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Information and communications technologies (ICT) and machine to machine (M2M) applications will have evolutionary and revolutionary impacts on the Smart Grid and smart cities.  As more of the global population chooses to live in cities, ICT will also exert revolutionary impacts on transportation to help transform it into sustainable transportation.   However, like the coming Smart Grid transformations, tectonic shifts in thinking need to occur that change cultures, mindsets, and perspectives in transportation to make good on these visions.

What is sustainable transportation?  Here’s a description from Susan Zielinski, Managing Director of SMART at the University of Michigan.   “Sustainable transportation is about meeting needs by moving people, moving goods, and moving less in ways that are cleaner, greener, safer, healthier, more equitable, more seamlessly connected, better for the economy, and hipper.”  She will talk about this subject at the upcoming Savannah International Clean Energy Conference November 11-13 in Georgia.

Sustainable transportation is not just electric transportation, and not focused solely on electric vehicles, although these will be important options for transportation (and in the case of EVs, revenue production in the Smart Grid.)  And as her description implies, it fully embraces M2M applications that range from location-aware vehicles and devices to fractional use cars (like Zipcar) and bikes, to buses and trains to telework and locally sourced transactions.

It also makes us rethink this system as a New Mobility grid.  New Mobility is an extremely interesting convergence of ICT with automotive systems, real estate, and finance coupled with new business models.  Susan noted that “a New Mobility grid is the electric vehicle grid on steroids. It means that there’s a connected network of all modes, services, technologies and infrastructures from origin to destination, as well as an awareness, thanks to mobile devices, of how options connect seamlessly in time and space on that grid through GPS information. But it can also reduce the need to move by sourcing alternatives within walking distance or using telecommunications to eliminate trips altogether.”

ICT technologies, including sensors and mobile applications, will help transportation managers deliver the most dynamic, flexible and cost effective transportation options.  These technologies will enable users to know the range of transportation choices available to them at all times.  How cool will it be for us to move with complete confidence in an unfamiliar city because we can access realtime information about options to travel from any point of origination to any destination seamlessly? In my opinion, very cool.  I would highly value a single application on my smart phone that informs me of my aggregated transport options to move from train station or airport to lodging based on costs, timeframes, and personal preferences (i.e. do I prefer scenic routes or direct routes or faster routes or more environmentally friendly routes).  Even better, include instructions on how to use ticket kiosks.  There are cities that are making good on sustainable transport visions like Seoul, Hong Kong, Paris, London, Bogota, Curritiba, Portland, Washington DC, and New York City.

Though small, Bremen, Germany offers a good model for cities and towns interested in designing sustainable transportation systems that are highly integrated.  Bremen integrated bus, train, car/bike sharing and fractional car options into one virtual transportation platform that serves residents and visitors.

One of the key factors to note about sustainable transportation is that it doesn’t presuppose a complete reliance on electrical sources of energy – it doesn’t pick fuels, but does encourage use of energy sources that are indigenous to a region and both environmentally and socially sustainable.  With an emphasis on flexibility, there is a place for the internal combustion engine – but ideally dramatically reduced.

And since one of the tenets of sustainable transport is to figure out how to reduce the need for transport, like the negawatt, the trip never taken is the lowest carbon transit impact too.  ICT once again can play a key role here.  My credit union now offers an option for me to take photos of the checks my clients send for my consulting services – saving me trips to physically deposit paper.  I doubt if my credit union thinks that this application achieves a primary objective of sustainable transport, but it’s great that it has that positive consequence.

There are some interesting parallels between sustainable transportation and the Smart Grid – and I’m not referring to electric vehicles.  In terms of recreating systems thinking in new ways, in terms of the applications of ICT and M2M applications, in terms of creating opportunity ecosystems for innovations – these are the parallels to appreciate.

Image: Electricity Pylon via Shutterstock