Square Pegs & Round Holes

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’.  There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional  theory > hypothesis > testing  mode of  deductive reasoning.     A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy'” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.

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Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model.  They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:

“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”

There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.

There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability.  These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us.  From the article:  “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”

The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues.  Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues.   What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study.  As the authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”

GOOD Video: Building a Bike Highway

Check it out!  The video is now live at GOOD Ideas for Cities, with a nice intro from Alissa Walker:

“Portland is famous for its vibrant biking culture, but the city’s infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the number of bikers on the streets. How do we create bikeways that will not only protect current cyclists, but also encourage more people to ride? As part of GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland, a team from THINK.urban presented its idea for creating a system of bike highways that run throughout the city. Instead of relegating cyclists to side streets and bike paths, the new bikeways would take over major Portland thoroughfares, making bikes more visible and creating more direct routes that would shorten ride times. Witnessing the shift from streets of mostly cars to mostly bikes will also start to create a sense that riders are prized and protected as a major transportation solution, not forced to stay in painted lanes.”

Challenge: Portland is known worldwide as a bike town; yet we have stalled when it comes to infrastructure. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?

Bike Portland: Jonathan Maus, Founder

THINK.urban: Jason King, Allison Duncan, Katrina Johnston

Comments welcome.  Enjoy!

GOOD Ideas for Portland: Cycling Infrastructure

[Originally written by Jason King, Allison Duncan and Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman]

THINK.urban, recently completed the presentation of our various concepts for GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland. The team was one of six, which included Wieden+Kennedy, Ziba, Sincerely Interested, OMFGco, and ADXPortland, all tackling tough ideas.  The THINK.urban concepts were developed alongside working alongside our urban leader, BikePortland.org founder Jonathan Maus, who presented the challenge:

“Now it’s time to do the big projects that present a challenge to politicians and the status quo, but that also present an exciting opportunity for the health of our city. But what we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?”

THE CONTEXT

Portland is a great city for cycling – and has a lot of great infrastructure and programs to support and grow ridership.

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This gives us a ridership of almost 7% of commuters, which makes Portland the top large city in North America for ridership – (sorry Minneapolis)

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The statistics are a bit different when compared to other cities around the globe, where Portland is way down on the list.  Using some comparative metrics, we set the bar for ‘World Class’ at 30%, meaning if Portland is to truly become a world-class bicycling city, we need to expand significantly beyond our current level.

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THE TARGET:  INTERESTED BUT CONCERNED

For Portland to become ‘World Class’ we cannot keep doing the same things, but need to re-envision the infrastructure that make’s bicycle a choice that is on-par with other modes of transportation.  As seen in a much published graphic, we’ve already captured the ‘Strong and Fearless’ and have no worries about the ‘Enthused and Confident’.  What we need to target is the 60% of people who are interested in cycling, but concerned about safety, wayfinding, and other issues.

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Looking at the research, we found there are three elements that are necessary to capture the 60% that are interested but concerned.  A system has to have three elements, which are:

SAFE:

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CONNECTED:

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LEGIBLE:

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THE SYSTEM:  PDX LINK

To make a system that is Safe, Connected, and Legible – we looked at a variety of factors.  One aspect of the system design included branding and system graphics, which were envisioned as a chain which evoked the idea of links – the system became a noun and a verb – PDX LINK – seen with the ‘green’ paint inside as well, which reflected the plans for the concept to increase wayfinding of bike routes.

Another aspect was to incorporate the existing quadrant system, each acting as a link in the chain of PDX LINK. The radiating graphic below depicts the 5 quadrants, a play on geography that makes Portland a unique place to live. Each quad, including North, gets a unique color scheme, along with a simple 2 letter designation that is also incorporated into signage and other graphics.

There was a conceptual mapping component as well including our proposal for two-way cycletracks on main routes, connected by the wayfinding based on quadrants – which is seen above. Each of these ‘highways’ would be located within 1 miles of all residents and businesses, and fed by a system of local streets.

Using Portland Streets as examples, we determined a specific typology of streets in a hierarchy, starting with the highways, and including the boulevards, corridors, and greenways as a complete system.  A couple of examples of before and after sections show the change, and inclusion of a two-way, separated cycletrack that ‘Takes the Lane’ and creates a safe, connected, and legible system.

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Starting with these major roadways, the further development of a hierarchy of bike routes, from major Highways and Boulevards, to less traveled Corridors and Greenways – nested inside one another for a complete system. A snapshot of a portion of downtown shows these designations.

The final piece was conceptual sketches – simple before and after graphics to showcase the new idea, on the street. We did a number of them connecting the Cully Neighborhood in Northeast Portland to the Downtown core, using no ‘back street solutions’.   The first starts on NE 57th, with a heavily vegetated buffer providing necessary separation from the traffic to ensure safety for riders.

Before

The second is located along East Burnside – where we are recoupling the one-way to include a two way bike route connected across to downtown.

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Another option is downtown, along SW Broadway, where the existing cycle-track was expanded near Portland State University. Note wayfinding and access to multiple modes of transportation throughout.

