Remembering Bill Mitchell

The prominent urban theorist and head of M.I.T.‘s Media Lab passed away this weekend. Here, we have republished an interview he did with Next American City in 2009.

Webb Chappell

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Bill Mitchell, one of the most passionate advocates for sustainable cities, died this weekend after a long fight with cancer. He was 65 years old. Bill has long been a source of inspiration and guidance to those of us at Next American City and other urban advocacy organizations, thanks especially to his many books including Reinventing the Automobile, Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City and City of Bits.

We paid constant attention to the work of his Smart Cities research group at the MIT Media Lab, where Bill and his students looked to technology and especially transit technology as the cornerstone of successful cities. Bill was particularly interested in the “last mile” problem – the gap in between the train station and home, or the stadium and the bus stop. To this end, his Smart Cities team developed the CityCar, a small, electric vehicle that could be shared and neatly folded for frequent use in busy urban cores. But Bill also valued aesthetics: he emphasized the importance of design and the form of cities, and integrated the visual arts into his work.

Here, we have republished an interview that I conducted with Bill and Robin Chase last fall. It was a privilege to speak with Bill; he was kind, thoughtful and above all a visionary who cared tremendously about the future of our urban areas.

This article appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Next American City.

A New Spin on Urban Mobility

By Julia Ramey

Robin Chase and William Mitchell both live in Boston, a city at once packed with cars and efficiently served by public transit. It’s a good laboratory for the two transportation innovators, who have spent their impressive careers thinking of better ways to move people around urban spaces. Robin Chase was the founding CEO of Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing company, and the ridesharing/social networking company GoLoco. She says she is “constantly doing different things” (such as being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people), but her day job is to lead Meadow Networks, a consulting firm that advises government agencies about wireless applications in the transportation sector.

The Australian-born William Mitchell is a professor of architecture and media arts and sciences at MIT. He also directs the Media Lab’s Smart Cities research group, which seeks to create lightweight intelligent electric vehicles as well as “mobility on demand systems.” He was formerly dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, and is the author of numerous books, including Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City and the forthcoming Reinventing the Automobile. Next American City sat down with Chase and Mitchell to talk about the future of urban personal mobility — and why the Segway just won’t catch on.

What are the main inefficiencies the American city-dweller has to deal with when it comes to personal mobility? In other words, what is slowing people down?

Robin Chase: I see the biggest challenge for cities and mobility as being the dramatic underpricing of car travel and car parking. The implications of that have everything to do with how streets are used and what the volume of people is on those streets. As long as cars are underpriced, they’re in huge demand, and consume most of the public space. It is going to take a lot more to get them out of the way.

William Mitchell: Cities are fundamentally about interconnecting people. And urban personal mobility — it’s a basic thing, one of the reasons that cities exist. You really want to find ways of effectively maximizing opportunities to connect to people and institutions. For 100 years the automobile has been a tremendously successful response to that need. But it has powerful negative externalities. The negative externalities have to do with the overdesign of the car; it’s heavier and more high-performing than we need, and has excessive energy consumption. Congestion has to do with jamming cars into limited, finite urban space. The challenge is to use much more sophisticated information technology to organize the movement of vehicles and vehicle systems, as well as more sophisticated and realistic economic framing of the whole issue. It is really important to produce better, lighter-weight vehicles.

If the goal is more efficient mobility for all, should the emphasis be on improving the devices and technologies of personal mobility, like cars and bikes and Segways, or on improving mass transit? Do you improve one at the expense of the other?

WM: Mass transit and small-scale urban personal mobility are complementary rather than in opposition, if you formulate the issue in the right way. For moving large numbers of people at high speed, it’s efficient to put them in a train. The problem always with mass transit systems is the “first-mile” and “last-mile” problem. The embarkation and disembarkation point is never exactly where you want to start and finish the journey. An efficient way to organize urban personal mobility is to organize in such a fashion that it solves the first- and last-mile problem.

RC: I used to think that when people talked about the need for “options” they were really saying, “I’m pretending I like cars, when I really don’t, and so I’ll talk about the need for ‘options.’” Now I look at the word differently. I’ve learned to think about the cradle-to-grave of humans and the whole range of places we travel. There’s diversity of physical skill, destination, income and cargo, and there really is truly no one option that will fit everyone all of those times over their entire life. Transit is a fabulous mover of lots of people across specific high-traffic routes. But for other kinds of trips — very short or very long, and to less traveled locations — it becomes very expensive or very infrequent. For those other trips, we need to consider that when you’re moving your body by your feet, you’re occupying about 2 square feet of space, with no extra weight and require no additional energy source. Compare that to standard automobile: 120 square feet of space, and a lot of fuel. One is very inefficient, one is intensely efficient. But there is a whole range of pros and cons. The whole spectrum of mobility options is needed.

