Multi-Level Perspective Modeling: Public Transportation in Pittsburgh

by Francis Carter, Bori Lee, Hajira Qazi, Delanie Ricketts, Nehal Vora

Documenting the process: an important part of a Transition Designer’s role is to develop effective ways of visualizing the complexity of both problems and their context. These visualizations can serve to both coordinate action and guide strategy. The group should document each phase of their process and most of it should be undertaken together. Each group should prepare a final digital presentation that shows: 1) overall MLP diagram that shows conditions related to the problem at the 3 levels; 2) proposed solutions/interventions; 3) description of the process; 4) brief discussion on the difficulties, insights gained and how this compares with traditional design process.

Using MLP and SPT to map the issue of lack of access to public transportation in Pittsburgh

Having gone through an initial wicked problem mapping of the issue of access to public transportation in Pittsburgh, our next step as a class was to use Multi Level Perspective (MLP) and Social Practice Theory (SPT) to map out the issue in terms of factors at the landscape, regime, and and niche levels. While our initial wicked problem map helped situate the issue in terms of environmental, social, infrastructure, geographical, and economical factors, our MLP map helped extrapolate these factors into a broader socio-technical context. Using SPT to further detail this map with relevant practices helped unveil new insights into possible points of intervention.

Niche, Regime, and Landscape

Building off of our whiteboarding session in class, we refined our MLP map into three versions. The first version of the map shows the niche, regime, and landscape factors contributing to the issue of lack of access to public transportation and how they influence one another. For instance, factors at the regime level such as economic inequity and budget problems contribute to landscape factors such as stigma against public transit and narrow and bad roads. Likewise, landscape factors such as attitudes towards ownership, urban development, and city layout reinforce the regime factors of budget and parking issues.

In addition, landscape and regime level factors affect niche developments, and vice versa. Bureaucracy at the regime level helps Uber and bike sharing niche developments take hold. In turn, niche bike sharing developments affect the regime through the establishment of bike lanes. Niche developments like autonomous cars and green buses can also affect landscape developments such as attitudes towards ownership and climate change.

Mapping Practices and MLP

Once we had an understanding of the interplay of factors at the landscape, regime, and niche levels, we brainstormed practices that cut-across different niche, regime, and landscape developments. Shopping, nightlife, and partying, for example, all emerged as practices that relate to developments at the niche, regime, and landscape level, such as car sharing, buses, and attitudes and preferences regarding the comfort of big cars. Practices like “taking kids to school” are linked to preferences of convenience, efficiency, safety, and comfort that cars offer and buses do not. Other practices emerged as relating primarily to niche and regime developments. The practice of commuting, for instance, relates most directly to the development of transit apps and congestion, among other niche and regime developments.

Having gotten an understanding of numerous niche, regime, landscape developments and practices relating to the issue of lack of access to public transportation, we were able to talk through which barriers presented the greatest opportunity for seeding systems-level change. Given the reliance on fossil fuel for most transportation, we saw this factor as particularly significant in terms of its potential to completely change the system. Narrow roads, ownership attitudes, and wanting comfort in personal vehicles also emerged as particularly entrenched factors inhibiting public access to public transportation.

Interventions linked to Regime and Landscape elements

Using this focus on the most entrenched factors, we used our map to think through how possible interventions could affect regime and landscape level change. One intervention was to have Port Authority sponsored cars, which could help combat stigma against public transit, perceptions about what makes a certain type of transportation convenient, attitudes towards ownership, and preferences for big cars. A non-public example of this is Car2Go, which enables users to use any Car2Go smartcar that is near their location without having to return the car to its original location. However, the entrenched stigma against public transportation options and the superior convenience of one’s own vehicle could prohibit the success of this intervention.

Another idea was to facilitate carpooling by using private lots for meet-up spaces, and creating more HOV lanes. Such an intervention could affect not only stigmas, attitudes, and preferences at the landscape level, but also policies at the regime level. Increasing permitted parking regulations could also affect regime level change by influencing budget, congestion, and parking problems. However, once again stigma against public transportation and convenience perceptions, as well as the existing city layout, could inhibit the overall impact of this intervention.

While some interventions we came up with would be entirely new solutions, some simply leveraged existing developments. For example, increasing permitted parking areas could raise revenue and address budget, congestion, and parking issues. This would simply mean increasing existing regulations. Similarly, although bringing green buses to Pittsburgh would mean phasing out the current bus fleet and replacing it with a new fleet, the system itself would remain intact.

In addition to a mixture of interventions in terms of leveraging existing solutions versus creating new ones, our interventions ranged in terms of enforcing negative and positive feedback loops. Increasing permitted parking areas, for instance, would contribute towards a negative feedback loop. In this example, increasing permitted parking areas takes resources (fees that drivers pay for permits and tickets) out of the system in order to help balance it (by providing revenue for improving public transportation). In contrast, encouraging people to carpool by providing private lots for meeting up represents a positive feedback loop. Here, the private lots add resources into the system in order to perpetuate existing commuting practices.

By thinking through our wicked problem using the MLP, SPT, and Meadows’ positive and negative feedback loops, we were able to surface a variety of interventions that may have not come up had we not used these frameworks. In addition to helping us brainstorm, these tools were particularly useful in terms of helping us think through how different interventions could change the system, and what barriers they would face.

Written for Transition Design, taught at Carnegie Mellon University by Terry Irwin and Gideon Kossoff