Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bus Meister: build in external challenges

Yesterday Streetsblog featured two articles in the companion site Streetswiki by transit planner Andrew Nash. Nash has put up a paper called Web 2.0 for Transport Planning that he will present at the Transportation Research Board next year, and a description of a project he calls BusMeister, and is asking for feedback in the form of wiki edits.

I admire Nash's efforts to further collaboration, and his desire to harness the benefits of "Web 2.0" applications to this end. I'm also intrigued by his use of the wiki application to solicit feedback. I hate to disappoint by going all Web 1.0 on him, but my suggestion is a more global one that I think is better presented as a blog post.

Nash is right that there is a lot of citizen interest in improving transportation, and that incorporating that interest has the potential to empower people and serve them better at the same time. This interest can be seen in the genre of subway fantasy maps. I've created my own fantasy maps from time to time. BusMeister could help make these proposals more useful to professional transit planners.

However, there's a big gap in getting transportation improvements from idea to reality, and getting professionals to notice them is only part of the challenge. The rest is that there are other people involved, many of whom don't care about the improvement. But they do care about a number of finite resources (land and money, mostly) that that improvement is competing for.

The Straphangers' Campaign's Rider Diaries bulletin board is full of innovative subway routing proposals, to the point where some regulars came up with the phrase "Brian's imaginary train set" to describe them. If that sounds a little disparaging, there's a reason for it. Often these proposals are designed to fulfill a personal need of the designer, or an abstract desire for simplicity, or some other minor need. Often, proposals like this are shot down because they would route trains away from major commuting populations, or require large new tunnels without much justification.

If you're Bob Moses or (sometimes) Dan Doctoroff, you may be able to get your plan implemented without a lot of debate. But usually, if a proposal makes it out of the discussions of railfans, bus geeks or historical preservationists to the main political arena, it often encounters people who worry that it might take away precious budget money or land, or bring "undesirables."

Train projects get in line for funding, or fail to win political support for the necessary right-of-way - if they're not simply dismissed as impractical. Bus projects get shot down by motorists afraid they will no longer be able to "double-park to see the doctor."

Sometimes the opposition is justified, sometimes it isn't, but it's important for transit and livable streets advocates to understand the potential sources of opposition to their proposals. Not necessarily to shoot them down, but at least to anticipate the level of commitment that the project would need.

Politics is a notoriously difficult subject, and I have no illusions that an application like Bus Meister would be able to precisely quantify the level of opposition that a given proposal would generate. But I would hope that it would be able to give participants real-time feedback on at least some of these aspects of a proposal, and allow them to fine-tune it. Things like anticipated capital and operating costs, number of parking spaces or lane-miles of roadway required, and amount of time added to competing single-occupant vehicle trips. (That last is a good thing if it doesn't generate too much opposition!)

This might add way too much to the complexity of the project, but I wanted to make the suggestion, and I hope Andy will find it useful. Thanks for the stimulating question.


Alon Levy said...

How the hell did my maps, which I never linked to anywhere, get to be on page 1 of Google Images?

Cap'n Transit said...

If you didn't link to them, someone else did under your name.

Alon Levy said...

No, that was me. I just forgot about my forum posts there. I thought Google didn't archive forum posts well, only blog posts.