Rockin’ it New and Old School: Transit Data and Planner Scratch Maps

Planner Scratch Maps 2It goes without saying that changing technology has had huge impacts over the last 20 years, and its impact on how we plan cities and transit systems is no different.

This post is about some of the best parts of those changes…and a love letter to the “old school” practice of marking up maps that I still believe is an integral part of how best to connect with and understand transportation networks and cities.

Oh My, How Far We’ve Come

Much has changed in transit since I first started and spent my days sitting on buses as the feverishly scribbling, sometimes-motion-sick human data collection device known as a “Traffic Checker.”   Thanks to technology, we now potentially have a lot of tools to draw on when it comes to charting out new routes or assessing how system resources could better be deployed.

  • Automated Passenger Counters (APCs) collect ridership and schedule information on vehicles and these can help show everything from where running times could be adjusted, to where frequencies should be changed to better match service and demand, to which stops are the busiest and therefore should be prioritized for new shelters.

    CFV Relative Ridership by Stop

    Where the people are: map showing relative ridership by stop in Abbotsford, B.C. Red shows higher usage, green lower, meaning a quick visual sense of ridership. (Source: BC Transit, Central Fraser Valley Transit Service Review).

  • Hardly new anymore and now just part of the furniture, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are used by transit planners to show population or employment density within a certain area or along potential corridors.  They can also help hone routing decisions by plotting out origin and destination information or dispersal of students or employees across a city.
  • Google Maps can show me intersections instantly using Street View and give me rough initial travel times and distances at a few clicks.  This has made a huge change to the immediacy with which I can respond to issues since I now no longer have to actually be there to take a quick look at what is going on.
  • Municipal online mapping tools used by an increasing number of communities (such as that offered by the Regional District of Nanaimo here in B.C.) are democratizing the information of cities and enabling everyone from staff to developers to interested citizens to gain new insights.  Where as previously I would have had to read Official Community Plans and figure out for myself how the zoning, transportation network and transit system maps related to each other, now thanks to these tools anyone can look at layers of information simultaneously: cycling network, zoning, bus stops, road hierarchy and so on.

And I’ve just listed off some of the more common tools.  There are also electronic fareboxes, Automatic Vehicle Locator information and all kinds of other analysis tools and online gizmos.  There is a dizzying array to choose from.

Yep, technology is great.  And yet…

And yet, all the things listed above help justify the decisions and back up the hunches but there is no replacement for actually being there and mucking up a map.

Technology can tell me what the numeric density is of a neighbourhood and it can give me glimpses from afar, but it can’t give me all the little clues that help figure out who lives there and what their transportation needs might be: the basketball hoops that are the indicator species of younger teens, the toddler toys that sprout on the lawns of working families, or all the other hints that add up to a sense of a place and the relative age, wealth, lifestyle and values of the people who might live there.

You also need to be in a place, walking around, riding the system, talking to drivers and passengers, and sitting at stops and stations to know what’s working and what isn’t.  Otherwise you’ll miss the fact that a particular “half full” trip the APC told you about is actually filled to capacity once you factor in the number of passengers using wheelchairs and walkers, or that the stop with mysteriously low ridership is in the shade and feels creepy, or that ridership on a trip tanked because it now misses a high school bell time by 6 minutes.

Comox Valley Planner Scratch Map

Mapping mess in all its glory: an example scratch map from previous work in the Comox Valley, BC.

And so if I’m off on a new project or in a new system, one of the key things I do is grab a few copies of the transit system map and schedule (one I keep as my “good” copy, the rest to deface) and I also make a stack of 11×17″ copies of maps of key neighbourhoods or corridors I might be working on.  Once I’ve got these in hand, I then set off and spend my time wandering and scribbling.

Sometimes what I’m writing down are issues and ideas, but more often what I’m doing is simply making marks to try to learn a place, as if the process of moving from my senses to my pen locks it there on the map and in my head for later when I’m at my desk and mulling.  So in a downtown, I might be walking around and noting key landmarks, where people are hanging out and where the action is.  On a bus or train, I’ll be making scratches on the map to show density, key destinations and the “flavour” of neighbourhoods, as well as everything I might hear when I speak with drivers and passengers along the way.

Sometimes my note taking is from a bike or a car depending on the scale of the area but in all these cases my planner scratch maps are one of the key tools I still use–and would never give up–when it comes to trying to understand places better.

So if you’ve never before wandered and wantonly defaced a map, I encourage you to embrace your inner rogue cartographer and give it a try.  Even if it’s just your own street or park, you might find you see things differently, notice new things and get fabulous ideas by doing so.

And if you are just setting out in your career as a planner, for sure never stop learning about all the new ways to play with data…AND also never give up the truth and joy that comes from being in a place and translating it into your own head and hand. As Ms. Jacobs famously showed, observing the city is key to understanding it.

Bonus Unsolicited Tip for Newer Planners (and Interested Citizens):  If I’m trying to figure out a new route structure for an area, my favourite way of doing so is to make about a dozen black and white photocopies of the existing route map and then putz around and use coloured markers to draw various iterations of alternate structures on the copies.  The advantage to using the black and white copies as your base is that you can then see how the new stuff you’re drawing relates to the existing route corridors.

While you could go straight to GIS, I find that drawing it out forces me to consider how simple and legible the route might be to passengers and also means I can make notes about running and cycle times beside each variation.  I think it also provides more freedom for considering many possible solutions.

4 thoughts on “Rockin’ it New and Old School: Transit Data and Planner Scratch Maps

  1. Elan Nyer

    Hi Tania,

    Great post. I think you would be interested in a new product, Mobileye Shield+ which using artificial vision detects VRUs in the blind spot of large vehicles. When needed, the technology alerts the operator using directional warning giving them time to prevent the collision. Additionally, Shield+ maps out where pedestrian collision warnings were detected, for the first time allows experts to analyze near collisions as well as actual collisions when looking for ‘hot spots’ which require infrastructure change.


    Elan Nyer

  2. Max

    I recognized that self-portrait immediately! Wonderful post, I love the idea of getting a sense of a place and (gasp!) talking to actual transit riders rather than just relying on hard data.

    1. Tania Wegwitz Post author

      For sure! Although I also realize that in some communities talking to transit riders also means I am having a conversation with myself…
      Max, so lovely to hear from you and thanks for breaking the code on the stick figure. Hope that everything is well–life, transportation, non-alarmingly stale rice krispie squares–in D.C.

  3. elicia

    Indeed, onion skin concept drawing is still my favourite way to go! Can be useful in presenting concepts to others, too – shows that your route planning hasn’t yielded a conclusion and that you’re really open to exploring ideas.


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