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January 19, 2010, 11:00 AM UTC

MIT professor speaks out on transit, technology in emerging economies

Ralph Gakenheimer is a Fulbright Scholar, World Bank Advisor, and MIT professor of urban planning who has emerged as one of the leading experts on transportation in developing countries.  In the 1970s he consulted with the mayors of South American cities such as Medellin (for real!) on their transit plans. Today he’s working in Asia and Africa.

Fortune contributor Carolyn Whelan caught up with Dr. Gakenheimer on the sidelines of a mega transportation meeting in Washington, D.C. last week to get his current thinking on mobility in the developing world, and the technologies that will make the world go.

Q. How will most people get around in emerging economies?

A. For now, two wheelers. Motorcycle and scooter use in Vietnam and China is exploding as an affordable way to get to work.Take Chennai, India. Its residents earn one tenth what their peers in Mexico City make, yet are twice as motorized. But bottlenecks from mixing those modes with animal-drawn carts, ramshackle trucks, rickshaws –- even Ferraris –- are pushing governments to improve their mass transit systems. Urban populations doubling every 20 years in India and higher birth rates, longer life spans and more vehicle trips per day across the developing world are increasing that imperative.

So because congestion is felt more acutely in the global South, it will be a mix of buses, subways and light rail in the future. For a sense of the trajectory, motorization is increasing 10% a year in China, where a 30 minute trip has tripled in little time to 90 minutes. The Chinese make about 1.8 motorized trips a day That is 3.6 in the U.S. and rising.

Q.  What energy will dominate?

A. Coal to generate electricity for buses, at least in China. Everyone’s been waiting for hydrogen and there’s talk of rooftop solar cells as charging stations but neither are here.

Q. What about autos? Will they ever be as important in Asia as they are in the U.S. today?

A. We’ll always have cars. But heavy traffic, high oil prices, and likely congestion charges in dense Asian cities will outprice cars for most. Their cities are also developing in different ways. Even high-income Chinese families live in close quarters. Generally, they choose superior personal technologies over more household living space. Fewer sprawling suburbs will relegate the car to a prestigious possession for infrequent, special trips.

Q. What technologies will dominate?

A. Better technologies that deliver real-time data for a more organized distribution of services. So will intelligent applications like smart cards such as the Octopus Card in Hong Kong. They’re nothing special but can make a huge difference. Also, we’ll probably see the growth of wired mission control centers like that used by the TranStar in Houston, which borrowed technology ideas from NASA. Its forty screens in a huge hall redirect traffic and dispatch fire engines and police cars through GIS systems, to move traffic smoothly and ensure that buses and trains arrive on time.

On the road, transponders similar to those used by the E-ZPass system will transmit signals to turn traffic lights when buses approach. And as congestion pricing grows, so will the use of robust and responsive systems like car-mounted sensors that can relay information about the sort of car approaching, the fuel it burns, its maintenance records and corresponding emissions levels to determine the appropriate charge. This builds on the HOV lane idea but adds technology.

Finally, the use of demand-response transport systems, or on-call applications like those used for the disabled and elderly in the U.S. today will grow as aging boomers move to city centers and look for greener ways to get around. That model lays out preferred origins and destinations and harmonizes bus arteries to avoid route duplication. The real-time route connectivity behind those ‘fringe’ systems will become more mainstream in mass transit.

Q.  Will any transit technologies round trip to the U.S. once they are tested and perfected elsewhere?

A. Bus rapid transit, or BRT. It’s the greatest thing to happen to transit since the streetcar in the 1870s. The system basically builds on big buses using the best technology from trains like smart cards, signaling and sensors in dedicated lanes. These systems were hatched in 1970s Brazil but due to their efficiency and affordability are drawing the attention of urban planners in Asia and the U.S.  It’s not sophisticated but when brought together in a highly coordinated system moves people faster than cars at up to one-fiftieth the construction cost per kilometer of a subway.

Q.  You started working on this stuff fifty years ago. Any last words?

For most of my career, my work, frankly, has been pretty boring.  This is a very exciting time.

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