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Art Center Mobility Summit: A Field Report

by Justus Stewart

I. The Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, was the site of a conference last week titled “Systems, Cities & Sustainable Mobility.” The building is an adaptive reuse (most of the conference took place in a converted wind tunnel), and is LEED certified. It is also, most important for the topic at hand, walking distance from the Gold Line, which connects downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena.

The conference opened on Wednesday morning with a keynote from WC’s own Alex Steffen, who set the tone for what would be the conference’s central theme: is green technology (in this case cars) enough to bring about a sustainable future? Alex issued the challenge that we had to completely re-design our systems, not just our technologies; that we need a new definition of what it means to be a prosperous American in the 21st century. (Alex’s post on the subject can be read here.) Most of the presenters made clear that the ‘systems redesign’ model is favored over the ‘green tech’ model. Many of their ideas for creating sustainable mobility in an urban context have been covered here before: scenario building, density, walkability, integration of modes, pay as you drive insurance, distribution points & home delivery v retail stores, shifting taxes, and none of them, you will notice, is a shiny new hybrid (though the author will admit to ogling the Aptera floor model just a little).

Alex was followed by the Urban Strategies Leader from ally Arup, Gary Lawrence, who spoke about Dongtan Eco-city, which WC has posted about extensively. His talk has several great ideas and insights: that sustainability is a political concept, with technical challenges, not the other way around – technology can only provide directions (choice), it cannot be the map; that sustainability is inevitable – it is up to us to decide whether we achieve it through design or collapse; and that sustainability is unknown – Alex described it in a recent post as the sustainability singularity – we cannot see around the corner. This led to another key concept from the conference: that good design is not only green design (to crib from Inhabitat), it is also adaptive and integrated design. A few good examples from Dongtan that were news to me: it’s designed for a sea level rise up to 3 meters; rice husks from local farming will fuel a CHP system; and that while cars are not excluded, they are the least attractive transportation option (something we could copy with great efficacy in the US).

Lawrence also spoke to a heavily debated theme in sustainability: do we try to change people’s behavior (educational model), or change the systems in which they live (design model). Dongtan was created with what he described as ‘cultural’ features – the aspirations, fears, nostalgia, and status of the residents – that are intended to drive some of the sustainability features. This is, I can tell, you, not the textbook definition of community planning.

The conference then made the first of several abrupt shifts to the other side of the debate, as Henrik Fisker discussed and promoted his electric car company, Fisker Automotive, and their $80,000 sports car, the Karma. Fisker stated that most “green design is boring” using Prius as an example, and substituted his sports car instead. (It is a boring we could use more of, in any case, given how many Toyota has sold.) Fisker, by his own admission, was not motivated by environmental concerns; he just saw an unmet demand – a market opportunity. It isn’t greenwashing – they’ve created an all-electric automobile, and if we all drove one, we’d make a big dent in emissions. Yet it seems to me that this particular tactic (‘sexy green’ – sustainable beef v tofu) is behind the times. In fact, people do care about relative greenness, whether the product or service is sexy or not, and businesses, even Wal*Mart for god’s sake, are responding. The initial tactic of making green desirable, as elucidated by Bruce Sterling at the beginning of the Viridian Design movement, has achieved its success – people want green. Environmental purchasing has arrived.

This is a small victory, but it raises a larger point: with every step we take – with every small success, we must leverage it to go further. There is so much to be done in such a short time. If we stop at environmental purchasing – lifestyle environmentalism – we will fail to discover sustainable prosperity. We must remember that there will always be people who participate reluctantly, and will ask at every step of the way… “Are we there yet? How much is enough? What more do you want from us?”

This represents a failure, in part, to make the goals clearer, to communicate the scale of the challenge better, and to make the bright green future more compelling. But since the future toward which we are pushing is unknowable, we probably cannot ever fully show or explain what sustainability looks like.

However, one answer to the question revealed itself on the last night, during the closing soiree. A few people from the Art Center spoke to the vision for the school: bringing sustainability in as an equal aspect to their other goals. This is admirable, but it demonstrates nicely the distance yet to go. It reveals an attitude to ‘add on’ sustainability as an aspect of their work. Like the mVIP game (see below): you have to design this car, because that’s what the client wants – it has to be this, it has to be that, oh, and to the extent you can, make it ‘sustainable.’

