This week (on 2008.04.14), I headed over to one of UofT’s newest buildings, the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, only to find it full of engineers, not computer programmers. Co-instructor Jason Foster had invited me along to look at the presentations – poster, brochure, and classic ad-style pitch – for ESC102, the 2008 Praxis II Design Showcase.

Poster for Next generation of Surface Access Points using TTC typeface

In this course, engineering students all wrote their own candidate tasks, which were then winnowed down to six that were randomly assigned to groups of three students.

And the tasks were all about… the TTC.

  • Keeping people from getting killed when walking off a streetcar.

  • Accessible automated entrances.

  • Maximizing passenger capacity on subway cars.

  • Making subway entrances less hideous.

  • Counting passengers that board and leave surface vehicles.

  • Real-time schedules at bus and streetcar shelters.

These tasks were called RFPs throughout the process. They were meant to be written as credible requests for proposal, but really, they were briefs in design terms. And, importantly, this was a design exercise, not an engineering exercise. As I told the instructors later, when I went through engineer school anything resembling design would have been seen as too girly – more like interior decorating. A tremendous change, really.

Major problem

The automated-entrances task was improperly specified. The RFP on that topic (PDF) gave an incomplete list of existing entrances. In point of fact, all the stations on the Sheppard line have automated entrances that are nominally accessible. You deposit a token or swipe a pass, press the entry button, and sit there and wait until a bored, overpaid faretaker imprisoned in a far-off booth looks at you via remote camera and decides you deserve to get in. Then the door opens.

As such, the entrances aren’t really automated, but they are accessible. None of the teams I talked to who were assigned this task had ever heard of them. With some difficulty, it would have been possible to find out about the existence of these entrances just from a previous blog posting of mine. But teams should have thought for themselves and inspected known accessible stations to see what was there. Visiting the newest ones first would stand to reason. Besides, some of the Sheppard entrances are nice places to visit.

There was another problem: A functional goal was listed as “Entrance must allow only one user to enter for each fare paid.” But there are occasions when more than one person can enter for one fare (adult with young child), and other occasions when more than one being may do so (person with dog).

“Judge emeritus”

There were dozens of teams scheduled to present in shifts all day long. I printed and critiqued each team’s précis beforehand, writing “no” alongside many. The précis usually told you nothing about the actual design.

I showed up for one of two suggested presentation groupings and ended up spending nearly the whole day there. I took 170 pictures, posting only a few.

I walked up to each trio of kids (I really just could not stop calling them kids, and nobody minded), told them I didn’t work there and wasn’t marking them, who I was, and that they should treat me like a skeptical client. “Aaand… pitch!” I would say.

Clear winner

The clear winner was the team of René Rail-Ip, Justin Ropson, and Sarzil Rahman, who handled the topic of increased subway-car capacity with professional thoroughness. Three banks of seats flip up, and you can lean on the edge of the seat cushions. They prototyped early designs by arranging chairs in a cafeteria. They paid attention to æsthetics, particularly in the design of overhead handrails. A design that looks nice looks credible.

As with all teams handling this issue, it was not clear how or when their design changes would be put into effect in everyday operation. Exactly when do you flip up the bank of seats, who does it, how do you get people off the seats to do the flipping, how do you keep people from flipping them back down, and exactly when does one definitively flip them back down? Plus their typography was awful. Nonetheless, they thought of everything – and they had the highest capacity increase of any team.

These lads are to be hired immediately (especially Ropson).

Clear loser

I won’t tell you who they are. They were assigned the automated subway entrances. They specced a system presently in use in Bolivia. Buying off the shelf is fine (you’re going to be buying sheet glass and many other components that way), but these kids could not explain how it worked – at all, apart from reiterating the phrase “infrared beams.” In particular, they couldn’t explain how the system ensures only one person is inside the vestibule (and that isn’t the precise problem to be solved). Were I marking them, I would have flunked them, I said. EPIC FAIL.


  • Only one team had anything resembling adequate graphic design. I don’t expect much, but I certainly expect not to be waterboarded with Arial and Verdana. (I saw quite a few uses of the Vista ClearType fonts, though.)

  • Only two teams introduced themselves. This was so remarkable I interrupted them right after they did so. And only one of the two had nametags.

  • The subway-entrance task used clear glass in every case, which I told the kids would age about as well as harvest-gold appliances. Most teams used side entrance doors, some with added wings into which you could easily faceplant. I was not convinced of the usability of such doors, especially for someone dragging a suitcase (and people are gonna faceplant right into invisible wings). Typography was generally awful, and not all teams even bothered with the word SUBWAY (an actual task requirement).

  • For the automated-entrance task, I walked every team through different use cases, and for almost none of them did I hear plausible answers of any kind. Fat person in power chair; adult with stroller and one child not in that stroller; adult with child not in stroller (trick question – the answer is the fare rules prevent the adult from using those fare gates); and simply “dogs,” which I let the kids interpret any way they wanted. If they gave me trouble on that last one, I had them deal with the use cases of chihuahua in hand, chihuahua on floor, and St. Bernard on floor. Nobody seemed to anticipate power chairs at all.

    Automated entrances that limit entry to one person (or one fare-paying person) are actually a vexing problem of mechanization and artificial intelligence.

  • Half the teams dealing with streetcar safety used swing-out stop signs. I told them they’d whack a cyclist or, on sidewalk-adjacent subway lines (waterfront, Roncy), a pedestrian. Most had not thought of allowing the driver to deactivate the system in certain cases. Many solutions required either driver intervention (meaning they weren’t automated) or imposed delays of one kind or another (usually delaying the opening of a door). The simplest solution used a giant LED counter equivalent to a crosswalk countdown display.

    The best actual hack involved convex mirrors attached to the insides of doors, which that team actually tested. Many teams did not anticipate the use case of driver or cyclist who had already passed the rear of a vehicle; or wheelchair access; or six-door future streetcars.

  • The task of counting bus passengers was deathly dull and the kids knew it. They too had trouble dealing with use cases, though one team fared noticeably better. Nobody could explain how they would accurately count wheelchair users or how they would count adults with stollers or dogs. All teams resorted to the claim that all they needed was an aggregate count – which might be true for all categories save for wheelchair users, whose exact number will be of great interest. (Getting that wrong even by small numbers means a huge degree of error. Stating the number is five when it’s actually one is much worse than stating the number of total passengers is 3,500 when it’s really 3,000.) TTC may not be interested in how many strollers are used on the system, but they’re very interested in how many wheelchairs are used.

  • I wished the kids had busted the RFP requirements from time to time. Go absolutely crazy and make entrances accessible, that sort of thing.

  • Kids were shocked to learn that TTC vehicles do not use GPS, though the terms of their RFP told them to assume they did. (The current system involves counting wheel rotations and triangulating signals from guideposts.)

Graded on performance

Every team was videotaped and interviewed by teaching assistants (including a 6-foot-5 ginger with iron ring). I got in their way occasionally.

Jason, his co-instructor Alan Chong, and I had some conversations about presentation style. They know all about Tufte and PowerPoint. The last thing I want is a generation of engineers brainwashed by PowerPoint. Once they get a job with Lavalin that will happen anyway, I told them, but let’s not speed the process up.

Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d like to know why I’m not teaching a course like this. What am I, chopped tofu??

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.04.18 10:34. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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