by increase of modular prefabricated construction and regulations such as the EU mandate to have all new buildings nearly zero net energy by 2020.

Dolezal Carbon


Congestion Pricing – An asset-light BRT?

By Anonymous

The two transportation schemes we discussed in class, BRT and MRT, both have very similar goals in mind: reduce congestion and pollution and increase safety while getting more people to their destination faster. The major constraints for both systems are the huge up-front capital costs and the lack of flexibility once the system’s major lines are in place. One interesting aspect, however, is that neither system deals with the other major source of congestion, pollution and accidents: cars. On the contrary, during our discussion the need to eliminate car lanes on behalf of BRT as the system expands to new areas was a major drawback.

If we take a step away from this car-centric perspective and examine ways to manage all transit options on existing roads, there is a transportation scheme that accomplishes the stated goals in a much more flexible and dynamic way with lower capital requirements upfront: congestion pricing.

In the case of Bogota, the system would charge cars and buses for accessing certain avenues and major traffic arteries according to the time of day and the level of congestion. The fees would keep cars off the road during rush-hour and encourage the use of buses, assuming the system establishes appropriate pricing tiers across time and between cars, buses and taxis. The increased fixed cost would discourage empty buses from running and encourage industry consolidation. In order to encourage the use of newer and greener busses, the pricing could be structured to give low-emission vehicles an edge. A less congested system with fewer competing bus lines would also make transit safer and decrease travel times for commuters.

Initial capital cost to establish the system would also be much lower because traffic control systems could be installed above the street at lower costs than digging tunnels or adding separate bus lanes and platforms. From an infrastructure standpoint the congestion pricing system is much more flexible to expansion as new routes can be added or eliminated in a matter of days not years. On the revenue side, this system starts collecting revenue very soon after installation and provides a safer return on investment to the city.

Of course, this system also has trade-offs. For example, the enforcement of violations is crucial to as successful launch. If the political system is unlikely to punish those who drive without paying, congestion pricing will not improve the current situation. In addition, the implementation of this system hurts a much bigger political constituency (not just bus drivers, but all drivers) which makes this implementation much harder from a political standpoint. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether such a system can support the anticipated growth in travelers and residents over time.

Compared to BRT and MRT, the congestion pricing system would be a much less capital intensive and dynamic solution to the traffic congestion problem. However, this alternative likely has a much higher political price.