RIT is confronting the global challenges of sustainability through interdisciplinary programs that integrate engineering and science with economics and public policy.
by: William Dube November 2009
The lack of quantifiable data to assess transportation policies is a central impediment to improving transportation networks. RIT is applying computer-based models that aim to better inform public and private decision makers with quantifiable data.
"Policy makers often make decisions based on incomplete information, leading to potentially disastrous unintended consequences," says Dr. James Winebrake, professor and chair of the department of science, technology, and society/public policy. "This is particularly true in the energy and environmental fields."
For example, federal mandates are currently in place to increase production of ethanol as an alternative to conventional fuels. However, such mandates may induce other effects, such as poor land use practices or increases in food prices.
"The unintended consequences of environmental decision making need to be studied through the acquisition of data and application of energy, environmental, and economic models. Understanding these impacts will help decision makers make better decisions," adds Dr. Karl Korfmacher, associate professor of biological sciences.
To address this dilemma and develop a more synergistic approach to environmental policy making, Winebrake, Korfmacher, and Dr. Scott Hawker, assistant professor of software engineering, are leading a multidisciplinary, multi-university effort aimed at incorporating novel computing and modeling technologies into the environmental decision making process. The Lab for Environmental Computing and Decision Making (LECDM), seeks to develop better data on the cost and benefits of different environmental policies and technologies, while also providing insights on which policies, when used in combination, provide enhanced benefit.
The lab is currently working with the National Science Foundation, the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the state of California, among others, to develop new transportation models that can assist policy makers in better managing freight transport and better assessing the impact of new laws designed to reduce vehicle emissions. The lab also utilizes modeling tools to improve a host of additional policy making functions including analysis of consumer decision making and emergency preparedness.
"New modeling techniques have the potential to greatly improve public policy analysis," notes Hawker. "These models can ultimately be used by individual municipalities, federal agencies, and global non-governmental organizations to better inform public decisions related to environmental quality, alternative energy development, and sustainable transportation design."
A major issue in designing more sustainable transportation systems deals with the movement of commercial goods. The transportation of freight in the United States is conducted mainly over land by heavy-duty trucks, which consume large amounts of imported petroleum, release significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and cause considerable congestion on America's highways. For example, the transport of one truckload of freight from Cleveland to Toronto releases an estimated 340 kilograms of carbon dioxide and 2210 grams of nitrogen oxides. The use of alternative transit methods, such as rail and ship, can reduce these environmental impacts, but travel times are often longer.
"Intermodal transit, where multiple methods of transport are used to move goods, is now seen by most planners as an excellent alternative because it reduces the environmental impacts of all modes, while using the fastest routes to reduce time and cost," says Dr. Sandra Rothenberg, associate professor of management and an affiliate researcher of LECDM.
To better assess the uses and impacts of intermodal transit, the lab has created the Geospatial Intermodal Freight Transportation model, or GIFT, a Geographic Information System-based modeling program jointly developed with the University of Delaware that evaluates the environmental impacts of goods movement. The system utilizes mapping technology similar to Google Maps to evaluate shipping routes using different or multiple modes of transportation and then calculates the cost, time, and emissions for each route mapped.
GIFT allows shippers and policy makers to identify the easiest ways to move freight throughout the country, and properly assess the impact of the incorporation of different modes on cost, travel time, and the environment.
The model is unique in that it allows decision makers to model freight transport in multiple modes, including roads, water, and rail. Previous systems of this type were able to focus on only one mode of transit, reducing the accuracy of the models created and ignoring the potential economic, energy, and environmental benefits of intermodal freight transport.
"GIFT allows for a broader analysis of the benefits of intermodal transit by measuring how traditional supply routes can be made 'greener' through the addition of alternative transit modes whether they be truck, ship, or rail," adds Hawker. "It also provides data on the impact of current freight routes on energy use and emissions so planners can more properly assess how goods movement impacts the environment."
Lab researchers are currently using GIFT to assist government agencies in improving freight transportation planning. Researchers are also working to assess broader transportation-related issues, such as the health impacts of freight transportation and opportunities to improve disaster management modeling.