So when will we be able to answer the question “are we there yet?” When sustainability is not an afterthought, or even a forethought, but the foundation out of which decisions come. When we do not have to consider sustainability in our designs, our plans, our products, because it is implicit, it no longer occurs to us to do something unsustainable. In other words, we will achieve sustainability when we no longer think about it as an option – maybe when we no longer think about it at all.

II. Lloyd Walker, one of the professors at Art Center, introduced a card game that the school developed called mVIP, for mobility Vision Integration Process. It is a scenario-building game around the issue of mobility in the future (2040), using potential constraints and events as a framework for design. Although several interesting ideas emerged (including a few previously discussed here: Personal Rapid Transit, including a flooding/ waterworld model of pods that congregate into cities; modular housing that disassembles for shifting needs; delivering systems instead of products; ‘smart’ transit, wired to fulfill car-based needs during trips; and more advance car-sharing), it was interesting to note that the game was still based in a world model where designers were essentially creating new cars for their clients; it was a world in which perhaps future constraints were not made realistic enough. To be fair, the game was sponsored by Ford.

Walker led into the game with a discussion of models, and utilizing visioning games and processes to introduce new models (as Bucky Fuller said, the best way to make change). He recalled that modern cities were designed with an ideal of the ‘empowered mobile individual’, a useful conceptual opposite to the models we now need. This future scenario building process also provides greater insight into the unforeseen and unintended consequences of design choices – a process-based precautionary principle.
The game seemed ultimately useful – it left me wondering what a WC deck of cards would look like? Anyone want to take a proverbial stab at it?

III. There was a great presentation from Martin Tillman, of Steer Davies Gleave, about some of the innovative work they’re doing in the UK, focusing on two types of intervention: government (taxes/financing) and design (density/walkability). Check out one of their projects at Another focus of the whole conference was on what Tillman called ‘government interventions,’ shifts in taxing and funding mechanisms. If the national gas tax rate were constant and adjusted for inflation, it would be $.42 today, instead of its current $.18. Chalk up another subsidy for automobiles. However, emerging technologies like GPS and electronic tolling could make such taxes irrelevant; Wachs called for a tax based on what, where, when, and how much we drive – abolishing the gas tax altogether.

One of the better pieces of the conference was a panel discussion with Scott Bernstein (President/Founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology), Martin Wachs (Director of Transportation, Space, and Technology at RAND), and William Browning (Co-Founder of Terrapin Bright Green LLC).

As I mentioned, among this more academic crowd, the emphasis lies clearly in creation of a better public realm over a bigger or even a greener transportation system (narrowly defined). As Martin Wachs put it, an emphasis on ‘changing management and institutions, not technology’. A few notable pieces from their talk was a PricewaterhouseCoopers study that there is over $700 billion invested in green and Transit-Oriented developments – a sign that current rates of development are not sufficient to meet demand. Though they publicly support these development trends, planners, developers, and politicians have been cautious about implementation. But it is increasingly clear that density reduces car trips (as well as per capita resource use – which green density reduces even further) and transit proximity increases property values. The argument is growing stronger every day, that density increases personal prosperity.

IV. The conference included a few other participants, which space prevents me from writing more on. Nike was there, as was Nokia, in a showing of corporate interest (if not understanding); and there were several excellent ideas generated from within the student body. There is also some blog coverage here that's perhaps of interest (thanks Nathan). If you have any specific questions, please post them in the comments.

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Posted by: Maggy Reaiuo on 14 Feb 08

