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Thesis successfully defended!

And here it is.

I’m pretty proud to say that beside searching for the elusive schedule padding, and possibly finding some, I managed fit in a comment about the inevitability of death, a quote from Jerry Seinfeld, and a self-deprecating jab at the idea of human rights.

Also, I put videos in a PDF1. Who the hell knew that was possible?

Show 1 footnote

  1. but I’ve taken the liberty of sparing you from that in the version I’ve uploaded here.
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Posted in: Analysis | Method | Priorities | Technology Choices
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Thesis Topics! (potential)

I’m being urged to get my act together regarding my masters thesis. I have a set of datasets I know I want to explore but I need to find a question of sorts that I can quite thoroughly answer with them. I also need to decide what type of person would be good to oversee this project — the ‘committee’ and whatnot. As I so often do, I’ll use you anonymous readers as the spur to set my thoughts to bytes and thereby make rigorous my abstractions.

SO: My dataset is real-time transit data feeds. I don’t care what buses are doing right now unless I’m waiting for them — I care what patterns they’re scratching into our lives. I’ve already demonstrated a Python script that will make random requests from a real-time API and store the results. There exist comparable API’s from other agencies that this script can easily be adapted to. As many agencies as have APIs I could squirrel data from.  That’s the dataset or set thereof.

My question has been more difficult to discover. I have so many! Here are a few:

I suppose  the first question is probably my best shot. Though #5 is certainly intriguing.  Now on to the lit review I suppose? *deep breath*

And then the committee! Beside my adviser, who is a regular transit user and quantitative geographer, I want another statistician/data-person, and this shouldn’t be too hard to find. I also want someone really good at graphic communication. For that latter, I want someone from DAAP. But I want to be sure that they don’t think or feel or act as though I’ve invited them to proof my presentation while others address it’s content; content is inseparable from presentation. Form does not follow function; rather both form and function must mirror each other. If I fail to make that happen, I will have miscommunicated or misunderstood my project.

Oh dear readers, what would you want to know if you knew, as I may, where all the buses are all the time?

Comments: 2
Posted in: Analysis | Psychological
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The ‘Leader in Operational Efficiency’

The UC Economics Center, a business that seems to produce only favourable ‘economic impact’ studies for its clients, recently reported1, after being paid an unknown amount by SORTA itself, that SORTA is the ‘leader in operational efficiency’ among a group of peer cities.

The actual report

Slideshow version of the report

I heard about this a while ago from several different news-sources, though only recently got around to finding it and reading the actual report2. Curiously, none of the news sources I found actually linked to the paper itself, though i did find it just now on SORTA’s website.

My nutshell take-away is this: SORTA is the ‘most efficient’ among the (only) 12 cities studied entirely because of it’s disproportionate reliance on fare revenue as a source of operating money. They actually phrased one aspect of this measure in the executive summary as “fare revenue earned per operating expense”, which is at best an awkward way to say something very simple, or at worst, distinctly misleading about the agency’s raison d’etre.

The study itself, and a couple of the articles that wrote about it did draw attention to this odd definition of ‘efficiency’, though I want to reemphasize it here and draw further notice to the conclusion the report draws based on this unusual metric. The paper says in conclusion to the executive summary:

…Metro’s demonstrated operational efficiency should position it favourably to receive and efficiently manage additional funds. …

Well, this is really like saying a starving person is well positioned to receive food, that an anorexic is being efficient with her calories and thereby deserves more. But it also raises the question: well-positioned with who?

I think it’s reasonable to presume we might first think of the federal government since this study compares major US cities, but it never mentions capital funding at all and the feds simply aren’t in the business of giving operating funds to local agencies. That leaves us with state and local sources of funding, but aren’t these the same people who’ve been starving the agency to the point where it’s the ‘most efficient’ in the region? The report indicates that PA is much more generous with its city’s transit agencies, but somehow I doubt we’ll convince them that we’re well positioned to manage funds from the state of Pennsylvania.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Dear god, this was half a year ago…I’m going to be dead before I know it!
  2. My thanks to Erika Fiola for leaving me her printed copy. My eyes would never have lasted through the PDF version.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Misconceptions
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A job for urban planners? Part 1: the problem

Greater Cincinnati has a lot more urban planners than it cares to employ as such.

If you’re thinking about going into the field, all you current or aspiring DAAP kids, you should know that you aren’t likely to find the job you might expect here. Of all the people I personally know in the area with degrees in urban planning, probably at least a couple dozen, I can think of four who are actually employed as planners. The rest of them are by and large doing interesting things, but not in a way that uses their degree to earn money, or if they are it’s not even remotely near Cincinnati. DAAP churns out about 40 planners a year, about one of which on average will find a planning job here after graduation.1

This is more than a little frustrating for many of us locally cultivated planners, and really, really good for the region. I’d like to begin here to explore ways the situation could be better for planners, and better still for Cincinnati.

