Transport Futures Pop Out: Tools for Empathy and Storytelling in Urban Planning

(Photo Credit: Tim Doherty)

(Photo Credit: Tim Doherty)

Urban planners do work that affects the daily lives of 4.1 billion people who reside in cities. They come up with plans about where the homes and roads exist in your city. They can even decide the minutiae of how often the bus will come by your block and if there is even public transport at all.

Urban planners need to make sense of human needs and work to translate this information into land use, master plans, and infrastructure investments.

In effect, planners need to be empathetic storytellers.

The American Planning Association recognizes the importance of storytelling for planners, and yet, there are two issues.

First, people are tempted to jump straight to storytelling without doing the empathy work first. Storytelling can be a great tool, but the real work starts with understanding the needs of your users; otherwise, storytelling defeats the purpose of knowing whose and what needs you are addressing.

Storytelling with empathy means creating cities that work for people.

For such intimate work of shaping the cadences and rhythms of our lives, it may come as a surprise that accredited planning programs require planners to develop research, qualitative, and quantitative skills from data collection to forecasting, surveys, regional analysis, stakeholder and community engagement — but nothing explicitly about understanding people.

While the skills mentioned above are helpful for planning professionals, they are the tip of the iceberg of what planners need to do: understand human behavior and earn public trust by really listening and responding to people.

Few accredited planning schools train planners in empathy and storytelling. Perhaps these are “soft” skills that are nice to have, compared to the non-negotiable “hard” skills required for a degree in city planning.

This needs to change.

Human-centered design has roots in ergonomics, computer science, and industrial design. The impact of design thinking is broad and deep: it has launched products, companies, and organizational changes in Fortune 500 companies to government agencies.

How can design thinking improve urban planning?

Planners need tools to understand and connect with people’s aspirations, needs, and desires. Their users may range from other colleagues from within their organization to external users, such as clients, community members, planning commissioners, department heads, mayors, and funding agencies.

They need to explain why and how they do their work. In understanding their users, planners are better able to meet the mandate of serving the public.

So what happens when we introduce design thinking to planners?


Enter Transport Futures.

In January 2019, the Transport Futures teaching team designed a pop out workshop experience to explore what happens when we introduce tools for empathy and storytelling into re-envisioning San Francisco’s transport system.

We paired 12 Stanford students with 12 planners from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) for an afternoon of using tools for empathy and storytelling to understand the user experience of San Francisco’s transportation system. Students were undergraduate and graduate students from Urban Studies, Sociology, Product Design, Civil Engineering, Law, Business, and Education. Planners have been at the SFMTA between 3 months to 8 years and worked across the Communication, Planning, and Sustainable Streets divisions.

We matched each student with a planner and sent them off to the streets of San Francisco with one of the three need-finding tools for empathy:

  • Observe: use your senses to understand and assess a situation while keeping some distance.

  • Engage: talk to people and connect with them on a human-to-human level using verbal conversations.

  • Immerse: take the journey and experience it yourself.

Examples of prompts ranged from observing how people were purchasing fares to navigating the fare gate to the platform, to interviewing a Muni rider and a station agent, to riding a GoBike and experiencing life as a pedestrian with limited physical ability to only take one step every three seconds.

When everyone returned from the field, we asked the teams to unpack their insights and cross-pollinate across teams and explore one need for a future vision of San Francisco’s transport system in 2025. Their final task was to create an “idea advertisement” for this vision and present it to the group.

Ideas ranged from a CoMUNIty system that enabled users to pay for multiple modes using one system, but also introduced a “fare bank” where people who could afford it could exchange unused fares with others in the network.

(Photo Credit: Deland Chan)

(Photo Credit: Deland Chan)

(Photo Credit: Deland Chan)

(Photo Credit: Deland Chan)

Key Learnings

After the workshop, we asked participants to debrief and share their major takeaways from the workshop. We heard the following:

The user experience is multifaceted, but must be personally engaged with if its ever to be understood.

Taking the time out to empathize, via immersing, observing, and engaging, we can better understand the problems we are solving and actually come up with solutions that will be useful now… not just in theory, or 50 years down the road.

I will center empathy more into the projects that I work on, especially ones relating to customer interaction.

In short, participants walked away with two key lessons:

  1. We have to start from on the ground to understand users, and;

  2. We need to keep on asking “why.”

When one of the team grappled with the issue of fare evasion, they kept on asking themselves why. Why was this happening? In effect, what are other angles to examine this issue? What are other systems that make this happen? Perhaps the problem was not the fare itself, but broader issues of affordability and cost of living in the San Francisco.

Being able to grasp this insight for the user as an issue of affordability and not as an issue of fare evasion opens new possibilities for exploring innovative ideas, as in the City of Taipei where you can turn trash into cash for public transport at the new iTrash booths.

If outputs are produced without doing the work of empathy, it ends up being a temporary band-aid fix. To solve urban problems, we need a holistic and systems-based approach. Design thinking incorporates needs-finding and situates these issues within a broader context.

Urban planners need empathy for the public to understand human needs and translate these needs into land use plans and infrastructure investments.

Transport Futures is the start of a series of experimental workshops. We encourage our students to continue using these tools for empathy and storytelling with users whom they may come across in their work. Empathy work is not a one-time activity; it must be continuous.

This is how planners can better serve the public and achieve a people first, human-centered city.

*Transport Futures Teaching Team

  • Deland Chan teaches Civic Dreams, Human Spaces at the She also teaches Sustainable Cities, Defining Smart Cities, and Introduction to Urban Studies in the Program on Urban Studies and is co-founder of the Stanford Human Cities Initiative.

  • Dr. Hannah Jones teaches Beyond Pink and Blue: Gender in Tech at the She is a Design Researcher and Teaching Fellow (2015–2016).

  • Seamus Yu Harte teaches Introduction to Human Values in Design; Design Thinking Studio; and Abstract to Concrete: A Design Abilities Studio; Creative Gym: A Design Thinking Skills Studio at the He is co-founder and CEO of People Only.