System change? I have been reading article after article and it seems to me that what the discussion centers around is the repeating of the statuesque. Green sports cars, more better development. I ask you what about the poor who are already trapped in a system that promises to leave them even more trapped. And you may be one of the poor but just don’t know it. The world has billions of poor people today and the numbers, as our current system collapses is going to increase. If all accounts are true about the state of the planet population numbers will soon begin to drastically decline. Your idea of life in compacted green suburbs will be a green fortress. Why because millions of people will not be able to sustain the radical shift coming in the future. And many of these poor urban dwellers are seasoned veterans, warriors who have been highly trained and seasoned by a several decades of war, over resources and control of oil markets. It is nice to dream of sharing cars and biking to work, especially if you have that luxury. I have more that 40 years experience in building and working with disadvantaged populations and I don’t see any shift in building systems, social systems, education systems, medical systems, energy systems and so on that will address the true nature of the risk we face as a global society. When we build a house it has a 100 plus year foot print, in some places it is a 500 year foot print. How will the poor who out number the wealthy make these changes? The car, has at least a 15 to 20 year foot print and already we see that system failing. But who will bare the burden. The owner of the vehicle that is trapped in a payment plan that isn’t going to go away, just like the better off home owner and the 30 year mortgage. What this is going to amount too is trillions of dollars lost a failed economy. Just look at the markets today, the impact of the mortgage crisis is over whelming and it is nothing compared to the loss of costal regions and wider spread economic collapse that will surely follow. When oil fails in the next decade it will be devastating for those of us who can least afford it, we won’t be driving eighty thousand dollar sports cars; unless we take yours. Yes I agree it will take a political will, a political will to change everything from our education system, poverty, healthcare, building and zoning regulation, and the idea of wealth. I don’t see that happening especially wealth. You can grumble that I am only looking at the negative side, but I really I really hope for positive outcomes for my children and grandchildren. That is why I think the reality of the problem is so very important. Most people in America today are so focused on putting food on the table, paying a mortgage and car payment, just keeping their heads above water they have little time or money to make any major changes except their light bulbs. That is important, but these kinds of systems will enjoy long life spans. Who would have thought that the light bulb may have caused more harm than the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima? The current fall out from coal produce electric has contaminated every fresh water system on the planet along with the fish population. Tuna is now rated as a toxic poison. And the atmosphere has been loaded with untold amounts of carbon that threatens our existence with extinction. Perhaps in the millenniums that follows those survivors in the future will look back on us like we do the dinosaur and say, it was the light bulb that got them instead of an asteroid. The Alram clock is ringing,WAKE UP!

Posted by: David E on 14 Feb 08

It seems to have become routine at environmentally oriented conferences to toss in a passing reference to "pay as you drive" auto insurance.

But does anyone know how a "distance-based" system should work and whether the few on the market are new or just the same old black box pricing with an irrelevant GPS reporting gimmick tacked on?

What is more essential, do they understand what is seriously wrong with the present system, how to fix it, and that any new pricing system must incorporate the remedy to be effective?

Research by Patrick Butler, director of the NOW Insurance Project, points out that the industry's traditional car/year pricing model promotes adverse selection that forces low income car owners out of the pool and creates an upward price spiral. At the same time, it justifies ever higher prices in low income areas by invidiously classifying these victims of the industry's own time-based pricing as "bad" or "negligent" drivers. For a detailed analysis of this phenomenon, see

Per-odometer-mile auto insurance pricing recognizes a few statistically sound classifications (a group measurement), but also recognizes that each mile driven by an insured car transfers risk to the insurance company (an individual measurement). To be statistically valid, objectively priced, cost-based and transparent to the customer, an insurance pricing system must use and consistently apply a unit of measurement directly tied to the activity that produces the costs insurance must cover. In the case of auto insurance, that unit is the odometer mile.

If there are to be any environmental benefits from a change in the way auto insurance is priced, the new system must consistently apply the basic principle that each car pays at a class rate only for the amount of insurance protection it consumes, like gasoline, for each mile driven. To create public demand for such free market insurance requires broad dissemination of information uncompromised by politicized top-down discourse.

Posted by: Twiss Butler on 14 Feb 08

"Yet it seems to me that this particular tactic (‘sexy green’ – sustainable beef v tofu) is behind the times."

This is the response of someone who is so deep within a mindset that they've lost any feel for the world without. If the greening of the world cannot move to a place where green items can be sold without any reference to what they do ("save the earth" is an anti slogan to a large community of consumers) then we'll never capture the numbers in the first world we need to effect true change.

The goal is to put green technology on a level of ubiquitity that fossil fuels is now. And that means a sexy green for those who's point of preference is sexy more than anything else. If we don't turn to marketing to every possible style, we're ceeding ground we can't afford to give up.

And moralising that desiring a fast sleek car that's fun to drive is something sinful, is about as counter productive an ideal for rapidily converting the masses as we can have.

Posted by: CJ Six on 15 Feb 08

CJ six: it is not about missing the point and being 'pure'. It is about making 'green' products that people will buy NOW!; cars are sexy and food is delicious, that is why you add sexy styling to a car and spices, sauce etc to food. Why should a 'green' car be an ugly small punishing car and why should healthy food taste bad; exactly-no reason why. Lets have more 'green' products which are even better than the 'normal' ones we have today; This will get us a better and cleaner future , faster!!

Posted by: green man on 17 Feb 08

Great Job, Justus!

Posted by: Anthony Rascon on 19 Feb 08



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