First, why planners are good for the region: I think you can think of us as a civic-minded type of bohemian. Like artists, the younger among us are poor, grossly underemployed and tend to cluster together for mutual inspiration. Like classic bohemians we’re often very interested in producing change. Unlike classic bohemians, we tend to have very concrete ideas of what that change would entail.

Urban planners are, in my opinion, by nature some of the best citizens you’ll find in the republic2. We’re wonderfully knowledgeable about governmental and social structures but decidedly apolitical. Planners are reasonable, sometimes to a fault. Trained to handle potentially riotous public meetings on sometimes controversial topics, we know how to calm and deflect, to find agreement, and lead civil conversations toward tangible common goals. We understand, like architects how the subtleties of our physical environment affect people’s perceptions of the world and of each other and are often very conscious of how our own actions indirectly affect others.

Young, underemployed urban planners tend to start interesting and very civic projects. This website, Spring in Our Steps, UrbanCincy, or the People’s Department of Transportation (Columbus) provide a few interesting and fruitful examples from local planning grads that I know personally. Many other young planners are regular fixtures at public meetings of all sorts, providing in some sessions I’ve seen most of the thoughtful(as opposed to uselessly naive and self-interested) input on everything from SORTA’s route changes to the Cincinnati Master Plan.

These are generalizations to be sure, but to the extent that generalizations can be made about any group, I think they’re fairly accurate ones.

So what’s the problem? Normal planning jobs are absurdly secure for the few people who have them and the whole profession has been shrinking if not simply failing to grow. There is almost no chance of getting paid for any of this work. That means people will eventually leave the field or never get into it to begin with. As far as I can see, earning a planning degree is a big gamble; either you end up as one of the few people to get a secure municipal job for as long as you want it or you don’t get any work at all and you give up on planning to do something else. A planning degree is a 5 year, $100,0003 bet against the odds.4

urban planners looking for work in a tough job market

We need to learn to hunt.

Planners seem to still be hanging around and doing interesting stuff though, right? We must be paying the rent somehow. Here are the problems with getting by with pay from another industry while doing planning projects on the side, unpaid:

An illustration: UC’s Niehoff Studio6 seems like it might offer a good model for bridging the gap between planners and the real, paid world, but as I’ll describe the results, the program is typical of the all-too-common corporate exploitation of unpaid creative work.

In a nutshell, the studio attempts to pair up outside organizations (like a transit agency) with a group of student planners, engineers and architects who will work (unpaid and actually, paying when you count tuition and time) for a semester on a ‘big problem’ that the organization might face (like “How might bus rapid transit be implemented?”). The problems are usually local and a low-level representative from the outside agency comes by a few times through the course of the semester to provide guidance to the students as they develop their projects. Through most of their work, a DAAP professor sets the guidelines and requirements. At the end there’s a presentation before the projects are graded and filed away.

One might be temped to think that this arrangement could offer public agencies and non-profits an excellent chance to get valuable ideas from a pool of creative young talent from which they might later hire, and for the planners, a chance to meet and learn from people in their field while working on real-world problems; sort of an interning-lite.7 The ‘from which they might hire’ part I hope I’ve already adequately addressed the possibilities of, so let’s go straight for the ‘helpful new ideas’ and ‘real-world problems’. Planners are deeply interested in affecting the world positively, and the ability to contribute to building a better city is as big a goal as the paycheck for most people.

In the case of Niehoff students, the remove from the agency itself, the fact that planning students are not actually working within the agency, means that the solutions planners come up with are almost completely unmoored from reality and thus unusable. The professors encourage this, egging the students on to ‘think big’ and come up with ideal solutions. The proposals that result are pretty much entirely ignored by the agency because they’re either blatantly illegal(usually in the form of wanton property takings) or financially impossible(new multi-billion-dollar subways bored through bedrock). This problem could be remedied by having each student work in close collaboration with the people from the agency for which the work is being done. Students can’t reasonably be expected to know what the agencies expectations are andd how far they can push them if the two aren’t talking regularly…but that would get too close to being a job or an internship–something the agency would reasonably be expected to pay for. The work done in the Niehoff studio stays closer to the abstract than to reality, allowing everyone to think of the students as students rather than as consultants and devaluing their work to the point where they must pay for the privilege of doing it.

Wanting to stay in the field, how can us planners create our own jobs outside of the archetypical local government positions which there simply aren’t enough any of? We need money and we need authority to do good work here. How do we get these things?

