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Lessons from Planning Internationally

IMG_0979In June, I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to help the Belize City Council (BCC) think through ways to prioritize people walking and biking. The American Planning Association sent a Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) of five urban planners to help BCC prepare a short and long term plan for the Yarborough neighborhood in Belize City. The CPAT team spent a week meeting with the government staff, stakeholders, community members, and the youth.

Any time you are doing a planning project in a new environment, there is always a learning curve. What are the cultural norms of this community? Who has the power? Who has influence? However, planning in another country was a new challenge and a great learning experience for me.

Five things that I learned:

  1. Check your US-ness at the door: While each city in the US has it is own vibe and flow, there is still an overarching US culture. When planning in another country, one has to be very careful not to bring the values, cultural norms, and assumptions from the US. One example is one of my colleagues on the team noticed that there were not any bike facilities and people did not wear bike helmets. I was asked my thoughts on recommending bike lanes and helmets and my response was they have a shared street/chaos culture that appears to work. In addition, changing behavior such as wearing helmets takes a significant amount of effort and energy.
  2. What works in US, may not work in another country: Things like bike lanes and traffic signals work in the US because we have a cultural norm of order and process. In Belize City, all the streets are shared streets. While it appears chaotic to an outsider, there is a rhythm and movement to how people move on the streets.
  3. What may not work in the US, may work in another country: Hell hath no fury like a resident that just lost on-street parking or a travel lane. In communities in the US, loss of parking or a travel lane becomes a stalling point for prioritizing people biking, walking, or using public transportation. However, in Belize the elected leadership and community are excited about the possibility of testing out prioritizing people biking and walking. As part of our recommendations, we will be providing the City with different options to test.
  4. You may be part of the problem: In talking with the youth, one thing that came across loud and clear is their feeling like everything in their city caters to tourist and the cruise ships. As we sat there listening, we quickly realized that we are the “tourist” they are talking about (not us specifically, but people from the US). As we began developing recommendations we had to change the paradigm from creating a tourist atmosphere to placemaking for residents that tourist could experience.
  5. When in doubt listen and ask questions: I came into the situation with very little knowledge of Belize other than the planning documents that were provided to us before our trip. I tried to avoid making assumptions by spending time listening and asking questions.

Nspiregreen has a mission to facilitate the empowerment and transformation of every community on the planet. With these lessons learned, we hope to continue to work with communities like Belize City and others.


Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

Micro bus in Caracas, Venezuela

Safety and Public Transportation

Last week was the first time I felt the impact of Metro’s SafeTrack on my life. The large crowds and the tight space between people on the trains made me flash back to my experience using public transportation in my home city, Caracas, Venezuela.

My experience using public transportation in Caracas goes back to more than 8 years ago. Since then, the country has faced countless changes (some good, many not that good). Because it has been quite a few years since I’ve used public transportation in Caracas, much of my observations may be outdated; however, my experience growing up using public transportation in another major world city provides me with some perspective about public transportation in the nation’s capital.

Hold your bag tight!

In my experience, moving around Caracas using public transportation was often a dangerous adventure. For me, safety concerns and public transportation could not be separated. I felt completely exposed when I was surrounded by crowds in closed spaces which happened often on public transportation in Caracas. I felt exposed to all kinds of people, crowded in small and moving spaces (buses and Metro), and this often created uncomfortable situations.

Before leaving home and taking public transportation I used to prepare for it. I dressed accordingly, with low-profile clothes and comfortable shoes, no jewelry or fancy bags (not even fake just in case someone did not know the difference). In other words, nothing that called unwanted attention. Because of the massive crowds on public transportation, I always held my bag tight. Although I was never a victim of robbery, I heard many stories of people who had items removed from their bags without them noticing.

While the District’s transportation system isn’t the poster child for safety, the massive crowding during Safe Track reminded me that I do not take the same level of preparation and precaution when using the Metro system. Furthermore, the alternatives to Metro are often safer here than the alternatives in Caracas.

“Camionetas” – An informal transportation method

Unsafe micro bus loading

Passenger getting in a “camioneta”

Using “camionetas” was quite an experience. The space inside was tight and they were usually crowded.  To request a stop there was no cord or button, you had to yell loudly “LA SIGUIENTE PARADA POR FAVOR” (“The next stop please”), and hope that the driver heard you.Because of the rapid and exponential growth Caracas has experienced in the past few years, the public transportation has collapsed. To move around the city, I along with thousands of people, used “camionetas” as a main transportation mode. These micro buses were affordable and connected many areas of the city that were not covered by Metro and other public transportation modes. They were often overcrowded, dangerous to people and the environment.

