New Kinds of Questions
Humphrey School researchers are testing their ideas of how we can make infrastructure work better to support healthier and happier cities. Here are a few of their projects.
Could bike sharing be better?
Professor Greg Lindsey, who specializes in environmental and transportation planning, is working with Jueyu Wang, a doctoral student at the Humphrey School, to learn if bike-sharing systems could better meet people’s needs, complement other transportation options, and reduce carbon emissions. Using data from several bike-share programs, including Twin Cities-based Nice Ride, they are looking at what influences ridership at various stations and how adding stations to a network may change riders’ behavior. Characteristics of the built environment around them are emerging as a factor. “The reality is that these systems are complex, and they are hard to optimize,” Lindsey says.
Lindsey and Wang also are looking at dockless bike-share systems, which are already in use in China, parts of Europe, and a few U.S. cities. Cheaper to operate and potentially more environmentally friendly, dockless systems use a mobile-payment system and allow riders to pick up a bike wherever they see one and leave it wherever they end up. “People are moving ahead with dockless systems for good reasons,” Lindsey says, “but right now there isn’t enough research to determine whether they really increase ridership or what the implications are for sustainability, particularly in the North American context.”
Can public transit be more appealing?
Associate professor of regional policy and planning Jason Cao’s past research has shown that residents of high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods are in many ways more satisfied with their lives than their suburban counterparts, who lack easy access to transit, restaurants, and shops. Now he’s collaborating with Yingling Fan to better understand people’s transit preferences. Cao is posing questions like: How close must a transit stop be to a person’s house for them to use public transportation? And what transportation options might some prefer?
Who benefits from community solar?
Gabriel Chan, an assistant professor of science, technology, and environmental policy, wants to know whether the potential benefits attributed to community solar programs are real, and whether such systems are actually working as intended. Community solar programs allow multiple households to buy into small-scale solar arrays operated by a third party, often a local business. Ideally, all who help with financing share in the financial and tax benefits that go with generating this type of clean energy, which is fed back to the local power grid. Chan is finding that doesn’t always happen. “There is a huge gap between the idea and the reality of [them],” he says, explaining that they are more often used by and thus benefit wealthier people and businesses. “In my research I try to highlight that solving environmental problems may improve equity outcomes, and the political viability of our policies is going to depend on equity,” he says. “It’s going to be hard to accept community solar over the long term if it only benefits certain kinds of people.”
What’s the best funding mechanism?
Funding is often what prevents cities from making changes that might benefit them, according to Jerry Zhao, an associate professor of public administration. “We don’t have a well-developed urban transit system in the U.S., and that is not because we don’t know how to build a bus or lay out light rail lines,” he says. What’s needed are good funding strategies. He and a research assistant are compiling data on how 470 urbanized areas, including the Twin Cities, are funded by federal, state, local, and other sources. “We want to understand how to pool resources at every level to create solutions,” he says.
Read more about the work of the Sustainable Healthy Cities network in Urban Outfitting.
Story by Meleah Maynard