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Sustainable transportation is not only about what’s under the hood of your car – how you use it also matters.
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Automakers around the world continue to slowly infuse their cars and trucks with greener, more efficient technology, but researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 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.

“Sustainability is a multifaceted monster that we simply cannot tackle from any one single perspective. The problem is so vast, and so complex, that solving it is going to require a comprehensive, systematic, holistic approach. And at the end of the day, we’re going to have to do more with less,” said Holguín-Veras, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer. “The importance of the transportation sector in terms of energy and the environment is undeniable.”

Take, for example, the statistics that show transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, and up to 54 percent of emissions of different greenhouse gasses. Pair this information with Holguín-Veras’ research findings that current freight practices are highly inefficient and, on average, delivery trucks utilize only 20 percent of their cargo space – and one-fourth of trucks you see driving around are completely empty. The need for change, and the rampant waste of fuel and energy, Holguín-Veras said, are readily apparent.

But now frame these snapshots with the fact that 18 million Americans work in freight or freight-related activities, and the nation’s nine million registered midsize and large trucks deliver about $5.5 trillion worth of goods to homes and businesses every year. This complicates the equation immensely and raises the question of how to green the transportation industry and be more efficient without impacting commerce or competitiveness. After all, truckers are mostly independent contractors who have virtually no say in what or where they deliver. Freight companies that hire truckers likely don’t necessarily want to send out partly filled trucks, but need to fulfill the demand of their customers, who are business owners and have their own clientele – with their own set of expectations – to worry about.

Efficiency seems to get lost in the shuffle, but Holguín-Veras said this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

“This is a major challenge that requires not only new technology, but whole new perspectives on transportation,” he said. “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.”

Holguín-Veras is in the midst of leading a $1.9 million U.S. Department of Transportation study to evaluate different incentives, including cash payments and 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.

“Switching Gears to Greener Transportation” Page 1 | 2 >
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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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