Learning by Doing

With transportation projects vying for competitive dollars, everyone is working harder at improving their performance — not only the transit agencies, but the facilities architects and engineers as well.

The “Odyssey” program is a training process one of those companies has developed to help itself improve by having a better understanding and firsthand experience. Christopher Abramo, EIT, mechanical engineer with Wendel Duchscherer, says Dave Duchscherer, the person in the firm that started the public transportation practice about 30 years ago, was always very conscious of making sure they stayed connected with the customers and was looking to improve on that.

“We always met with our customers and clients at their sites and at their facilities or wherever they were and yet even with that, he thought, is there a way that we could still get even more in tune with customers’ needs,” says Abramo.

They have had three “Odysseys” so far, putting the architects and engineers in the shoes of transit users and the transit mechanics.

Starting a New Program

Donald Gray, AIA, LEEP AP, director of public transportation, says, “We’re trying to keep our learning current and sharp so we’re able to do our job better to be able to really help the people that are users of our end product so we’ve constantly searched for ways to do that.”

The first Odyssey was the idea that they would go back and visit their projects to see how they’re performing, how people use them. One person from the firm would go to a city that they had an intermodal center or transfer center being used and would ride the system in and out of that center. They would ride the local buses, stay overnight, make their own arrangements, take an intercity bus on to Greyhound to the next city where a project was and meet up with the person at that location.

They kept a journal of their experiences, they interviewed people using the centers, riding those vehicles, and they were also given a collapsible chair and had someone take their picture at the site. The collapsible chair also served as bulk to add to the challenge.

The benefit was that they summarized all of their lessons learned and broke them into what were things they needed to get as designers, engineers and architects to better provide for end users, and which were things that were in the owner’s hands.

Leanne Stepien, LEEP AP, architectural designer, was a participant in the Odyssey program, traveling from Washington, D.C., to Fredericksburg, Va. After planning her trip online ahead of time, she arrived to find the train wasn’t running due to track maintenance. Switching to Greyhound, she experienced the importance of wayfinding throughout and making connections to other modes of transportation and she observed the differences in services and amenities, down to even the kind of coffee you can purchase being completely different.

Through their discussions of lessons learned, they developed a list of important considerations from their experiences. One important factor was the heightened anxiety level associated with not “knowing.” As Gray explains, “If it wasn’t for the bus driver looking at me going, ‘You look lost, what are you looking for?’ and saying this is the bus to get on, I would have probably missed my connection.” He adds laughing, “I’m such a veteran of transportation terminals and I couldn’t figure it out.”

Taking it to Maintenance

The next idea was a natural evolution, Gray says. Letting an architect and engineer work side-by-side with mechanics in a garage lets them understand a mechanic’s life. When they’re designing a maintenance facility, they have a firsthand understanding of what it is all about.

“The mechanics really welcomed Chris and Dan as opposed to just saying, ‘OK,’ because their boss was the one that worked it out with us,” Gray says. “We were really grateful to hear what Chris and Dan came back with; they really got embraced by these guys.”

Abramo was eager to participate in this program he says, to work in a garage, get dirty and to actually understand what is the best design for maintenance facilities as far as layout goes.

“One of the things we looked at was every time we would change brakes or rotate tires, you’re constantly thinking, how can I make this process better? Or, what is inefficient about this process, how can we incorporate it into our design?” says Abramo.

“As a mechanical engineer, I was looking even at fluid replacements.” He explains, “They’re always doing fluid changes, so locating more fluid reels and compressed air outlets, where do those have to go?”

An significant point he learned when working under the bus was regarding the importance of light. “When we were under the bus on creepers, changing the oil or doing brake inspections or ensuring all the fittings were greased up, you couldn’t see anything.” Abramo continues, “You’re constantly working with this trouble light with cords that got in the way of the creeper, they don’t work very well.

“You try to place the light, you have one hand holding the light and one hand turning the wrench and a couple of times had the wrench drop on my head,” he says with a laugh. “I started talking with our electrical engineers looking into lighting options, whether you put a light on a lift or you put lights in the floors or maybe even flooring materials are more reflective.

“Those kind of design ideas got us thinking about how we’re designing these bays.”

Gray says, “We’re trying to use it to design better facilities because the mechanics’ comfort and efficiency; if you can make them more comfortable and give them better working conditions, they can do better work and actually do more work.”