WM: You need a diverse ecosystem of different vehicle types and movement systems. It’s fruitless to formulate the problem as cars vs. transit. Let’s say you want to go to the supermarket. You are young and fit, which is great on the way there, but the bicycle is not the best way to get back with your groceries. You could make one-way rental systems. There are also some things you can do to vehicle design that start to expand the niches of attractive vehicles. We’ve been working on an inexpensive electric bike that gives it some extra torque. This is about expanding the niche of the bike. If you’re not 22, you are 62, you can keep up with your kids and grandkids … I’d make a very vivid, very powerful argument in any way I can for diversity — not only in the vehicle type, but in the way the mobility system is organized — so that any point in the trip you can collect the kind of vehicle that is really appropriate for that trip.

What is the future of cars in America? Will we still use them as much in 20 years as we do now?

RC: It almost doesn’t matter what we think. I can tell you that car travel is going to get more expensive because the cost of fossil fuel will go up, the cost of parking is dramatically underpriced, particularly in urban areas, and will go up; addressing congestion through pricing will become a norm in cities; the cost of transportation infrastructure financing will go up and we will likely see some kind of carbon tax applied. When we go to the lowest quintile of population, today they spend about 30 percent of their income on their car. They will be spending 40 to 45 percent of their income. We will be pushing toward a situation where fewer of our trips are car-related. If we do use a car, we will tend to choose smaller vehicles over larger ones. You’ll see more car sharing because you won’t be able to pay for or want to own a car. You will want to pay per use, and once you’ve chosen to pay, you’ll want to use that vehicle at capacity.

WM: A properly designed electric car is going to drive down the cost of the vehicle — not necessarily the trip, as the vehicle is just one component of the trip. It’s clear from the work we’ve done that you can do a two-person, electric automobile lithium-ion battery car, weighing less than 1,000 pounds, and you can park three to four of them in the same space as a traditional automobile. Even a Prius is 3,000 pounds, so this is a dramatic weight reduction. The car has fewer parts. The parts can be mass produced. The issue is optimizing the trip and providing sophisticated services that respond to mobility demand in a very sensitive way. The quality and cost of that service, rather than the cost of the car, is going to be the key thing, and the cost is going to be high.

RC: Right. Now we have the [Tata] Nano [a small car made in India]; it’s a $2,500 car, but we need to add up all the surrounding costs. Once you get it, you still need to park it, and pay appropriately for road use and congestion. If we got those prices correct, we would dramatically change the demand.

WM: The Nano is a huge potential disaster, because it is a filthy little gasoline engine, an obsolete technology. The car is produced in large quantities at a low price. It is just going to generate a huge environmental disaster. On the other hand, you can’t just say to people in India, “Well, too bad — you just cannot have personal mobility.”

Why do you think some of the newest personal mobility innovations, like the Segway, have failed?

WM: I have a couple of issues with the Segway. One is infrastructure. If you develop a new kind of vehicle, you have to have the infrastructure for it.

RC: It’s a very heavy object — it’s not easy to pick up to take up a step or two and so doesn’t work well for many people in cities. It doesn’t seem to be worth the weight and the cost. You could buy a bike or a bike assist for less. It likely does have a place in some market segments.

WM: There is absolutely a place for tiny footprint vehicles, like factories and campuses. But vehicles are not only technological means of getting you around: They are objects of desire — deeply emotional, sexual objects. It’s impossible not to look like a dork on a Segway.

RC: The marketing and the brand surround are horrific.

WM: Bikes are almost impossible to design badly. Motorbikes are difficult to mess up; with motorbikes, you see movies like Easy Rider. What movie does [the Segway] have? Mall Cop. I have huge arguments with my engineering and policy colleagues who refuse to recognize the role of desire and the role of engagement. It’s intriguing to me that people don’t realize how much the car really does spoil what they consider to be a high quality of life. The world I want to live in doesn’t require me spending a quarter of my salary just to get to my job.”

Did the idea for your work derive from a desire to improve cities or a desire to enhance personal mobility? Or both?

WM: I’m an architect and urban designer — I had to learn a lot about vehicle technology rather quickly to do the stuff I am doing now. The genesis of what I’ve been doing in the past two years was a long discussion I had with Frank Gehry. We used to whine to each other about how impossible it was to do effective urban design because the automobile just screwed everything up. We both had to step back and ask, “What happens when you think of mobility not as a vehicle or transportation problem, but in urban design terms?” You take as a starting point the kind of city you want to live in and then frame the problem as wanting to make a mobility system to enable that kind of city.

RC: I did not want to have another expensive car that I had to pay attention to when I used it so infrequently. People underappreciate what it is that makes them love a city or a place, and I want to say: Recognize that your affection is likely disabled by cars. People have wonderful university experiences. Their friends are there, they sleep, work and play, entertain themselves within close proximity, without having to drive every single place. We seek out places like that, and often choose them for vacations. People don’t want to live on the highway. It’s intriguing to me that people don’t realize how much the car really does spoil what they consider to be a high quality of life. The world I want to live in doesn’t require me spending a quarter of my salary just to get to my job.

How would you fix a city that was designed around the car, like Houston?

