Call it the “Silver Line Playbook.”
When Metro’s Silver Line extension opens later this year, commuters may enjoy amenities—from restaurants to retail shops to galleries—recommended by a class of graduate students from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy. The 13 students took part in a practicum designed to give them real-world, hands-on experience in various aspects of transportation policy, operations, and logistics—TPOL, for short.
As an added benefit, their work will weigh heavily on how passengers are accommodated at stops along the controversial, and expensive, Metro rail line, perhaps for years to come. The students are well aware that this assignment is not to be taken lightly.
In-depth field studies by TPOL students are a rite of passage before graduating from George Mason’s ambitious program. In the past, TPOL students have analyzed the cost-benefits of Amtrak’s Richmond to Washington, D.C., high-speed rail; researched highway user fee feasibility; and studied regional transit services and senior mobility issues. This semester the students were engaged by Fairfax County and members of the Tysons Partnership to recommend temporary “pop-up” infrastructure that will serve thousands of daily Silver Line passengers until permanent facilities can be built.
“We give them a client and a problem to work on, and it’s completely student led,” says Mason public policy professor Laurie Schintler. Schintler says the students meet the client on the first day of class “and we just set them loose. At the end of the [course], they need to deliver a report and give a presentation to the client.”
The students—in this class there were 12 master’s candidates and one PhD candidate—come from a variety of backgrounds and interests, Schintler says. Disciplines represented include aviation, transit, and nonprofit development, and the variety “brings multiple perspectives.”
That, says one of the course’s group leaders, was an added bonus to working on such a high profile project.
“One of my favorite things about George Mason is that the school’s evening class schedule caters to working professionals,” says Julie Evans, who graduated with a master’s degree in May. “To say our class came from all walks of life is an understatement. We’re from different industries in transportation, different levels of management and service provision. I’m coming at it from a contractor’s standpoint, so it’s been really educational.
“The experience these people brought to the discussions about the challenges and the potential solutions was just so impressive. I’ve learned a lot more than I expected just from the students, let alone the professors.”
To make the most of the available expertise—and the condensed time frame—the class divided the project into four components and assigned class members to working groups. “We had to keep in mind the branding notions that [officials] have developed for each site and make sure each stop will have well-rounded offerings,” Evans says. “We looked at what space is available, what types of space are there, and brainstormed what all could go in.”
Among other elements the students had to consider were extended mobility options (connecting with a bus or getting a Zipcar or using Bikeshare), aesthetics that provide content (for those who need to figure out how to get to a meeting), entertainment possibilities, and retail and commercial establishments.
Since the recommendations are for temporary structures, the students immersed themselves in researching “pop-up” edifices—also called flash retailing—that can be constructed swiftly and cheaply and yet achieve the purpose of selling goods, serving meals, providing directions, and killing time. Food trucks were an obvious choice to study; using modified shipping containers as building structures, already in wide use, was another.
Evans was surprised at “how many cool pop-up projects there are. There are a lot of fun, cool, new ideas for urban spaces. We took the ideas we were most excited about, did the research, pulled together information about what’s needed to implement that kind of project, studied how it fits with the other ideas, and verified that it will support the brand they’ve identified and are trying to enforce.”
The idea that their assignment is high profile, not just regionally but nationally, was not lost on the students.
“We did talk about the attention it would get,” says Ranee Carr, another May graduate who helped edit the final report. “We talked about the politics behind it, the expense of the project. We don’t want it to be disappointing to the county or anyone counting on us. We want it to be awesome.”