Using the GIFT model, LECDM worked with the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute to analyze the energy and environmental impacts of freight transit in the Great Lakes region. The study modeled the transportation of goods from Cleveland to Toronto by rail, ship, and truck and evaluated the differences between the modes in terms of cost, time, and emissions. The results illustrate the difficulties facing transportation policy makers and the need for intermodal methods in moving freight.
"Compared to a truck route, a water route through the Great Lakes cost less and released fewer greenhouse gases, but it took over twice as long for delivery," Hawker says. "The truck route was quicker than the rail or water routes but also the most polluting. Given this, none of the three modes by themselves is optimal."
However, by using the GIFT model, the decision maker could evaluate an intermodal route that meets economic, environmental, and energy goals, and generate maps that identify how and where each mode of transportation is employed.
"The data provides quantifiable evidence of the benefits of intermodal transportation and illustrates how modeling can be used by government agencies or companies to evaluate the best method for moving freight from city to city," Hawker continues.
The lab has followed up on this work by contracting with the state of California to assist in an assessment of its freight transportation system. The research will help California develop an overall environmental "footprint" of goods movement within the state. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, about 40 percent of all U.S. containerized cargo comes through California ports.
"California is a major freight hub and a key player in efforts to reduce emissions in this sector," notes Korfmacher. "State planners will use GIFT to assess the impact of current policies on air quality and evaluate how enhanced use of intermodal transit may further decrease emissions."
LECDM is applying the results from its GIFT research to further understand the impact of freight transit on overall transportation emissions and to identify energy and environmental policies that might address pollution from this sector. For example, Winebrake is a member of two National Research Council committees that are advising federal regulators about the options for improved fuel economy standards and the use of alternative fuels for light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles.
Along with its transportation planning uses, GIFT is being utilized to assess the global health impact of shipping and support disaster management planning.
In 2007, Winebrake and Dr. James Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, published the first report to benchmark the number of annual deaths caused globally by pollution from marine vessels.
The study used GIFT and other models to correlate the global distribution of particulate matter—black carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and organic particles—released from ships' smoke stacks with heart disease and lung cancer mortalities in adults. The results, published in Environmental Science and Technology, the journal of the American Chemical Society, indicate that approximately 60,000 people suffer premature mortality around the world each year from shipping-related emissions. Further work published in 2009 by the research team also shows that with the expected growth in shipping activity, the annual mortalities from ship emissions could reach 87,000 annually by 2012.
Winebrake is currently working with the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations entity that regulates global shipping, to further assess the overall environmental impacts of ship transit and assist the agency in developing proposed regulations aimed at reducing ship emissions.
"The problems of emissions from shipping are sizable and have largely been ignored by the international community," Winebrake adds. "This work will allow us to better understand the contributions that ships make to our atmospheric pollution problems and assist policy makers in better managing this system."
In addition, LECDM affiliate researcher Jennifer Schneider, professor of civil engineering technology, environmental management and safety, is using GIFT to improve emergency management planning and response to disasters. The research is assessing the effectiveness of current disaster management plans and assisting agencies to effectively incorporate transportation into their response.
This includes modeling the quickest routes between populated areas and creating alternate transportation plans using ship and rail to move people, food, and medicine if roads have been closed.
"A key facet of disaster management is the reliance on transportation routing," Schneider says. "Through the use of the GIFT model platform we can assist jurisdictions with properly mapping response routes and preparing alternatives to address unforeseen circumstances such as bridge destruction and flooding. GIFT will also be extended to allow identification of critical nodes in community transportation systems and assist local officials with community 'hardening' of critical infrastructure, a key focus of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."
Environmental policy is a complex and often inexact science. Through the development of more robust modeling technologies, RIT's Lab for Environmental Computing and Decision Making is providing better information to policy makers, improving assessments of current regulation, and assisting in the development of policy reforms. The lab's researchers hope their work will increase the likelihood that future environmental laws will have their intended impact with reduced side effects.
"By providing policy makers with quantifiable data before decisions are made we can enhance the chance that their ultimate decisions will be successful," Winebrake adds.