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Gridlock and Global Warming in BU’s Sights

City, University, IBM team up on research project


Battling climate change and helping unknot Boston’s snarled and snarly motorists: IBM says that mix of global and on-the-street local impact is worth roughly $400,000.

That’s the Smarter Cities grant that the company has given the city of Boston, which in partnership with BU is researching a first-of-its-kind plan for managing traffic while cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Nationally, one-third of those emissions come from on-road transportation and urban traffic congestion, says Lucy Hutyra, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of geography and environment.

Currently, the city uses live traffic cameras and underground sensors that detect when cars are passing and where, says Hutyra, co–principal investigator on the project. The Smarter Cities grant aims to develop a new and better way to measure the number of miles traveled by all private vehicles in Boston on a given day.

Reducing those vehicle miles traveled (VMT)—for example, with expanded bike lanes, better-timed traffic signals, and public transit improvements—is the city’s goal, but the efficacy of each of these efforts is unclear, “because we cannot determine VMT with the level of accuracy or spatial and temporal resolution needed” at present, according to Hutyra. The grant will pay for researchers to develop better, space- and time-oriented traffic counts and determine their associated carbon dioxide emissions. “We need to be able to measure VMT in near real time at the block or neighborhood level,” she says. The project includes development of “a new data portal and visualization system” for use by city officials.

In the most intensive stage of the research, IBM consultants will join the Boston and BU researchers for three weeks this month, at the end of which the city will have information on a few specific intersections they can then use in shaping future policies.

“Over the last several years, colleagues and I have been working on improving estimates of on-road emissions,” says Hutyra. IBM’s grant is “a critical catalyst to get this particular project off the ground.” Faculty from the School of Management and the College of Engineering are also working on the project, as is BU’s interdisciplinary Sustainable Neighborhood Lab, she says. A recognized up-and-comer in climate research, Hutyra recently won a National Science Foundation CAREER award for junior faculty.

BU and Boston have collaborated on urban improvement initiatives for some time, and the Smarter Cities effort has groundwork from a partnership between the city’s air pollution control office and the University’s Urban Metabolism research project, which seeks to mitigate greenhouse gases locally.

President Robert A. Brown says that “with the expertise that Boston University can offer, we expect that we will help identify ideas that will have a positive impact in both traffic management and environmental improvement” in the city.

For all the congressional paralysis over climate change legislation, Boston has taken local steps to curb municipal greenhouse gas emissions, according to city officials. Using the standards of the Kyoto Protocol, Boston cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels, and did so a year ahead of the 2012 scheduled completion. They achieved the reduction by using green vehicles, buying renewable energy, and retrofitting municipal buildings. Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) has called for further cuts of 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

Those efforts helped persuade IBM to include Boston among the 33 cities selected, from 140 applications, for grants. Besides Beantown, U.S. winners were Atlanta, Durham, N.C., Houston, Jacksonville, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. IBM says Smarter Cities grants are the company’s largest philanthropic effort.

“Aside from it being the right thing to do, our employees live and work in places like Boston,” IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind says. “The economic, environmental, and social success of the communities in which we live and work is our success, too.” Company employees find meaning in the research and hone their skills doing it, improving their service to IBM clients, he adds.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

5 Comments on Gridlock and Global Warming in BU’s Sights

  • Renaldo on 06.07.2012 at 7:03 am

    It’s ironic that BU would toot its green credentials with such “studies” when it is generally known among the Boston area peer universities as having by far the worst reputation for supporting commuting initiatives for its faculty and staff. Whereas Harvard, MIT, Tufts, BC, etc, all have strong financial and other incentives for using public transportation (significant T subsidies, for example), rideshare, bicycling, and the like, BU can be proud of carrying out “studies”. President Brown does not need “studies” to learn how to reduce carbon emissions and gridlock, BU’s money would be much better spent by supporting getting its faculty and staff out of their cars and fostering alternative ways of getting to work. BU needs a comprehensive “Go Green” program for creative and resourceful commuting initiatives, it doesn’t need another “study”.

    • Aaron L'Heureux on 06.07.2012 at 10:47 am

      There must also be some recognition for the fact that certain schools are simply better served by the MBTA than others. You couldn’t incentivize the MBTA enough to make me use it to commute to and from BU. But that’s besides the point, as programs solely internal to the University have far less of an impact than city-wide discovery can. And I’m not saying better alternative transit programs shouldn’t be considered by the University for its employees, but why are you creating an either/or scenario?

      It also appears that none of BU’s money is being used here. This is a grant provided by IBM, according to the article, which seems to have been awarded to the city of Boston for research to be done at BU. The entire project is about better collection and analysis of data in order to make more informed decisions going forward.

      Given your lack of understanding of what the Smarter Cities project does and where the funding is coming from, I’d say you didn’t even read the article.

  • Sustainability on 06.07.2012 at 11:07 am

    I would like to see some sort of citation for the claim that BU has “by far the worst” reputation in the area for supporting sustainable actions. BU offers reduced price T-passes for the BU community, exclusive discounts with ZipCar, an entire Rideshare database for finding carpool buddies, easily the most Hubway (the city-wise bike share program) stations on campus, dedicated bike lanes on Comm Ave, and the BU Shuttle that runs routes from the Med Campus as well as the Charles River Campus.

    Additionally, a very small percentage of students at BU drive cars, and thus we have kept our transportation footprint low. I think that you are just looking to justify your preconceived notion that BU doesn’t care about sustainability, whereas in truth there is a large drive within the university to become more energy efficient and LEED certify new buildings. The truth is that we already have a “Go Green” program at BU.. it’s called sustainability@BU.

    Check out the transportation numbers here: http://www.bu.edu/sustainability/what-were-doing/transportation/

    • Renaldo on 06.07.2012 at 2:13 pm

      To give you one of several examples MIT offers the entire MIT community a *50%* subsidy for taking the T. What does BU offer? Not a penny, nada. Instead it ‘generously’ arranges for staff to do a pre-tax write off on T passes. The difference in support is dramatic. You simply cannot compare BU’s with MIT’s and the programs from other Boston-area universities.

      Take a look at MIT’s commuting pages (along with Harvard’s or the others I’ve mentioned), and you will see a similarly dramatic difference in *actual*, substantive support. MIT has an ‘occasional’ commuter parking passes for those that combine the T with driving, BU has nothing of the sort (instead charging staff $12 to park for one day!), MIT has bike repair stations throughout the campus, MIT several closed bike ‘compounds, and the like.

      What kind of support does BU have for alternative commuting? Well, at the end of the semester it summarily announced that all bicycles must be removed from its only secure bike parking area, Warren Tower, without providing any alternative. A real sustainability program would take bike commuting seriously and would have arranged for alternative parking for bicyclists.

      If you carried out real benchmarking with BU’s peer institutions in the area you will develop a very different impression as to these differences, you will learn that BU does more talk than walk in this area.

  • AB on 06.07.2012 at 5:03 pm

    BU announces a great partnership with IBM to battle an issue that may have worldwide positive impact. Your response to this news is an overly broad negative statement. Putting aside unsubstantiated claims such as: “generally known” and “by far the worst reputation,” if I read this correctly, you are simply saying that BU doesn’t do enough for commuters. It sounds like we need a study. Kidding.

    I assume from the details in your comment that you are part of the BU community (or close to someone who is). What have you done to develop or promote “a comprehensive ‘Go Green’ program for creative and resourceful commuting initiatives”? I have found that the university listens volunteers with good ideas and plans to execute those ideas. If you are already working on change, kudos. If not, give it a shot.

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