December 6


Ryan Martinson Interview: Resilience in a Transportation System

By Mike Spack

December 6, 2016

career advice, Interview, ITE, ITE Sustainability Committee, resilience transportation, Ryan Martinson, sustainable transportation

Ryan Martinson of Stantec recently posted a paper titled Resilience in a Transportation System: Should ITE Include Resilience in its Foundational Documents.  Ryan has focused his transportation career on sustainable transportation solutions and is the Vice Chair of ITE’s Sustainability Committee. Now he’s thinking about resiliency too.

I find the somewhat contradictory concepts of sustainability and resiliency to be very important in all system’s thinking.  I’m happy to bring you the following discussion I had with Ryan about resiliency and sustainability as they relate to transportation systems as well as our careers as transportation professionals.

Question – Your title is Sustainable Transportation Specialist.  How is your job different than being a Transportation Planner or Traffic Engineer?

Answer – I specialize in walking and biking projects, but do get involved in more than just those two modes of travel. Projects like policy strategy, strategic planning guidance, Complete Streets, and transportation demand management, for some examples. To try to cover the basics, ‘sustainable’ did the trick… in the end it is all towards being a more sustainable society, and ideally this title will be obsolete (along with my job!).

Question –If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself in 2005 as you were just starting your career?

Answer – Keep it up, keep making connections between your variety of experiences, and remember to not be satisfied if an answer doesn’t sit right with you. I’d love to have gotten into the world of systems thinking sooner, but it made the discovery even more special when I was introduced!

Question –Your paper on resilience has several people’s definitions of resilience in it.  As a starting point, please give us a quick summary definition of how you think the term resilience applies to transportation systems.

Answer – Resiliency if often tied to the ability of a system to respond to shocks. To me this is usually linked to disaster recovery and can take the form of ‘beefing up’ infrastructure to withstand a potential shock or tremor. This was the primary reason I wanted to put this white paper together: it seemed like too ‘simple’ of an answer to a very complex issue. Transportation touches a lot of different systems (e.g. social, technology, built environment) so just making ‘beefy’ infrastructure didn’t cut it. Dana Meadows talks about the difference between resilience and stability (I cited that in the paper) and it really resonated with me.

A big part of the definition, though, needs to include ‘adaptation’. The OECD puts this in their definition and I like that. Right now the system that we are living in is ‘sick’, so being able to maintain our current poor health isn’t really a great thing. Instead, it’s important to be able to use the shocks and tremors as ways to make changes to the system and set us on a healthier path.

Question – I believe the concept of sustainability is well understood in the transportation industry.  How is resiliency different from sustainability when thinking about transportation systems?

Answer – I think sustainability is understood fairly well, but it still gets used in some cases to greenwash projects or programs. As the opening bit of my paper noted, it’s been used in our language and texts for a long time, so there’s been time to get everyone accustomed to what it means.

I think of sustainability as a system that keeps a steady state continuously. Resiliency is about how the system performs when you poke it and push it around.

One thing I like about taking the ‘values-based’ approach to resiliency planning is that it helps bring resiliency to the real world. For example, under the value of ‘diversity’, stakeholder engagement in our transportation projects is important. Under ‘innovation’, new standards and rules around design that are evidence-based are developed and used.

Question – Transportation systems as well as our cities in general are going to look significantly different in thirty years with the adoption of autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service, shared vehicles, etc.  Looking into your crystal ball, is sustainability or resiliency more important for the future of transportation and why do you think that?

Answer – Sure. Sustainability and resiliency are going to be important concepts for us to consider as we look at our society, and natural and built environments. That said, we need to really be mindful of the desired outcomes that we want and the progress that we are making towards them… perhaps those are internalized in the values that I mentioned earlier. A big issue that I see with the advancement of new technologies is that we get distracted by those shiny objects and think about their impacts in only the superficial and simple terms. This can lead us into traps that have agencies focused on treating symptoms rather than systemic solutions or cures.

Question – If you could wave your magic wand and get every city to adopt your ideal transportation planning policies, what key elements of sustainability and/or resiliency would you include?  Or to slightly reword the question, how would you suggest cities implement elements of sustainability and/or resiliency?

Answer – Each city is going to be different, so it’s difficult to have a single wand that will ‘fix’ all of them. To answer the question, though, I think I’d work on having the values of resiliency included. The areas that we would be focusing on would be health, social equity, and better respect for our natural environment… just to name a few of my faves.

Question – When defining antifragile in his book AntiFragile,  Nassim Tableb says, “the resilient resists shocks and stays the same, the antifragile gets better.”    How can we build our transportation systems to adapt and thrive with evolving transportation technology as opposed to trying to avoid or restrict it?

Answer – Yes, that is some people’s interpretation of resilience, hence why I like to include the aspect of adaptation in the term as some others have. Saying something is resilient and can adapt is a little easier to explain than saying something is antifragile… although maybe that terminology will catch on!

If we keep our eye on the intended and unintended consequences of our decisions based on some strong common values, I think we will head in the right direction. There are potential traps in technological solutions, so being mindful of what is a symptomatic solution versus a fundamental solution takes some deep thinking and strong strategic direction.

Question – Let’s shift gears and think about resiliency as it relates to our careers as transportation professionals as well as how it can relate to ITE.  In a world that may not have traffic signals, signs, or pavement markings because computers don’t need them to drive vehicles and fully utilize our systems, the role of transportation planners and traffic engineers could be greatly diminished.  What are you personally doing to ensure you’ll remain relevant thirty years from now?

Answer – I think it’s important to understand that technology and tools are just extensions of our humanity. A blog/website is a way for us to communicate more broadly than just how far a voice can travel; a car is a way to extend the potential for our legs to carry us. Ultimately, though, we are all human and there is an important human dimension and scale that our cities need to have. Technology can’t replace human connections and if we are keen on smart cities, we need to remember why cities exist: for people.

Question – What does ITE need to do to remain relevant thirty years from now?

Answer – Staying in touch with their membership and providing learning opportunities will always be relevant. Our world is constantly changing and it’s getting more complex, so learning (and teaching) opportunities will always be needed.

Question –You’re the vice-chair of ITE’s Sustainability Committee.  Why should ITE members consider joining the committee?

Answer – That’s right. This past year I was the vice-chair with Jim Gough as the chair and this coming year (Jan 1) I’m stepping into the Chair role. Sustainability is top of mind for a lot of young professionals, so anyone looking to expand their experience or help change the world, we are keen to tap into their passion! The next year I’d like us to explore Equity and Transportation to focus our work on the Economy and Sustainability.  I’d also like to kick-start some work on Mobility as a Service as it relates to sustainability.

Question – If you could setup a billboard outside of the next ITE or TRB conference, what would it say?

Answer – “Think Deeper” I find we are very satisfied with working on the surface of issues, but getting into the meat is where we will find better solutions. I’m thankful for Systems Thinking as a way for starting to explore some of these deeper ideas.

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Mike Spack

My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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