The engineering students filed into the classroom at the University of Texas at El Paso unsure what to expect. They were accustomed to being trained in facts and figures—stress tolerances for stanchions on cable-stayed bridges, weight limits of airport tarmac, and the like.
The students’ lunchtime visitor came from a different school of thought. Shin-pei Tsay, Deputy Executive Director of TransitCenter, was steeped in urban design, with a city planning degree and a career in civic advocacy. What would she say to a room full of likely future highway engineers?
But less than two minutes into her presentation, Shin-pei had piqued students’ curiosity with an unexpected gambit. Rather than elaborate a unified field theory of cities, she spoke about something everyone in the room could relate to: her childhood desire to roam her neighborhood, visit friends, and safely get to school or the store. Showing an aerial photograph of the suburban Syracuse subdivision where she grew up, she pointed to her house on a cul-de-sac, her school (unreachable on foot, despite being fairly close), and the impossibility of walking to her friends’ houses because of the brutally wide arterial roads and lack of sidewalks.
The students didn’t know the place where Shin-pei grew up. But they saw in her story the same pattern of development they experienced in their own childhoods in the suburbs of Texas. Now, that story had a human face.
Shin-pei pivoted from describing her old neighborhood to explaining why such an experience—such a childhood—is so commonly shared. The next slide: a lively city street in the early twentieth century, bustling with people and commerce, juxtaposed with highway builders demolishing a neighborhood in the 1960s. Now the budding engineers in the room, all raised in an era in which large urban highways have been considered a natural fact of life, looked at this picture with new eyes. Leaving aside questions of lane geometry, curve radii, and overpass clearances, they started to ask a more fundamental question: is this really what a city should be like?
Shin-pei moved to the heart of the narrative, drawing from TransitCenter’s recent study A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation. Now there were photos of transportation engineers doing unexpected things: reclaiming the streets of New York so senior citizens could safely cross, Portland designing space for transit and bikes to lead an urban renaissance, new light rail in Denver leading to downtown growth. In short, elected officials and community leaders using transportation policy to serve the city, not pave it over.
The students were rapt. When Shin-pei opened the floor to questions, hands went up. “We don’t get this type of material in class,” commented a professor in the room.
But it was one of the students who asked the most important question. For her, as for Shin-pei, the issue was personal. “What,” the aspiring engineer asked, “can we do about it? What can I do about it?”
Though she didn’t know it, the UTEP student had asked precisely the question that informs TransitCenter’s everyday work. In fact, A People’s History contains the answer: everyone in transportation has a stake in its improvement, and the engineers of the future will, along with neighborhood activists and elected officials, play a central part in reforming how our urban transportation is planned and designed.
Not too many years from now, the bright students in that room in El Paso will be working for the Dallas Department of Public Works, Houston Metro, the Texas Department of Transportation, big engineering firms, or multi-national organizations. When they fulfill the weighty responsibilities that come with those roles, we hope they look back and recall that hour at UTEP where they heard Shin-pei’s tale of a suburban childhood and the importance of shaping a humane built environment.
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