Bridging Divides in International Transportation Planning

By Christina Olsen

For the past 15 years, Christina Olsen has provided research, advisory services, project management, planning, and general management to a wide range of sustainability organizations and projects around the world. She holds a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard and a BA in Environmental Studies – with a joint major in Anthropology – from the University of Victoria.


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This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.

Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Chris Zegras about the use of technology in interactive urban planning, multi-disciplinary transportation education, and Bus Rapid Transit Oriented Development. He is Associate Professor of Transportation and Urban Planning at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). He teaches, leads large-scale research, and consults on a range of topics, from data collection to behavioral analysis, integrated land use transportation planning and modeling, and project and policy analysis. He is also Lead Principal Investigator for the Future Urban Mobility Interdisciplinary Research Group under the Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), an Executive Board member of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Centre of Excellence, and the lead for the Mobility Futures Collaborative.

What kinds of work are you doing related to urban transportation?

For the past six years, we’ve been a member of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Center of Excellence, working on improving public transport and quality of life in different cities around the world. My work has been in both the education and research sides of that.

On the education side, we co-taught a joint practicum class with Catholic University in Chile, the headquarters of the BRT Center of Excellence. The course was focused on Bus Rapid Transit Oriented Development (BRTOD), looking specifically at corridors in Boston and Santiago. It was a very innovative pedagogic experience as it was a graduate level course jointly taught with two universities across two continents, looking at two different transit corridors together.

We also have ongoing research with many of the Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF) Center of Excellence partners. For example, building from the BRTOD course, we’ve modeled BRTOD in the Boston metropolitan area using integrated land use transportation simulation and planning tools. In another project, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, the Boston area public transport agency) we deployed an innovative smartphone-based approach to measure customers’ satisfaction with the MBTA’s Silver Line BRT.

We have an ongoing project partly supported by the Center of Excellence that uses open source planning tools for engaging various stakeholders in participatory planning around public transport improvements. We’ve done workshop experiments in Roxbury (a Boston neighborhood) to test users’ reactions to BRT corridor ideas, most recently with a local advocacy organization looking at bus priority measures. We are currently working together with our partners at Catholic University to adapt the approach to Santiago and possibly other Chilean cities.

What were some of the benefits and challenges of conducting an education and research program in two countries?

One of my Department’s core Masters degree requirements is a practicum, an interdisciplinary field-based course, with a client, community interaction, and a final product. We have a lot of international students and a huge demand for international learning experiences.

At the same time, carrying out an international practicum poses the risk of pedagogical tourism. It’s hard to do meaningful international engagement when you go study somewhere just for a week, work with students and a local university partner, spend the rest of the semester in a classroom back at MIT, and then eventually deliver a final product.

To avoid this trap and promote inter-university learning, we purposefully decided that we’d look at two places, Santiago and Boston, with students from both universities visiting and working on corridors in both cities. It was precedent setting, as far as I know in that respect, definitely for MIT and Catholic University.

That also means it was very challenging. There were language, timing, and cultural barriers. Six faculty across two universities, as well as student engineers, planners, and architects all trying to work together in teams, posed inter-disciplinary and cultural barriers. At MIT we have a long history of our graduate degrees in city planning and transportation planning working closely together, with numerous students pursuing dual degrees in each. However, Catholic University doesn’t have the same historical experience, which I think mattered in terms of collaboration across disciplines (e.g., transport and urban design). They are moving in that direction and hopefully this experience contributed towards those ends.

The practicum topic itself was also innovative: how to build Transit Oriented Development around Bus Rapid Transit on some prospective corridors. The students quickly discovered that it’s not really a design or engineering problem. More fundamentally, it’s a social and institutional problem, and a planning challenge. So you’re teaching students not just hard skills but so-called non-cognitive skills, such as learning within different disciplines. Yet it happens in such a way that an actionable product is created.

We definitely demonstrated that the students learned about this whole idea of BRTOD, especially regarding implementation possibilities. But the experience also showed how students could or couldn’t work together through the barriers. There was interdisciplinary capability and interest among the students but proximity still mattered and they seemed to work better and get more value from face-to-face exchanges. Even though we live in this globalized world where virtual practice is going to become increasingly important, proximity still really mattered.

What kinds of tools help you with your work?

We haven’t attempted another international pedagogical experiment like that, with students from two universities working together across distances for an entire semester; in part because I haven’t found any good tools to overcome the need for face-to-face interactions for certain learning tasks. Technology has not yet evolved to the point where you can do meaningful teamwork on design-oriented problems remotely. I’m sure it’s coming – virtual realty and so forth – but at the moment, nothing beats sitting around a table together.

On the research front, we’ve been working on an interactive open source collaborative tool called CoAXs that allows users to plan transit. It builds upon other open-source and open data-based tools. Essentially we’ve developed a user interface that’s designed to be public facing and allow easy and meaningful use by a range of stakeholders with different skills and experiences. To date, we’ve used it in facilitated workshops around large touchscreens. Part of our thinking is that in co-creative transit planning, people working in the same space with the same interface can develop empathy and gain understanding of problems and opportunities seen by others. When it’s laid out on a table, people can play with its touch screen, watch others play with it, and then challenge one another’s assumptions.

Again, this isn’t necessarily the way of the future – we have people playing games across continents in virtual settings, after all – but we find that the tangibility and sociability of the tool is useful. However, we’re still in the very early days in terms of the social settings for using such technologies to improve transportation planning. And, because CoAXs runs in a web browser, in theory anyone can also use it on their own just through a website. We are testing the value of such remote, individual use now.

Would you say that more voices are going to be involved in the planning process going forward?

Collaborative planning, where many more stakeholders can interactively engage in a process in real time, is going to be the future. There will still be a need for technical expertise but that black box will be opened up to some degree. That will be threatening to the status quo but also greatly empowering, hopefully leading to the creation of better solutions.

Most indications are that greater buy-in by stakeholders gives a much higher likelihood of a project being successful. A good way to get that buy-in is to get a lot of people involved around identification of the problem, design of the solution, testing the solution, and then monitoring it all. Technology is allowing us to do this because of back-end computational power and increasing data availability. There is a range of tools becoming more common that allows people to interact with each other, with design tools, and with virtual space.

What’s on the horizon with regard to your work?

What’s coming next is continuing to advance and test next generation sophisticated interactive open source tools for better urban planning. We’re developing new technologies using personal smart phones to allow people to better understand options for reducing their environmental footprint. By putting the power into their hand to select less resource-intensive lifestyles, we hope to empower them to choose alternatives that maybe they haven’t thought of before.

VREF support, through the BRT Centre of Excellence, has provided a great opportunity to be part of a leading edge research consortium that fits together nicely as a team. We bring the right components together and it’s a great platform for us to grow the impact and scope of our work and leverage international activities toward a much greater good. In the next five years our hope is continue towards these ends, including working more closely with the other centers, especially in Africa and Asia.

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