James Wong comes to OpenPlans Transportation to explore next steps in transportation planning tools. He currently studies transportation planning and engineering at Georgia Tech. Before that he’s been a transportation consultant at transit agencies up and down the eastern seaboard and even Africa. James sat down to talk about where he’s been, what he’s been doing and where he plans to take us.
What are you hoping to accomplish while you are here at OpenPlans?
I really want to have a tangible piece of web software or some tool that I can say I’ve worked on and helped build over the summer. I think the team and I have some neat ideas already which we’re putting into place so that it can be accomplished during my time here. Whatever I help create, I’d love for it to fold into a thesis idea. That’s what I really wish to accomplish – I hope to think of a killer thesis idea for when I go back to school. If its collaborative with OpenPlans then even better – I’d love to continue the relationship after I go back. I also hope to write a publishable paper for us to submit to the Transportation Research Board and present it in January
How do you like OpenPlans so far?
I’ve been pretty excited about everything I’ve been working on and the people I’ve had a chance to work with. But it’s definitely taken some getting used to. “Open” is a very different way of doing things than my previous experience as a transportation consultant – its like collaboration on hyperdrive. I’m absolutely excited every morning to come to work though – you can’t beat the vibe in the office.
So if this is truly “open” what was your last “closed” work experience like?
I’ve never thought of my previous work environments as closed, but certainly there was less sitting together, less collaboration, less spending time thinking about big picture ideas for the industry. I used to work with analysts and staff at other consulting firms, public agencies, land developers – now I feel like I am collaborating with a lot of just interested people looking at transportation from a different perspective.
The structure of my internship is really liberating because its a kind of R&D role. Kevin Webb has invited me to think very broadly about how we use the tools we have for different purposes. I’m basically researching anything I think is important and working on developing anything that is relevant, based on several different interviews with professionals that I’ve been doing. We also had more of a dress code. And regular work hours.
Where do you see your research heading?
I’m in school to learn more about how to bridge planning and engineering which are often at different ends of the spectrum both in proposals and in overall ways of thinking. The research I’m doing is a good start because it uses data and analysis to inform planning processes. I want to build a metaphorical bridge between planning professionals and engineering professionals. Most of what I’m working on this summer is about how to take the user-facing tools that OpenPlans has developed and turn them around to be used as transportation planning tools. We have ways to completely overhaul some surprisingly antiquated methods of assessing transit in cities. In many cases, for example, an agency would need the timetable of every bus route at one stop to see how many buses stopped there in a day. We can access that data in mere seconds now.
What are other examples of those antiquated tools ?
I’ve had to go out and drive along an entire bus route to see what the condition of the bus stop was by counting the amenities like whether it has a schedule, bench, shelter etc. It took several days. What if we had a streetview app that instantly brought the user to every bus stop on a route – it’s faster, eco friendly, and plenty accurate for the kind of work we’re doing. But more than just antiquated methods/tools, we simply haven’t been analyzing transit the way we can now. There’s a book of methodologies (its called the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service manual – its uber boring if you’re not a transit nerd) that’s considered largely theoretical because the data has never been easily accessible. However, now that it is, we can start to invoke those methods that assess availability, comfort and convenience of transit.
By providing some real analysis for transit, we can offer far more credence and legitimacy to transit in the planning process which will help to justify investments in it. You’d be amazed at the level of detailed analysis we do for streets and intersections and everything related to cars; we’ve had a manual for 60 years for cars. The one for transit is about 10 yrs old
What transit systems have you engaged with before?
MTA (Maryland), SEPTA (Philadelphia), WMATA (DC), MARTA (Atlanta) almost all the small transit agencies in the state of Maryland (there’s about 40). Next stop will be NYC MTA through this internship!
Is that the El Dorado to reach for a transit nerd?
It is a little bit of the gold standard. Either MTA or Portland’s TriMet. Both of those get lots of deserved hemming and hawing over them.
Do you see the process of transit planning to implementation pretty slow or does it have to crawl along?