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We did many more graphics, which will get shared down the line. A few more ‘after’ shots include Sandy Boulevard and the Burnside Bridge. The opportunity to make ‘cycling an everyday thing’ offers the ability to go for a ride with your favorite dog, or stop by for some roadside bike-powered gelato, and take the whole family for a ride to the Saturday Market. A safe, connected and legible system can make Portland a world-class bike city.

Hopefully these images help in that effort.

> Check out a PDF of our presentation here, and stay tuned for the video to be posted at GOOD Ideas for Cities shortly.

GOOD Ideas for Cities event a blast!

We’ve been busy at work on the submittal for the GOOD Ideas for cities proposal for bike infrastructure.

Scout Books created custom notebooks for the event
Scout Books created custom notebooks for the event

The event was a great success – and the conversation for new bike concepts in Portland and beyond, mixed with some luck and political will, has the potential to elevate the conversation and adopt some new infrastructure changes to make Portland not just a great bike city, but one that can truly hold the distinction as being ‘World Class’.  Thanks again to Jonathan Maus from Bikeportland.org – our urban leader who posed our question.   The event, which took place at ZIBA Design’s slick new office space, was sold-out and the crowd got into the proposals (including Weiden + Kennedy, Ziba, Sincerely Interested, THINK.urban, ADX, and the Official Manufacturing Company), kicked off by Alissa Walker from GOOD

The event was captured my Sarah Mirk of the Portland Mercury, who documented the proposals and snapped the following pic of our slide-show, along with a brief summary:

“CHALLENGE (from BikePortland.org editor Jonathan Maus): How can we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?
IDEAS (from PSU grad student nonprofit THINK.Urban):  “Take a cue from Europe and build two-way cycletracks on Portland’s biggest streets. The two-way lanes would be separated from cars on streets like Sandy, Broadway, and Hawthorne, by a grassy median. “Prioritize bikes on the same level as cars. People are tired of looking at Europe. We want to see these things here now.”

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Posting has lagged a bit, but that should change now that we’re moving on to some new things.  Stay tuned as we will post some of the ideas from the proposal, along with the PDF of the presentation, during the next week or so.

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GOOD Bicycle Transportation

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“What we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center

Our challenge is set.  As one of the creative teams working on the GOOD Ideas for Cities, we are tasked with coming up with the future of bicycle transportation in Portland.  As envisioned by our local expert liason, Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org the scenario is this:

TRANSPORTATION

When it comes to bicycle transportation, Portland is at a crossroads. We are known worldwide as a bike town; yet we have stalled when it comes to building a network of truly world-class bikeways in the central city. We have picked all the low-hanging fruit. Now it’s time to do the big projects that present a challenge to politicians and the status quo, but that also present an exciting opportunity for the health of our city. But what we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?

Recent historical trends show that while auto use seems to have plateaued, bike use has skyrocketed and shows little sign of tapering off. The biggest risk to making even more significant jumps in bike use is that the vast majority of Portlanders simply feel afraid to ride a bike close to auto traffic. The City of Portland and other local agencies already know what to do and we have some great examples already deployed: the cycle tracks on SW Broadway near PSU and on SW Moody toward the South Waterfront district come to mind. However, those facilities lack connections to the rest of the network and in the case of PSU, they are woefully underdesigned. They are both islands of possibility amid a sea of reality.

The neat thing about this challenge is that in many ways we know what success could look like. Many of our local leaders have been to places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where bicycling in dense urban environments isn’t just viable, it’s prioritized over auto access. The result is happy, healthy citizens, fewer transportation costs for everyone, and much more efficient and livable city. How do we help Portland move towards that same bicycle-centric reality?

One of the resources that Maus mentioned is the NACTO Urban Biking Design Guide (image excerpt above), of which included Portland transportation planners and traffic engineers were part of a major effort to bring cities across the country together to create a design manual that frees them from the shackles of outdated, state-run, auto-centric design guidelines.

We have until February 16th to prepare concepts, where they will be presented alongside the rest of the teams working on their specific issues.  Stay tuned for more info!

Very GOOD news!

The results are in, and the THINK.urban team of Jason King, Allison Duncan and Katrina Johnston is one of the groups that will be presenting as part of the GOOD Ideas for Cities event in Portland, being held on February 16th at Ziba and hosted by Portland State University Graphic Design Department.

From the GOOD site, here’s the all-star list of creative teams who will be presenting that night.

Wieden + Kennedy:  Nick Barham, Eugenie Frerichs, Bernadette Spear, Seth Weisfield, Igor Clark, Patrick Nistler, Jamie Ostrov, Joseph Limauro, Matt Brown

Official Mfg. Co.:  Mathew Foster, Jeremy Pelley, Fritz Mesenbrink

Ideas for Cities from Ziba:  Carl Alviani, Ryan Coulter, Steve Lee

Team ADX:  Building a Community of Thinkers and Makers: Eric Black, Kelley Roy, Greg Simons, Sean Barrow, Simon Yuen, Sarah Thilman, Tyesha Snow, Iain Thatcher, Max Miller

THINK.urban: Jason King, Allison Duncan, Katrina Johnston

New Approaches to Public Space:  Nicole Lavelle, Sarah Baugh, Justin Flood

It’s an honor to be in such esteemed company, and we’re excited to find out the specific issue we will be tackling for the event.  We will be getting the problem early in 2012, and will have 6 weeks to generate ideas for the February presentation.  Stay tuned for more on this.