New Ideas for Transportation Planning Stories

ProjectMapAlthough “The Barrier” is still a work in progress, I have started to think about other transportation planning stories. I have two ideas that I want to consider. Do either of them appeal to you?

Defending What You Don’t Agree With

The first is about a transportation planner who is assigned to develop a project he sees as unnecessary. At first he tries to convince people it is the wrong idea, but he is forced to continue. Because he isn’t sold on the project himself, he doesn’t try hard to make it work. This gets him in trouble with his bosses.

Threatened with dismissal, he makes a more concerted effort. His new approach is more effective at selling the idea. Unfortunately, others start to see the proposal as his pet project. This leads to personal attacks on his character. Ultimately the politicians reject the project. He sees this as a personal failure. Perversely, he also sees it as a personal success, since he was opposed to the project.

The essence of story is conflict and I think this idea does provide several levels of conflict. The protagonist has internal conflicts with conflicting goals. The protagonist faces a conflict between self preservation and professionalism. The protagonist faces interpersonal conflicts on two side; proponents of the projects and critics of the project. The situation would force the protagonist into some personal growth to deal with the conflicts.

Monitoring Program

This idea isn’t as well developed as the previous one. It comes from my personal experiences. The last major project I worked before I left the field was to develop a program to monitor the implementation of the transportation plan. This generated a lot of conflict.

While I was only assigned to the project in the last few years of my transportation planning career, I had advocated for the idea from very early in my career. My earlier efforts were not very effective.

I wanted to put this all behind me, but I recently saw an article by Bent Flyvbjerg ( see: http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/community/people/bent-flyvbjerg and http://flyvbjerg.plan.aau.dk/ ). While I was still at work, I read some of his work that criticised transportation planning and forecasting.  The article, “How Planners Deal With Uncomfortable Knowledge” (see http://eureka.sbs.ox.ac.uk/4662/ ), touches on some of the conflicts that I ran into.

The problem with this idea is that I find it “too close for comfort.” Many people would see this as a good reason to pursue it. I feel it would be dangerous because I would lose sight of my goal to tell an entertaining story.

When I made “Line of Taxis” (see  http://www.dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/filmlist/line-of-taxis ), I drew from personal experience as well. In that case I chose to focus on the emotions that I felt and place them in a different context. I think this made it a much better project. It forced me to focus on the emotions of the characters and not just on the plot.

The essential conflict of the story is that some people don’t want to have their work monitored. They see that as a personal attack. I never saw it that way and didn’t really appreciate why they were so resistant. The sad fact is that all too often attempts to monitor people’s work are a thinly veiled attempt to blame them for the failures of the system.

This has been a big issue in the education field, where standardized tests are often used to blame teachers. This only diverts attention from other problems where the effort would be much more effective. I think the effect of this approach has been to punish honesty and reward dishonesty.

W. Edwards Deming (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming ) is often cited as the source for this approach. This is a misunderstanding of what he said. In his books he says that it is the system that is the cause of most problems. It is rarely the individual that is the problem.

The challenge for the protagonist of the story is to overcome the fear people have. Internally the protagonist would need to resist the idea that the resistance he faces is grounded in evil intent. Of course, in the real world I wasn’t able to accomplish this, so it is hard for me to see how to do it in a realistic way in fiction.

Now, how I would create a situation in a transportation planning context that addressed these issues, but not deal with a monitoring program, is a challenge in itself. The only thing I can think of is to have the protagonist be assigned to review another person’s work. The emotional interaction and attitudes would be similar.

This requires further thought.

 

5 Comments

  1. Hello james. I think its a great idea adding some more stories as the character takes on a life in immortality. I have from my experience in engineering some stories that may be enjoyed. As i mentioned to you, I have taken up writing as my new career. If you are interested, I could write the script. Contact me at johnzatorsky@sympatico.ca and we can discuss how this could work for both of us.

  2. Defending What You Don’t Agree With

    This is an ok one, this kind of thing happens. Sometimes this happens when the direction of a business unit is to do something that is a major paradigm shift, such as “discouraging auto use in favour of alternative modes” and some players do not “get with the program”. Also sometimes politicians have pet projects that are misguided but forced to happen. As mentioned by Kwok, it might also be interesting to bring in some other players, like a consultant who is pushing a certain project, and so in opposition to your protagonist, and is pushing for the project to continue despite the transportation planner being against it. If it is just a transportation planner who doesn’t like something, unless there are good cases to be made for both sides of the project, it may not be clear to the audience why he/she is against it.

    Monitoring Program

    This one is good, there is a lot of talk about having “dashboards” and metrics to measure the performance of cities, and with the “smart cities” movement, this is a hot topic. I would see this one as interesting as well. There are lots of ways this could be elaborated upon; what are the “correct” metrics to use, how might these metrics be distorted or twisted to make poor performance appear like good performance, how statistics “lie”, etc.

    • Thanks for your suggestions.

      I agree that I would need to have someone who pushes for the project. There are a variety of reasons why people would want a project that doesn’t do any good. I think you are right to suggest that it shouldn’t be obvious whether of not the project is worthwhile, at least until later in the story.

  3. In the first story about a nonviable project, may be you can add another layer of conflict: why did the proponent of the project promote the project ? Conspiracy ? Ignorance ? Pigheadedness ? Criminal inteNTS ?

    • I hadn’t really thought of that aspect of the story. It would make a difference what the reason was.

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