Inside Rensselaer
* Green at Rensselaer: Switching Gears to Greener Transportation
Green at Rensselaer: Switching Gears to Greener Transportation
Sustainable transportation is not only about what’s under the hood of your car — how you use it also matters.

Automakers around the world continue to slowly infuse their cars and trucks with greener, more efficient technology, but researchers at Rensselaer contend that technology alone will not solve the puzzle of sustainable transportation. Through incentives for nighttime deliveries, real-time traffic reporting, and improved safety, professors William Wallace and José Holguín-Veras are seeking to address the critical human elements of where, when, and how we drive.

“This is a major challenge that requires not only new technology, but whole new perspectives on transportation,” said Holguín-Veras, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We need to change our behavior, which is not always easy to do and usually requires new policy and laws that take years to embed themselves in the public consciousness. Think of recycling, which was sort of a big, new thing in the 1980s but today, for most people, is completely second nature. We need strong policy to enact that kind of behavioral change in the transportation and freight sectors... At the end of the day, we’re going to have to do more with less.”

Holguín-Veras is in the midst of leading a $1.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation study to evaluate different incentives, like tax breaks, for encouraging business owners to accept evening and overnight deliveries on a permanent or long-term basis. It’s the receivers, not the deliverers, who are the key decision makers and need to be targeted, he said. Imposing higher tolls for driving on New York City streets only puts additional pressure on truckers without addressing the heart of the problem.

The pilot program is currently under way in Manhattan, and involves around 25 freight firms and 20 business owners, who are each receiving $2,000 per location to receive off-hour deliveries for a month. Following the test, Holguín-Veras will conduct surveys, interviews, and other data that will inform his study.

Shifting even a small percentage of delivery truck traffic from business hours to off-hours, between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., should help noticeably alleviate downtown New York’s infamous congestion and boost its economic performance, Holguín-Veras said. Keeping traffic moving in Manhattan will result in a greater influx of shoppers and tourists to downtown locations — as well as reduced automotive emissions and more breathable air.

Keeping traffic flowing at a steady beat in a safe manner is also a priority for Wallace, the Yamada Corporation Professor at Rensselaer and a member of the Department of Decision Sciences and Engineering Systems.

“It’s clear that safety and efficiency go hand-in-hand,” Wallace said. “We want to keep drivers moving at a constant speed. Acceleration and deceleration are where you use the most energy, and where you’re the least efficient. Accidents, which are already horrible for the people involved, also affect the rest of us by causing congestion, making us late, and ultimately wasting a lot of energy.”

Wallace is working on both theoretical models and applied devices for supplying drivers with reliable, real-time, in-car traffic updates. The devices use GPS technology and complex analytics to identify where traffic is backed up, alert drivers well before they reach the congested area, and then seamlessly direct drivers toward the most appropriate and efficient alternative route. Wallace tested a prototype of such a system, which included several solar-powered sensors on the site of the road to collect data, in New York’s Capital Region as well as outside Syracuse during the 2007 and 2008 New York State Fair. The study was funded by a $3.9 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration.

“With a little political will, and the appropriate funding, you could start rolling out this technology right away, and see quick, real results in alleviating congestion around the country,” Wallace said. “But it’s tough. New transportation technology, everything from cars to manufacturing equipment, is usually pushed through the private sector, whereas transportation systems and transit are the province of the public sector. It’s surprisingly difficult to marry the two.”

Wallace and Holguín-Veras said that land use — the speed, method, and patterns of how we grow our towns and cities — is the central battleground for sustainability on a national level. Population density affords important critical mass that coaxes higher efficiencies from train travel and public transportation, but this will never be realized as long as municipalities have economic incentives to keep growing.

“Growing your town means getting a higher tax base, but it also leads to a host of other issues like congestion, longer travel times, and inefficiency,” Holguín-Veras said. “Without changing the land-use paradigm, it will be near impossible to slow suburban sprawl. We need to create new ways of incentivizing smart and sustainable growth, rather than just growth.”

green@rensselaer is a new series of articles, blog entries, podcasts, and videos highlighting issues and topics related to sustainability, energy, and the environment. The series will examine the research, student initiatives, administrative efforts, and individuals at Rensselaer who are striving in different ways toward the shared goal of reducing society’s impact on the environment.
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 3, Number 12, November 6, 2009
©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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