Ofer Eitan Review: What Moves People? MIT Brings Behavioral Science to Urban T - Jonathan Cartu - Moving & Transportation Services
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Ofer Eitan Review: What Moves People? MIT Brings Behavioral Science to Urban T

What Moves People? MIT Brings Behavioral Science to Urban T

Ofer Eitan Review: What Moves People? MIT Brings Behavioral Science to Urban T

“If in the 1980s you asked people what would the [mobility] system look like 20 years in the future, they would say it would probably be the same,” Associate Professor Jinhua Zhao says. “Now, really nobody knows what it will it look like. (Image: Illustration by Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT. Based on a photo by Martin Dee.)

MIT Associate Professor Jinhua Zhao, who will direct the new MIT Mobility Initiative, brings behavioral science to urban transportation.

It’s easy to think of urban mobility strictly in terms of infrastructure: Does an area have the right rail lines, bus lanes, or bike paths? How much parking is available? How well might autonomous vehicles work? MIT Associate Professor Jinhua Zhao views matters a bit differently, however.

To understand urban movement, Zhao believes, we also need to understand people. How does everyone choose to use transport? Why do they move around, and when? How does their self-image influence their choices?

“The main part of my own thinking is the recognition that transportation systems are half physical infrastructure, and half human beings,” Zhao says.

Now, after two decades as a student and professor at MIT, he has built up an impressive body of research flowing from this approach. A bit like the best mobility systems, Zhao’s work is multimodal. He divides his scholarship into three main themes. The first covers the behavioral foundations of urban mobility: the attitudinal and emotional aspects of transportation, such as the pride people take in vehicle ownership, the experience of time spent in transit, and the decision making that results in large-scale mobility patterns within urban regions.

Zhao’s second area of scholarship applies these kinds of insights to design work, exploring how to structure mobility systems with behavioral concepts in mind. What are people’s risk preferences concerning autonomous vehicles? Will people use them in concert with existing transit? How do people’s individual characteristics affect their willingness to take ride-sharing opportunities?

Zhao’s third theme is policy-oriented: Do mobility systems provide access and fairness? Are they met with acceptance? Here Zhao’s work ranges across countries, including China, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S., examining topics like access to rail, compliance with laws, and the public perception of transportation systems.

Within these themes, a tour of Zhao’s research reveals specific results across a wide swath of transportation issues. He has studied how multimodal smartcards affect passenger behavior (they distinctly help commuters); examined the effects of off-peak discounts on subway ridership (they reduce crowding); quantified “car pride,” the sense in which car ownership stems from social status concerns (it’s prevalent in developing countries, plus the U.S.). He has also observed how a legacy of rail transit relates to car-ownership rates even after rail lines vanish, and discovered how potential discriminatory attitudes with respect to class and race influence preferences toward ridesharing.

“People make decisions in all sorts of different ways,” Zhao says. “The notion that people wake up and calculate the utility of taking the car versus taking the bus — or walking, or cycling — and find the one that maximizes their utility doesn’t speak to reality.”

Zhao also wants to make sure that decision-makers recognize the importance of these personal factors in the overall success of their mobility systems.

“I study policy from the individual subject’s point of view,” says Zhao. “I’m a citizen. How do I think about it? Do I think this is fair? Do I understand it enough? Do I comply with the policy? It is more of a behavioral approach to policy studies.”

To be sure, Zhao is more than a researcher; he is an active mentor of MIT students, having been director of the JTL Urban Mobility Lab and the MIT Transit Lab, and chair of the PhD program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). And at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Zhao is also co-director of the MITEI Mobility System Center. For his research and teaching, Zhao was awarded tenure last year at MIT.

This May, Zhao added another important role to his brief: He was named director of the new MIT Mobility Initiative, an Institute-wide effort designed to cultivate a dynamic intellectual community on mobility and transportation, redefine the interdisciplinary education program, and effect fundamental changes in the long-term trajectory of mobility development in the world.

“We are at the dawn of the most profound changes in transportation: an unprecedented combination of new technologies, such as autonomy, electrification, computation and AI, and new objectives, including decarbonization, public health, economic vibrancy, data security and privacy, and social justice,” says Zhao. “The timeframe for these changes — decarbonization in particular — is short in a system with massive amounts of fixed, long-life assets and entrenched behavior and culture. It’s this combination of new technologies, new purposes, and urgent timeframes that makes an MIT-led Mobility Initiative critical at this moment.”

How much can preferences be shaped?

Zhao says the current time is an “exhilarating” age for transportation scholarship. And questions surrounding the shape of mobility systems will likely only grow due to the uncertainties introduced by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“If in the 1980s you asked people what the [mobility] system would look like 20 years in the future, they would say it would probably be the same,” Zhao says. “Now, really nobody knows what it will it look like.”

Zhao grew up in China and attended Tongji University in Shanghai, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in planning in 2001. He then came to MIT for his graduate studies, emerging with three degrees from…

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