Show 7 footnotes

  1. Source: my ass, which hasn’t failed me yet
  2. This is absolutely a self-selection bias, though the work reinforces the early inclination.
  3. In state tuition + moderate living expenses ( + time??).
  4. At least if you want to stay in Cincinnati, or really, any major urban area where competition is fierce.
  5. Planners don’t expect useful feedback from the public; their plans are mostly developed by the time they’re open for public comment. Getting comments at this point from (citizen )planners who have criticisms that are hard or impossible to dismiss throws a wrench in the works. The right time for comments like these is earlier in the planning process.
  6. I did indeed go through several studios in this program. This isn’t just hearsay ;-)
  7. Unpaid interning has it’s own…let’s say ‘issues’ that I need not elaborate on here!
Comments: 2
Posted in: Plans
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Cooperation

Isn’t this refreshing?

SORTA advertises accross the river!

With the understanding that public agencies rarely get positive feedback, I want to take a moment to thank SORTA for this awesome ad that I saw on the way to class today. If I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve overheard someone (in Ohio) asking their friend how they can get to the airport only to hear ‘taxi’ as the reply1, I’d have a fist full of nickels which is still not enough to take a taxi to the airport. It’ll buy me a trip on the 2X though($2), which if I may add to the ad, has lovely plush seats that are much nicer than a dirty taxi anyway :-)

Hooray for inter-agency advertising!

Are these sorts of ads anywhere else? I’ve only seen them on UC’s campus, though I’d like to think XU, Cincy State, and (dare I dream) even some of the neigborhood business districts have advertising with their own localized, practical and relevant suggestions.

Show 1 footnote

  1. I always interject at this point.
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Posted in: Ads
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How not to advertise transit

avertisement

Why is this the wrong way to advertise transit? Let me count the ways:

  1. What is “METRO * PLUS”? This ad does not tell us.
  2. Seriously, point #1 is a huge enough fail that I’m going to give it two points. To reiterate, this ad does not even hint at what “METRO * PLUS” might be. Is it a cell phone plan with good uptown coverage?
  3. Assuming we know it’s some sort of transit which is already a pretty big leap for suburbanites and/or foreign students or almost anyone else who would see this ad on UC’s main campus, where the hell does the thing actually go? “Connect uptown” to what exactly? When? For whom?
  4. Assuming we’re informed enough to already know what the m+ is and where it goes, let’s think critically abut the statement: “METRO * PLUS is the smart way to connect uptown.” Why would this be so? Why would the m+ be the smart way? Is the m+ the smartest way for someone living on Ludlow to get to campus? It doesn’t go anywhere near Ludlow. That would be decidedly not smart.
    map of uptown cincinnati
    The smart way? That depends on where you are and where you’re going! For a great many people, indeed, thousands a day in uptown, the #17, #78, or #46, #31, #51, or #19  seem to be the smarter way to ‘connect uptown’. These routes are going where they’re going. Taking the m+ to somewhere you don’t want to go would be one of several dumb ways to get around. The m+ is the smart way to get around uptown when you’re starting somewhere near one of the stops and ending somewhere near another one of the stops at a time when the m+ is running AND when another route couldn’t serve you better. The m+ is the worst possible way to ‘connect uptown’ on the weekends(when it doesn’t run).
  5. Finally, are we relying on a minor local celebrity to sell positive associations with an abstract concept and/or set of brand colors or are we trying to tell people about a new transit service they might actually use to get to some real, specific place? It would seem SORTA had the former in mind.

I posit that the person who made and/or approved this advertisement does not themselves use transit much nor do they understand at all therefor how it works or why people would want to use it. This ad probably makes sense to someone who has a degree in marketing, and who sees it as their job to ‘promote Metro’s brand’ or some equally bland, abstract thing. This kind of person would probably be a great fit at P&G where they could work to systematically put smiling, pretty people(potentially also wearing bowties) next to bottles of shampoo or sticks of deoderant. Such products rely on brands because they’re all essentially the same and the differentiation that makes them stand out from the competition must be almost entirely fabricated.

Transit however is substantially, even enormously different in kind from it’s potential competition. Brands  simply do not work in such a market in the same way. When products are tremendously different, like a personal car vs. a fixed-route bus, a brand or celebrity endorsement will not be the deciding factor. The facts of either option will be. Which gets you there faster? Which is cheaper? Which is better? This kind of ad tells us absolutely nothing that will help us make a decision about how to get around.

For a transit agency this kind of marketing is just nonsense.
And SORTA just keeps churning it out.

Comments: 3
Posted in: Ads
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