It’s not just transit that has a serious lag factor, I’d say all of transportation investments in the US take a long time. This is partly by design and partly a result of an over-democratized national mindset. Two things – the process, and transportation funding.
Is that unique to the USA or do other countries have better way of planning and building transit?
The transportation planning process takes forever because there are just so many stakeholders involved. In the United States, taking someone’s land for public use is incredibly difficult. Eminent domain, for good reason, is very rarely used. I can’t speak exactly to other countries, but I have a hunch that municipal or other planning governments have much more leverage there
Also – transportation planning is a regional issue and it is unfortunately handled at a very local level. So in NYC for example, we have NY, NJ, CT, NYC, Nassau County, the several other bordering counties, PANYNJ, MTA, RPA and many other government agencies involved in planning. That’s ridiculous.
Sorry – you got me on a rant about transportation planning in America.
The other thing I was going to say about the slowness is that it is currently in congress’s court. Since 1991, the US was known for passing really progressive legislation that funded transportation from interstates to local roads, transit and bike/ped modes too. Every 5 years we get a new one that has slightly different priorities but in general provides a commitment to invest in our infrastructure. Our latest one lapsed in 2008 and hasn’t been renewed for more than a 120 day period since then; this is disgusting for all transportation planners and anyone who ever considers large projects.
Big projects that require national funding are not planned because you cannot plan to build a bridge if you don’t know that you’ll have money 3 months from now. The 5-year planning horizon for federal dollars was just long enough to get things done. We can’t do that these days. Transit, in particular, which is still growing in many cities (unlike interstates which have at least continued funding for maintenance) is hurt by this problem.
And then you end up with transportation projects as line item pork tacked on to other legislation
Yeah and that shouldn’t happen.
Where are you from?
Long Island. Nassau County.
The home of a recent private takeover of a county bus system- NICE. How do you feel about what Veolia has done on the customer service level?
They’re good about that. They run some nice circulator services in the Mid Atlantic (and everywhere really). It’s very considerate. It’s very slow though.
MTA Maryland is all about efficiency – you get in the door and pay your fare while the bus is halfway to the next stop. The city’s circulator, which is run by Veolia, is all about a comfortable customer-service oriented ride; they wait for you to sit down, accelerate slowly so you don’t fall over. Its quaint. And comfortable. And not at all fast. Which is what they wanted – so its fine.
How do you keep yourself busy outside of work?
Well… As a recent transplant to NYC I’ve been super focused on going out every night to meet up with many of the friends I have here who I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve been exploring a lot of the LES and a bit of Brooklyn just over the bridge. I’ve got a bucket list full of things to do including museums, parks, restaurants, running paths, biking paths, beach days, roof parties, Broadway shows, and of course “et cetera”. I also go home on Wednesdays to play in a volleyball league on Long Island with the friends I grew up with and to get home cooked meals. When i’m not as focused on exploring…. I like to cook, play pickup volleyball, worm farm… ya know… the usual.
Is pickup volleyball a thing? The way way pickup basketball is?
Oh yeah. Harder in NYC because there aren’t many courts. There are less than 5 places to play beach volleyball. But in DC – there’s 7 courts right outside the Lincoln Memorial – go with 6 people or by yourself or with whoever – you can always find games to play. Baltimore has a bunch of courts right by the water.
We usually end these interviews with a “say an interesting fact about yourself”; is that your interesting fact- that you’re a volleyball hustler?
Nope – in the last 9 years I’ve lived in 11 different zip codes including 3 in other countries. Also – I’m HispAsian (1/2 Ecuadorian, 1/2 Chinese).
The array of past-home zip codes was Aaron Ogles’ interesting fact. Though you have a few more zip codes on him.
SUP Aaron Ogle.
The Civic Works vs Transportation teams battle begins.
Sorry I was just ‘stepping up’ to aogle. But… no i don’t think I have parting words. I’m just stoked to be here.
Keep up with James throughout the summer as he documents his work on this blog – He also would love your feedback on his ideas so please feel free to leave comments or email him directly – email@example.com