School is fun*

I’m nearing the end of my Data Science masters program at UT Austin this fall, and I find myself looking for what’s next. The most fun part of data science is getting to play around with new, state-of-the-art algorithms, which can continually be at odds with the realities of the workplace. In a business context, there’s a ton of work that goes into test design, data collection, feature engineering, model interpretability, etc. When it’s finally time to train a model, though, the more responsible choice is often to use a standard model from an open source library, maybe do some amount of hyperparameter tuning, get 80% of the benefits in 20% of the time compared to a deeper approach, and move on to the next problem.

Working towards this degree let me scratch that itch by getting to work through the design and implementation of deep learning classifiers, computer vision systems, reinforcement learning agents, and sequence-to-sequence transformers. That last one was particularly great, as that portion of my NLP class lined up with Chat GPT and other generative models taking the world by storm. Knowing how they worked under the hood was a great feeling and incredibly useful for cuttting through the hype cycle surrounding them. With a job already in hand, it has been much less stressful than any education I’ve had since back when I still had recess on my schedule.

All that being said, the formal side of getting an actual degree through an actual school wasn’t without its compromises. Given the choice, did I really need to take intro to statistics for the 3rd time? Do I really want to spend another winter weighing time spent skiing against time spent studying for exams at age 27? Probably not. (For the record, though, skiing won every past debate of that sort. I didn’t miss out on much.)

Luckily, we live in the age of the internet and freely-available knowledge. It has become somewhat common to learn about business through a sort of DIY MBA program - seeking out books, online courses, and articles to work through on a flexible schedule. Sure, you give up on the formal qualification and networking effects, but it can be a sound way to learn the theory.

Applying the DIY MBA idea to Urban Design

In 2020, a couple months into the pandemic, my car broke down. It was a cheap craiglist purchase not worth half of what it would cost to fix it, and I was working from home for the foreseeable future anyway, so I got rid of it. To replace it, I bought a cheap bike I was happy to leave outside, a lock, and a big backpack. For the next year, I went from being just a ‘cyclist’ - riding my bike for exercise, driving everwhere else - to being just a guy who happened to use a bike instead of a car to get around.

For the vast majority of my day-to-day life, it was perfectly sufficient - even preferable preferable - to using a car. I didn’t have to worry about parking, traffic, or gas prices. I got to experience the life of the city around me without the isolation of a glass and steel box. Getting groceries was easier than I thought, visiting friends around town was trivial, and the stress I used to feel when the ‘No Parking - Street Cleaning’ signs were posted was gone. However, on the occasions that I couldn’t practically take a trip by bike - maybe I had to wear a suit and didn’t want to sweat, or had to meet a friend somewhere requiring going on the highway to access - options were incredibly limited. I could take the bus, with an incredibly limited route map and schedule, or a rideshare at a relatively high cost, and that was about it.

Through decades of successful automotive lobbying, massive federal funding of highway infrastructure, and zoning restrictions mandating parking and favoring single-family suburban development, we have ensured that the only way to freedom of movement in the US is through private vehicle ownership. This entails accepting enormous cost, danger, inconvenience, and environmental impact. Cars are a tool like any other, with benefits and drawbacks, but nobody has ever wished for a smaller toolbox, just like I don’t wish for a smaller set of feasible transportation choices.

My time living car-free showed me that transportation equity is not an engineering problem, but a policy one. We’re not one leap in electric car battery technology away from solving the urban heat island effect caused by too much paved land devoted to parking lots. We don’t need new technology to build a practical subway system in Las Vegas, we just need to afford public transit systems the same luxury as road infrastructure and treat it as a public good with huge macroeconomic upside, even though the system itself may not be profitable in a vacuum.

The policy failures are clear, but the solutions less so to a relative newcomer such as myself. I’m looking to combine the techniques (and some of the relevant content) from a few DIY MBA programs I’ve found, with my particular goal to learn more about transit policy and urban design. This will enable me to advocate more productively than simply saying ‘more transit, more options, now’.

The full list of courses/books/articles I’m intending to work through are below. I’ll update this list as I go with my progress, takeaways, and other rabbitholes I may find myself going down. Hopefully this is interesting for some, but at a bare minumum that will serve to keep me accountable in the absence of a more formal structure.

✅ - Done
🔄 - In Progress

Urban Design

  • ✅ The Death and Life of Great American Cities - Jane Jacobs
  • Triumph of the City - Edward Glaeser
  • Walkable City - Jeff Speck
  • Tactical Urbanism - Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia
  • The American City: What Works and What Doesn’t - Alexander Garvin
  • The Power Broker - Robert Caro
  • 🔁 Planning in the USA: Policies, Issues, and Processes - Barry Cullingworth
  • Strong Towns - Charles L. Marohn
  • The BLDGBLOG Book - Geoff Manaugh
  • ✅ Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture - Robert Venturi

Transit Design

  • 🔄 Urban Transit for Liveable Cities - University of Pennsylvania
  • ✅ Confessions of a Recovering Engineer - Charles L. Marohn
  • Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution - Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow
  • Human Transit - Jarrett Walker

Some useful stuff from DIY MBAs

  • ✅ Introduction to Corporate Finance - Wharton
  • Game Theory - Stanford