Scientist at Work: William Black
As United States policymakers rue their nation's energy dependence and its geopolitical implications, and as the roads, railways, and air spaces of major metropolitan areas buckle under increased transportation demand, Indiana University Bloomington geographer William Black sees new opportunities for Americans to improve the way they (and their things) get from place to place.
Retired but still publishing and working with graduate students, Black has recently completed a new book, Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions, that stands as both a student primer for general transportation science and policy, but also an entreaty for thinking about cars, trains, planes, bicycles, and feet as crucial parts of a transportation network that can influence -- positively or negatively -- everything from our longevity and quality of life to our individual and collective prospects of economic success.
"Any kind of transportation can be sustainable," Black says. "But never if you overuse it. One of my goals with the book is get students and others to think differently and more deeply about something many people take for granted."
While other books exist on the sustainable use of specific modes of transportation, such as cars or airplanes, Black's book is the first to consider sustainable transport of all types.
Black wanted to create a comprehensive book on the subject. "I also wanted to have something I could give to my students, a book that would properly supplement my lectures."
Black became interested in transportation research as a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Later at Indiana University, he heard a visiting scholar from the National Center for Atmospheric Research deliver a compelling lecture on the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.
"It got me thinking not only about how transportation can impact climate, but how climate change policies can impact transportation," Black recalls. "I realized changes in climate and climate policy would influence how whole economies were organized and how national transportation networks might shift with changes in agricultural production. I was fascinated."
Black directed his fascination into a career of bountiful scholarship. He has published more than 200 journal articles, books, book chapters and computer programs for a wide variety of transportation subjects. An initial interest in railroads diversified as Black became more involved in research on highway safety and congestion, bus transit, taxis and other "demand-responsive" vehicles, and the social and economic impacts of transportation.
By the time he'd begun writing Sustainable Transportation in 2007, Black had published papers or spoken about virtually every aspect of human transportation. His expertise widely acknowledged, Black has received nearly two dozen honors or awards for his work, including the Distinguished Service Award from the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board, the Association of American Geographers Edward L. Ullman Award for Contributions to Transportation Geography, and the title Sagamore of the Wabash from the State of Indiana.
After earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in geography from the University of Iowa, Black spent a year at Miami University of Ohio before joining the IU Bloomington faculty in 1969. He has held adjunct and professional positions during his academic career, including a stint as chief of Conrail-State Negotiations for Conrail's 1975-76 Activation Task Force, which was created to merge several bankrupt freight railroads that existed from Massachusetts to Illinois. In 1980 he was appointed as Indiana's first Director of Transportation. He was also chair of the IU Bloomington Department of Geography from 1985 to 1989 and again from 2003 to 2007.
Black's Sustainable Transportation is divided into two major parts. The first summarizes "The Nature of the Problem," that is, the state of modern transportation networks and the costs and benefits associated with different approaches to moving people and their possessions. The second part, "Possible Solutions," addresses in detail the various methods that have or can be used to reduce the costs associated with transportation. Black's measured and fair survey includes non-regulatory measures, such as education and technological advances, as well as governmental measures that may reduce fatalities, pollution, congestion, and increase fuel efficiency. Lifting the veil of confusing statistics that can sometimes obstruct understanding, Black explains clearly and succinctly why specific measures work in certain circumstances and not others.
For example, whereas extensive rail systems in Switzerland may work wonderfully for the Swiss, simply creating such a network in the U.S. would not alleviate America's highway congestion problems, Black says.
"And it wouldn't be cost effective, either," he says. "It's been said before, and it's true. It's just not feasible in the United States to get rid of the automobile. I don't expect that to change in the near future, if ever. But that doesn't mean car-based transport networks can't be vastly improved."
Noting that American car-borne pollution has been reduced 90 to 95 percent since the 1970s, with further pollution reductions on the horizon, Black says advances in engine technology and the public's willingness to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles show that the car can be adapted to become a more sustainable mode of transport. The Obama Administration recently spearheaded new rules for fuel efficiency that require manufacturers to achieve a 35 mile-per-gallon average for their conventional vehicle fleets by 2016.
But Black also warns that technology alone is no magic bullet -- that changes in regulation are sometimes needed. "The idea that technology can solve all problems is a very American perspective," he says. "It can solve many problems, but not all of them. Across Europe, people tend to think policy solutions are a better approach to making transport more sustainable. And that's sometimes true, too. It's just that in the U.S., we are less receptive to that sort of thing. Politicians are scared to death of putting even a 3-cent tax on gas, while Europeans pay as much as four to five times what we do for fuel."
Whether or not those policies are antithetical to the American way of life, dissertation research by one of Black's Ph.D. students, Bradley Lane, showed that in 32 cities, gasoline prices were directly correlated with mass transit use, though that relationship was stronger in metropolitan areas that had more extensive mass transit systems already in place.
"Our thinking about transportation and transport policy must become more flexible if we are to achieve a more sustainable transport system," Black says.