Road to a Master’s Thesis: Idealog 1

This is the first in a series of posts documenting my journey towards a Masters in Urban Planning research project. Here I start by explaining my primary motivations for an area of interest (public transportation) and throw out a few potential research questions. At this stage, I’m still hunting for ideas – so if you have a curiosity you think would be ripe for a research proposal, please feel free to share in a comment!

I have long been eager to start a career as an urban planner with a focus on transportation, ever since I started learning about the field through my engagement with San Francisco local non-profits such as SPUR, SF Transit Riders, and Seamless Bay Area. My long-term career goal is to work on (and ultimately deliver) a major public transportation infrastructure project such as a rail line extension. It would be immensely fulfilling to contribute in some way to projects like the BART extension to San Jose or the California High-Speed Rail initiative. While I’m aware these types of projects require enormous investments of time, their resulting impacts can be correspondingly large.

My interest in transportation planning stems from my belief that, combined with strategic land use planning, it can act as a catalyst for broader economic development while also promoting equity by way of connecting people to those new economic opportunities. A great example is the promise of California High-Speed Rail: a frequent and fast connection between the jobs in the Bay Area and the residents of the Central Valley would distribute opportunity to historically disadvantaged communities. In addition, it would help address the housing crisis across the state as it would enable people to live in areas with lower land value yet still be connected to job centers within a reasonable commute time.

These beliefs are part of what led me to transition into this career path from a background in tech, where I felt my work was not sufficiently serving some of these more basic human needs. While I was comfortable working on software, learning about the kinds of problems in housing and transportation inspired me to move into the field of planning where I could make more of a direct impact.

However, rather than jumping straight into a major infrastructure project, I’d like to first build up some knowledge and experience in smaller-scoped projects. For example, working on more local-scale projects such as the redesign of a bus network or the installation of bicycling infrastructure would help me establish a foundation in transportation planning in general. On this scale, I also have a lot of interest in understanding some of the human psychology behind transportation choices. For example, here are some questions that I have pondered:

  • When the option is available, why do people generally prefer light rail to buses?
    • What can be done to make buses more appealing to riders? (Some interesting work was previously done by Citymapper here.)
  • What factors are most significant in a person’s decision to take transit over driving a private automobile?
    • What are the thresholds of travel time/cost/etc. that would compel someone to switch modes?
  • After COVID-19, will there be a permanent shift in people’s preferred mode of travel?
  • After COVID-19 and implementation of long-term remote work policies, will transit ridership levels ever fully recover?
    • Is this problem unique to the Bay Area given its high concentration of tech workers?
  • What makes some transit infrastructure projects succeed and others fail?
    • What are some characteristics of resilient / successful projects? (E.g., funding, political support, lack of public resistance, etc.)

My overarching interest is in helping to build the case for public transport (at all scales) – i.e., convincing the public to both invest in (via government funding) and participate in (using) transit as opposed to private automobiles. It would be ideal if my Master’s research could aid a policymaker or a fellow scholar in this ongoing pursuit.

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