Smart Minds on Smart Cities at the Sustainable Urban Design Conference


Smart cities are built to last -- with transportation systems designed to reduce pollution and planning that emphasizes long-term impacts on energy use, the environment and economic savings. Naturally, it requires a lot of contributors to achieve those big and complex goals, something that was underscored by the range of participants at McCombs’ Nov. 18 conference on sustainable urban design.

The panelists at the AT&T Conference Center included transportation engineers, architects, affordable housing advocates, the top sustainability executive at the Ford Motor Co. and even an artificial intelligence expert who does research on cars that drive themselves.

Though so-called autonomous cars may be years away from reality, cities across the country are adopting, or at least debating, approaches that reduce traffic congestion and cut emissions, and encourage smart land use and energy efficiency.

Dr. Kara Kockelman, a transportation engineering professor at the Cockrell School, has researched the impact of a wide variety of land use and transportation policies and technologies to determine which ones produce the biggest impact. Some of the best options, Kockelman found, include more plug-in hybrid cars, tied to the increased use of renewable energy; car-sharing and buses with full passenger loads; and urban growth boundaries--the controlled release of land for development to reduce sprawl. (In the Portland, Ore., area, for example, a regional government agency covering 400 square miles and 1.4 million residents, manages a system that periodically releases land for development, based on needs such as housing demand and industrial development and goals including efficient land use and transportation systems.)

Advanced vehicle technology plays an important role in sustainability, reducing emissions and overall energy use, and shifting some power demand to off-peak times. Power-demand shifting could reduce infrastructure costs, because the power grid has to be built to handle peak demand, said Dave Tuttle, a UT research fellow in eMobility and renewable energy systems. Tuttle said that 80 percent of the cars and light trucks in the U.S. could be made electric and charged using the existing grid with off-peak charging. That also would maximize the use of renewable power; wind electricity, for example, is generated mostly at night by west Texas’ huge wind turbines.

Tuttle practices what he preaches: he recharges his Chevrolet Volt at night, a process that he said takes less than four hours. The plug-in hybrid went four months and over 3,800 miles this past summer without a trip to the gas station.

Plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars are still relatively new to the market. Despite their excellent efficiency, hybrids garner less than 3% of new vehicle sales in the U.S. Tuttle said wider adoption depends on whether manufacturers can develop a variety of compelling vehicles to attract more buyers than what we have seen in the past with hybrids.

Dr. Peter Stone, a UT artificial intelligence expert, said the real leap in sustainable transportation involves autonomous vehicles. Stone led a UT team that developed a self-driving car for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge competition in 2007. The vehicle, a retrofitted Isuzu SUV, uses GPS, lasers and software to navigate a course. It “knows” where to go, when to turn or stop, how to merge into traffic and how to park – basically, anything a human driver can do. Now imagine a fleet of autonomous cars that can be programmed to do things like make “reservations” to drive safely through intersections -– where a quarter of all accidents occur -- reducing delays, fuel use and emissions and increasing safety. Tuttle explained how autonomous driving capabilities on electric vehicles could help solve one of the largest charging infrastructure challenges for pure battery electric cards. A self-driving battery electric vehicle could go find a charging station on its own, get a charge, and then conveniently come pick up the owner.

“The game can be changed completely if all cars are autonomous,” Stone said. (If that all sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, consider that Google also is pushing autonomous cars, Stone said. A Google-Stanford research team has sent driverless Priuses onto the streets of Silicon Valley.)

Ford is taking a global view on sustainable transportation, said John Viera, the company’s global director of sustainability, noting that the 750 million vehicles in the world now are forecast to grow to 2 billion by 2030, with most of the growth in developing countries. Ford has projects in India and other countries based on its vision for “urban mobility for the future,” which includes integrating public and private transportation and more advanced technologies including electric vehicles.

In the U.S., Ford is partnering with cities including Richmond, Va., to pilot sustainable transportation initiatives. Richmond (and Austin) will be among the first cities to get Ford’s all-electric 2012 Focus and C-Max Energi PHEV. There is certainly a lot going on in terms of transportation.

But housing is another key component of sustainability, and one with substantial challenges.

In East Austin, the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp. has just broken ground on what will be the city’s first affordable net-zero subdivision. The project will have 90 homes and apartments, all capable of generating as much power as they use over the course of a year, said Michael Gatto, executive director of the Austin Community Design & Development Center, which is a consultant and project manager for GNDC on the project. The development will have a number of other sustainable attributes.

For starters, the 11-acre site is a brownfield, the cleaned-up former home of a battery plant. It’s convenient to bus routes, and close to community services. Austin Energy is donating solar panels for the project, with the condition that the homes be designed to be 54 percent more energy efficient than the city’s code requires. The designs include optimal orientation of the buildings, minimal windows on the east and west sides and deep overhangs.

A biofiltration pond will provide water quality management. The project also could include an on-site community center with housing and educational facilities for single mothers, who make up the majority of the people GNDC helps. Depending on the housing type, the residences will be priced within reach of people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area’s median family income.

One key issue is not yet resolved: How to ensure that the properties remain affordable for the long term. Mark Rogers, executive director of GNDC, said after the conference that the preferred mechanism is a community land trust, in which a nonprofit owns the land and leases it to the homeowner. However, Rogers said there are hurdles to making a land trust work in Texas. Assuring long-term affordability is a challenge in areas such as East Austin, which has recently attracted thousands of affluent new residents, which has, in turn, further pushed up housing prices.

“I work way too hard to get an affordable unit to watch it flip to market pricing the first time it’s sold," said Kelly Weiss, executive director of Austin Habitat for Humanity.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Kathy Warbelow

Independent editor, writer, media professional, (freelance)

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