Independent transportation planning visualization consultant?

Credits to Dan Pesaturo, a student in the San Jose State University Master of Urban Planning Program. "This set of photos includes a "before" photo and a visualization depicting street design, landscaping, and transit facility improvements that could enliven a stretch of Duboce Street in San Francisco." 

After reading The Best Way to Find Your Vocation, I thought about a possible career paths that I may pursue in the future. It allows me to utilize my strengths and interests, which focus on humanizing how we interact with our infrastructure (urban and transport). I have a huge interest in communication, visualization, and interaction methodologies that bridge the gap in the transporation planning process between decision makers and regular people.

I am debating on becoming a transportation visualization consulant. I sort of alluded to this in a previous post. Here, I define the career, discuss my motivations, the market, how I will enter the field, and the pros/cons of the field. 

Photo credits to Iris Corey. Not exactly transportation, but interactive at least…. There's our map!

Independent transporation visualization consultant 

What is visualization? 

From the UC Berkeley Tech Transfer newsletter, visualization is "is the practice of using pictures to convey the complex character of data or proposed projects and how they function. Traditional visualization methods include sketches, drawings, artist renderings, physical models and maps, simulated photos, and videos. Advances in computer technology provide a new group of three-dimensional (3-D) visualization techniques to work with, such as computer modeled images, interactive geographic information systems (GIS), photo manipulation, and computer simulation."

In other words, we help translate potential transport projects to ordinary people (the general public) so that they can understand and make recommendations to how to improve the transport planning process. 

Why do I want to enter this field?

I love transportation infrastructure (public transit operations and design, traffic operations, transit station design, ped/bike planning), but I've discovered that I do not like to specialize in one corner and never touch the others. Similarly, I love PARTICIPATORY urban design, public space planning, preserving urban communties, and geographic information systems. My only concern is that in the planning profession right now, we are so focused on numbers, design, codes, policy, networking (given this economy), funding, improving the overall urban economy and fufilling laws such as SB375 that we've lost in touch about how to humanize the planning process.

I want to humanize the planning process so that people like my friends can understand the complex (and sometimes subtle) changes which are taking place in where we live, work, and play today. 

I choose to be independent (meaning, yes, I don't want to work for a large company) because I like having my own set schedule (I'm against the 9-5 workday schedule. It doesn't fit my personality). I feel like with the software I use frequently (and constantly having to keep up with and learn about), my ability to CONSTANTLY learn new things about the profession, allows me to grow much quicker than if I worked in a larger company. 

However, that doesn't mean I want to work just by myself. I'd want to work with other people, particularly in an interdiciplinary setting, because it's easy to get sidetracked without other people's feedback. If anybody wants to consider working with me, let me know. We can meet up: I particularly want to work with people who can think and work in interdiciplinary groups, particularly in the design and behavioral sciences field (there are not a lot of people from the behavioral sciences in this field, which is a shame since planning benefits from those people). 

What is the market?

According to UC Berkeley Tech Transfer, 

"At the federal and regional levels, the use of visualization technologies is required. SAFETEA-LU, Section 6001, required both state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to use visualization technologies to the maximum extent possible in public involvement and planning programs. At the local level, many cities and counties have started to use new technologies to depict potential future development scenarios to the public and to decision-makers."

In other words, the market is technically guaranteed to you with transporation projects requiring public input, with your clients being local, regional, and state governments. However, I would be competing with the large urban planning consultants (i.e. Dhyett & Bhatia) who have tons of staff and resources.

How would I break into the field? 

I need to be different from the other consultants in order to compete. However, I am going to be very broad and not to try to plan too much because many things can happen in life that I have no control over. I have a two potential strategies:

Redefine the meaning of a transportation planning visualization consultant: 

Face it; planning is very technical, and even the title of this career sounds technical. Heck, the definition of the transportation visulization consultant from the TechTransfer website: "is the practice of using pictures to convey the complex character of data or proposed projects and how they function," has a very academic and professional language that an ordinary person cannot relate to. If I tell my friends this exact definition, I guarantee you they will have no idea what I do. 

Instead of thinking of myself as a consultant, think of yourself as an artist, a designer:

My role is to humanize the planning process and dialogue. I am an artist who wants to bring life to the dull conversations that happen in stakeholder meetings, to make planning interactive. So, yes, what I propose is that my potetial services will be more than a visulaization, but a work of art that people can relate to and talk about, and remember.

To borrow from the public transit consulant Jarett Walker, I am interested in the language of the planning process such that we can easily understand eachother. For example, if people are afraid of bus transfers (i.e. in BRT systems, which some cities in the United States is really interested in), how do we create a language through art, design, to articulate these fears, and to visualize the PROS and CONS of bus transfers? In public transit talk, transfers help make a system more efficient in terms of operating costs and travel time costs, but that's just a consultant's perspective. You really need to bring these discussions VISUALLY so that people can have something to talk about.  

So, rather than thinking of myself as a visualist, I consider myself an artist who evokes the memory and excitement and makes the planning process more inviting, and more informative. From an MIT DUSP alum, "the best plans are not what works best, but what people will support the most." To put in pratical terms, if people are designing a pedestrian space but have no idea how PEOPLE will be INVITED to the space and REMEMBER the space, then how do you know the plan will work? 

So, the services I offer, could they make the planning process more efficient (cost savings anybody)? I've been in a planning meeting and all I hear is just debate with words, and not enough VISUALS. Debating for a long time isn't going to get anywhere. I want to aim for that. 

In short, my potential services must make the planning process more memorable, inviting, and cost-effective such that a future project will actually work WELL because the public input was very infromative based on the visualizations. 

PROS:

Very innovative, creative. My role is not necessarily to be 100% for participatory planning (I am a big fan of it though), but to be the intermediate that bridges expertise of the people with the expertise of the decision-makers. I actually make the planning process more informative.

CONS:

To me, very limited to the United States and Canada. I actually am interested in pursuing this field in Asia, and taking lessons back to the United States, but different government policies may make this project difficult.

I am also competing against large planning consultants with MORE people and resources. 

Very difficult nitche to fit without an interdiciplinary staff. 

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