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Sustainable Transportation for a 3rd Century: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Addressing the Last Mile Problem for Enhanced Accessibility


Background of U-M Third Century Initiative

As the University prepares to celebrate its bicentennial in 2017, the President and Provost have established the Third Century Initiative (TCI), a $50 million/five-year initiative to develop innovative, multi-disciplinary approaches to teaching and to address global challenges at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. The overall goal is to stimulate creative thinking about how to intensify learning experiences in and beyond the classroom and how to approach some of the foremost challenges facing our world.

The Third Century Initiative has two components: (1) creating innovative student learning experiences and (2) developing creative approaches to the world’s greatest challenges and opportunities. Global Challenges for a Third Century (GCTC) represents a funding mechanism associated with the second component of the Third Century Initiative.

The purpose of the GCTC grant program is to inspire and cultivate transformative ideas about how to address some of the greatest challenges facing the world today.The program is open to faculty in all units and disciplines—and seeks a broad array of proposals.

Global Challenges for a Third Century has two grant programs:

  • Team Development will fund small-scale proposals for activities that help develop multi-disciplinary teams across the campus in order to address major global challenges. Team Development will provide up to $15,000 on a one-time basis.
  • Global Challenges is a two-phase program that aims to fund the most innovative and creative ideas from across the campus to address some of the world's greatest challenges. The program embraces risk taking, multi-disciplinary approaches, and engagement with the internal and external community (including students). Projects are encouraged that have potential impact that is scalable and transferable (e.g., local to global). The single most important criterion in evaluating proposals will be the potential for transformative impact on any of the world's greatest challenges.

Proposals for Phase 1 seed funding ($10K to $300K, one-time) are based on a clear explanation of the transformative idea as well as defined milestones that can be achieved after one year. If successful, the outcomes from Phase 1 will form the basis of a proposal submitted to the Phase 2 full funding program ($100K to $3 million). It is expected that only a small minority of proposals funded in Phase 1 will receive full funding in Phase 2.

Last Mile (Phase 1) Project Description

This project addresses the global challenge of planning sustainable transportation infrastructures and, in particular, the problem of solving the “last mile problem” by viewing transportation systems as a way to improve accessibility, not simply mobility. Accessibility promotion demands simultaneous consideration of the movement of people and the placement of resources they need to access. This project assembles an interdisciplinary team that can address these major aspects of accessibility. In particular, the project will explore the interplay between technology, deployment (politics, society, economics, and urban planning) and spatial context.

We propose to address the “last-mile” problem of public transit whereby access to and from high-quality transit strongly shapes people’s propensity to use the transit mode. While cost has been a major obstacle to solving this problem, it is proposed that automated vehicles hold potential to expand transit’s reach by lowering its per passenger cost. In particular, this project proposes electric Sustainable Transporters (eSTs) to bridge the service gap between the nodes of more conventional public transportation (e.g., subways, buses, trains) and one’s final destination (e.g., school, work, home, market).

We will examine the interplay between the eST design and control problem, the design of a responsive power grid, the management of energy resources, the design of community infrastructure and the societal deployment issues. We will measure our success using sustainability and accessibility metrics. Our approach represents an “up front” and integrated analysis of the problem that simultaneously involves multiple disciplines to determine the feasibility of using eSTs to solve the last-mile problem which we view as a step towards broader transformation of the transportation system. The research will begin with an analysis of the existing transportation system in southeast Michigan as a case study for exploring eSTs and other potential solutions to the last mile problem.

University of Michigan - Office of Provost
Research Areas
Mobility Systems