Although they had established stops, they were not strictly enforced by their drivers or even police. Since they were smaller than regular buses, they moved faster in traffic and with more frequency; therefore, transporting more people to their destinations in less time. The amount of passengers they carried, as well as the uncontrolled and unregulated loading and unloading of passengers put many lives at risk. People used to jump to get on the micro buses while they were moving. Bus drivers also let people jump out in the middle of the street instead of waiting to get to the next stop.

Unsafe micro bus unloading

Passenger getting off a “camioneta” in the middle of the street in Caracas

Camionetas were also a significant source of pollution because the majority of the microbuses were old and produced large amounts of exhaust. In addition, the particularly loud honks contributed to the noise pollution on the streets.

Since I have been working at Nspiregreen in the District, I greatly rely on Metro to commute to work. Next week, my commute will be significantly impacted by SafeTrack; however, it gives me great relief and comfort knowing that there are safe alternatives for public transportation. While I still have to be vigilant, I am more comfortable here than in Caracas using my electronic devices to get me through what might be a frustrating commute to work.


Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.


Planners Just Wanna Have Fun

Hi, my name is Christine and I’m a transportation nerd (Hi, Christine). At Nspiregreen we get to work on a variety of different transportation projects from ADA accessibility to streetcars, from bike lanes to bus planning. I see each new project we work on as a creative challenge. At the start of a new project, we like to begin with a little company brainstorming session or workshop. We get inspired by our travels to different countries, our experiences in other areas of the US, things that may not have anything to do with transportation or environmental planning, and sometimes –for me- pop culture.

You should know that Nspiregreen is a workplace that, despite the hard work we put into every project, knows how to have fun. Here you get to know the person behind the planner or engineer. I learned this my first few months with Nspiregreen. We were working on the moveDC plan, thinking of ways to engage people for the final round of meetings and I had an idea. See, I’m a tinkerer. I like to mix and match things in my mind and see what comes out, sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s fashion, sometimes it’s art. But sometimes you’re riding the Metro to work listening to your iPod, inspiration strikes and well, you end up with a parody of Drake’s “Started from The Bottom” about DC’s long range transportation plan. Just a taste, here’s the bridge:

“(WABA’s like..) No new parking, DDOT we don’t need that,
Want more bike lanes and some real cycle-tracks
We don’t like to do too much of driving
Rather have complete streets that are thrivin’

No new parking, DDOT we don’t need that,

Want more bike lanes and some real cycle-tracks

We don’t like to do too much of driving
Rather have our streets be more safe and complete
So we…
Started out with no plan now we’re here,
Started out with no plan now our long range plan is here”

I also tend to have visions of what the video might look like: maybe there’s a faux-ruby encrusted DDOT logo medallion worn by the star of the video. Maybe there are shots of v-shaped Capital Bikeshare formations rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. You deal with the details during planning and production.

This sometimes happens towards the end of other plans too. Take this excerpt from another parody of Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack for the streetcar study we worked on “StreetcarsBack”:

“We’re bringin’ streetcars back (yeah)
Those other cities don’t know how to act (yeah)
Streetcars are special, not just a throwback (yeah)
Un-crowd the buses, we’ll pick up the slack (yeah)

Take ‘em to the Bridge! (in the video you’d show hopscotch bridge)

Trolley babe
You see these tracks down
Oh yes, we share the lane
Yeah you can hop on if you miss your train
It’s just that no mode handles trips this way…”

But these are not all upbeat. Sometimes it’s serious business like Vision Zero, about the District’s plan to improve transportation safety and ways of reducing conflicts between all modes. So I had to slow it down a bit- and here is a bit of “Zero” sung to the tune of “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias:

“Would you dance if there’s a Barnes dance?
Before you merge will you take a look back?
Would you yield if you saw me crossing?
Would you watch for bikes when you turn right?

[…]We can get to zero, baby.
Implement away the pain.
We will keep you safe, forever.
You can play a part in this.

This “talent” isn’t limited to transportation alone. My husband’s company had a company-wide bake off and I was tasked to provide an anthem. What better than Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off” translated to “Bake it off?” I offer up the bridge of this one as well:

Hey, hey, hey
Just think while you been getting down and out about your diet
And the dirty dirty carbs of the world
You could have been getting down with this delicious treat

My cake pan baked some sweet oat bran
You’re like like oh my god
This is so delicious
And to the fella over there with the hella bakeware
Won’t you come on over baby we could bake, bake, bake”

I can almost hear the groans now, so I won’t quit my day job as a transportation planner. I may not be the next Kendrick Lamar, ghostwriting lyrics for the big names, but I look forward to having a little fun with each new project we are able to work on.*

*NOTE: No billable hours were harmed in the making of these parodies. See full lyrics below.

Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 



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