WM: I think what you can do in a city like Houston is re-nucleate: Find opportunities to create centers that are pedestrian-based, and tie them together with a web of efficient transit. With the economy we’re seeing, fewer people are commuting to work in the traditional ways and more people are living in live-work environments. The idea of re-nucleating, of having a mixed-use, live-work fabric is emerging in very exciting ways.

RC: I did a talk recently with the former city planner from Portland. He had a meme of the “20-minute neighborhood.” It was a list of 10 things people would like to have within a 20-minute walk. That is something that people can rally around. Can I get to entertainment? Can I buy milk, can I get my kids to school, can I exercise? Routine things — I think this concept is very appealing to people. is putting an overt value on walkability to these kinds of locations. We do love places where we can do things in 20 minutes. Let’s set that out as a value that we share. You can look at a big city where [Walk Score] has made some topological maps. You can look at a neighborhood with a yellow [medium-low walkability] score, and think, what are the two missing things in this neighborhood that are going to turn it from a yellow to a green? We can make these marginal changes. How do I shift from a red to a yellow?

WM: I’d add to that, and this is a critical point, that all cities are different. I’d insist on the uniqueness of cities, and on conceiving the mobility system in terms of the unique geography, culture and history. L.A. has this thing where the attractions are far-flung. On the other hand, Boston operates fabulously as a compact city.

RC: But even the far-flung thing — I was watching something about the White Mountain ski slopes [in northern New England]. There used to be trains that would take people up on Friday afternoon. This was pre-cars. It was this huge social event, where people were partying and drinking the entire way there. We can and should provide access to these key places that are highly desirable and that are car-dependent. And I agree with Bill that cities should go deep in making themselves unique and wondrous — you really want to say, “Wow, I’m in Shanghai. And this is what Shanghai is like.”

In terms of city and state laws, what needs to change?

WM: With these complex problems, it’s multilevel intervention. You have to take care of the macro policy issues about energy. The way the federal government has been thinking about infrastructure for a long time is incredibly unimaginative, and very conservative. One of the fundamental generators of urban delight in the end is the way that you organize the infrastructure. We’re moving into an era when the infrastructure is not just physical skeletons of things — it’s the information system and the intelligence and the way you put it all together. One of my favorite design strategies in all of this is, for example, that you take everything you can out of the moving vehicle and put it in the fixed infrastructure.

RC: Let’s get the economics of producing carbon and driving right. We cannot just do that alone; we have to enable options along the way. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting innovation into the transportation sector and what the government can do about it. To get a new car on the road in the U.S. — I bet it costs $100 million, as you have to pass all sorts of safety and emissions requirements. How many firms are there that can afford to do this? We are likely only putting out a couple dozen new car possibilities every year for the whole planet. We need to try out thousands of new vehicle types every year. We need to change the safety requirement burden for low-volume innovation. We need to take away those big regulations. The second piece is insurance. I would be happy to pay into small-volume insurance that lets me try novel ideas. Today, insurers only insure what they know and what exists already.

I am actively creating an in-vehicle technology platform that brings some car data points up to a server — like a smartphone, only it’s a smart car, so we can change how people own and buy cars and relate relative to data points around them. Bill made a comment that he wants to see us out of the car and into the infrastructure. We don’t need roadside stuff; it’s all vehicle to vehicle. We need to make those individual cars as open and interconnected as possible so they become infrastructure instead of making them closed, private systems.

What about the issue of safety?

WM: The issue of safety is a very, very interesting one. We design cars right now to go very fast.

RC: When you look at the mortality speed numbers, there’s a sweet spot at around 25 miles per hour. Lower than that, you don’t die; above that, you do.

WM: There’s an enormous difference between a vehicle that does 25 and 100 miles per hour. Data show this: If you can keep those speeds below 25, there is a huge improvement in safety. An initial look at that number — a lot of people would think that was unattractive. But if you look further you see that you can get a higher throughput of traffic. The critical thing is not what the top speed of a vehicle is, but how to coordinate them. If you do this with electronic vehicles, they are different from gasoline vehicles. They have high torque at low speeds. They behave like sports cars. They’re fun to drive at low speeds.

RC: We need people to understand that even though you think you can go 30 miles per hour down the street, you just about never do. In cities, average speeds are between 7 and 15 miles
an hour.

WM: What people care about is predictably getting to their destinations. Predictability is more important than absolutely minimizing the time it takes to get to a destination.

RC: People have this thought that if they’re in control of the car, it’s more predictable. It’s kind of ironic, because we know that is not the case. If the subway doesn’t come, you yell at the subway, but when you are in your own car stuck in traffic, you rarely yell at yourself or your decision to drive.

WM: This is why GPS is set up the wrong way. They do short-path calculations. What you really want to do is manage uncertainty and minimize risk. You don’t want to show up late
or early.

RC: Walking is 100 percent predictable. You’re never jammed.

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Tags: infrastructurebostonhoustonnext american citysmart citieszipcar

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