Sustainable Design: Easy on the Eye and on the Earth

'The Art Center Summit: Designing Sustainable Mobility' held in the Center's LEED-certified South Campus Wind Tunnel in Pasadena, California.

From luxury cars to rickshaws, environmentally friendly transport options need to incorporate creative design elements in order to have mass appeal, according to experts from a wide variety of disciplines. “Sustainable mobility issues aren’t to be left just with science and technology [specialists],” says Dave Muyres, vice president of educational initiatives at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “It’s one thing to have the technology to do it, but another to have people use it.”

Muyres and others pointed to the importance of design in sustainable transportation at conferences this month in Pasadena and Washington, D.C. Energy expert Amory Lovins, speaking at the College of Design’s “Designing Sustainable Mobility” summit on February 7–8, observed that the automobile industry needs a “technological leap” like the one the music industry took from vinyl records to CDs to digital downloads, Business Week reports. Lovins attested that better engineering can help dispel the commonly held view of ecologically conscious cars as being “small, unsafe, sluggish, costly, and ugly.” Representatives from Honda, Ford, General Motors, and BMW also related their experiences designing  more “eco-friendly” private vehicles.

Two weeks later, participants at the “Sustainable Transportation Services for the Urban Poor” conference in Washington, D.C. revealed similar perspectives on transport development. Walter Hook of International Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) noted that while vehicle affordability is paramount for the world’s poor, design is still important. After ITDP developed a new incarnation of cycle rickshaws in India, he explained, customers and cyclists alike appreciated the greater comfort and safety of the machines, which also helped boost operator incomes by 20–50 percent.

Also speaking at the conference, Professor Ellen Brennan-Galvin of Yale University stressed the importance of “branding” to encourage people to ride the more-efficient bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in Curitiba, Brazil, and elsewhere. She noted that because BRT systems possess a certain panache that traditional buses do not (for instance, spawning on-board weddings and even upscale restaurants centered on a BRT theme), middle-class riders are more willing to use them. Successful branding, Brennan-Galvin said, has resulted in an “absolute explosion of BRT around the world,” with 40-50 systems being built today.

“‘Cool’ doesn’t necessarily mean expensive” when it comes to design, Muyres of the Art Center College of Design noted at the Pasadena conference. While students at his school excel at balancing all elements of vehicle development, he explained, in the future great car designers “won’t be judged by the same things” as today. Instead, they will have to also understand key environmental considerations, including “infrastructure and the footprint it requires.”

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.