November 26, 2010

Transportation Planning, Teaching, and the Importance of Objectives

Last Thursday I attended one of the West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Council's Technical Advisory Committee meetings. Add that all up, and you get a WCCTAC TAC, pronounced "wicktactac." Which is exactly what they call it, beautifully enough.

Anyway, I took the 72R from El Cerrito Del Norte, and got off just north of Church and San Pablo Ave, where the City of San Pablo offices are. The complex has a low profile from the street, but opens up onto a pleasantly lush Spanish-style courtyard. I found the room with help from a friendly janitor, introduced myself to John Rudolf, my contact from the Berkeley Planning open house, and took a seat for the meeting.

A representative from Caltrans opened the meeting by reviewing implementation plans for installing traffic cameras along the Interstate 80 corridor. The closed circuit cameras would be placed at intersections between on ramps and local streets to monitor traffic before it gets to the highway. 23 cameras already dot local streets along I-80; this project would add 54 more to monitor local traffic at specific highway access points.

Everything seemed pretty open and shut: Caltrans was improving infrastructure to enable it to better monitor local conditions at access points to the critical highway in the area. There were packets of information with lists of proposed intersections, maps, and bullet-pointed lists of official things. From what the Caltrans rep reported, I gathered that Caltrans had approached cities about potential CCTV camera locations, and had asked the relevant contacts if their respective cities would like cameras where indicated. The response: yes. So Caltrans moved forward with the project, but failed to adequately communicate the objective.

The evidence I have to substantiate the lack of a communicated objective is only what I witnessed at the meeting. Christina Atienza, Executive Director of WCCTAC, asked whether any data existed re how often the 23 existing CCTV cameras were used. There wasn't, yet. A representative from another city asked what the new cameras would be used for. To identify traffic conditions on local streets was one answer, but no one could describe what functionality this would add, especially since no one was sure whether the existing cameras were being used. Would Caltrans respond to camera-ID'd situations? How? Caltrans is responsible for I-80; local streets are in the purview of local cities. How would video be stored? Who would review the video? Do the police want it for law enforcement? Did anyone ask the police about this project? Another proffered purpose was to ascertain the cause of accidents on local streets. But if Caltrans' task is to keep I-80 flowing smoothly, then knowing about accidents on local streets is relevant ... in ways the presentation did not make clear.

My lasting impression from the meeting is not the relevance of CCTV to local streets along the I-80 corridor, but rather the relevance of my years in urban education to transportation planning. From my years at the MATCH Charter Public High School and Prospect Hill Academy, I learned that student progress happens when lessons have concrete objectives framed in relevant ways. Both elements are critical: I realized too late that just being clear lead to uninspired students ... i.e., "I know exactly what I need to do, but don't really get why we're doing this." Breaking a skill down into easy-peasy step-by-step doesn't (by itself) make a student want to practice that skill, far from it. And pursuing relevance without clarity amounts to pandering: like using popular lyrics for analysis without actually teaching how to link diction and imagery to themes and main points. Maybe it's "relevant" to a student, but what is she being asked to do with it, and can she practice and perform that skill? Creating relevance in your classroom is difficult, and can come in many different packages. It could mean framing a lesson in a larger context before diving into skills, or it could mean whispering encouraging words to a struggling student, and letting the knowledge that the teacher cares create its own relevance. Point is, the teacher needs to define the destination and establish why getting there matters, by (almost) any means necessary. Clarity and relevance.

Judging by the reaction she received, the Caltrans rep did not make the purpose of the CCTV proposal clear or relevant. Now, I already stated my lack of knowledge behind the run-up to this meeting, but I sense that a better presentation would have more clearly laid out what functionality an expanded CCTV system would accomplish, and how it would benefit both Caltrans and surrounding cities. Done effectively, this would address who would monitor the video feed, what tools they would have to respond to traffic conditions, how much a city would need to increase its operations budget and where that money would come from, and why the proposed cameras would be better than what is already in place. None of those questions were answered in the discussion at the meeting.

Another reality I discovered while teaching is that a lesson plan can always be more specific. For example, maybe the rep was thinking the CCTV objective was to monitor traffic, and the relevance was that each city could have better traffic information. Sounds good, but in the same way that "Students will be able to learn the causes of the Civil War" also sounds good. Both objectives fail when put into practice. What should students be able to do at the end of the lesson? List 5 causes? Rank 5 causes? Evaluate whether the causes were worth the bloodshed? Similarly: Monitor traffic? And then do what about it? etc. An objective needs to be actionable to be legit, and neither "learn causes" or "monitor traffic" cut it.

Interestingly, the second element in the Caltrans presentation fared much better. The project was to install technology in stoplight-regulated I-80 on ramps to determine when the lines of waiting cars gets too long. The objective was precise, and clearly presented: to install back-of-queue detectors to insure that no on ramps backed up onto local streets. And its relevance: whenever the detector is triggered, the stoplight regulating access to the highway will automatically stay green for longer intervals to allow faster traffic flow, preventing back-ups, and no one wants back ups. The only issue remained how to decide where to put the sensors--it was decided that Caltrans needed to confer a second time with each city office. Compare that process to the ambiguously open-ended CCTV cameras and you start to get a sense of why some plans founder, while others unfold predictably toward completion.

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