Gaining Street Smarts in 1.252J Urban Transportation Planning

A photo of a mural depicting a group of people standing in front of a bulldozer. The bulldozer reads "Federal Inner Belt I-95.

“Beat the Belt” is a 1980s mural on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA, commemorating the success of citizen resistance to the Inner Belt Highway that threatened to run through Cambridge. (Courtesy of Chris Ball on Flickr. CC-BY.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Try to remember: When was the last time an instructor sent you out to watch the traffic go by?

Not recently?

For students taking Frederick Salvucci’s 1.252J Urban Transportation Planning, whose site has just appeared on OCW, it was just the other day.

For the first of four main assignments in the course, Salvucci sends students out in groups to four different intersections and has them count what goes by. The point is “to get students used to thinking about quantities: How many bicycles? How many people in buses? How many people in cars? How many trucks? How many cabs are going down the street? What problems do you observe at that intersection?” Salvucci explains his thinking in his Instructor Insights on the site’s This Course at MIT page.

Knowledge at First Hand

For the students, Boston and Cambridge are a kind of lab, and if there’s anyone who knows this lab, and its highways, byways, and flyways, it’s Salvucci. Growing up in Boston, he served two stints as Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, oversaw the extension of the T’s Red and Orange lines, and orchestrated the financial backing and political support for the “Big Dig,” one of the most complex public works projects in history.

Students go on walking tours, observing roads and neighborhoods, evaluating the impact of urban planning on neighborhoods. They attend public meetings, which “force proponents of transportation projects to explain why they make sense to the public.” The students also investigate what might have been but never came to pass—projects like the “Inner Belt Highway” that were proposed and boosted but ultimately dropped because of community opposition.

Combining experiential learning with the study of research in transportation planning and projects, students write reports and give presentations on their findings.

Boston’s transportation problems, from its half-mad drivers and winding roads to its snowmaggedons and parking torments, are the stuff of legend. Why not join these heroic students and their sage guide in 1.252J, and start learning how to make everything flow more smoothly. Please!

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