Nate Wessel is an urban planner and cartographer living in Toronto. He spent much of his life so far in Ohio and enjoys cycling, walking, mapping things, and playing with his cat. Check out his website https://natewessel.com/ for more info.
Nate was interviewed for GeoHipster by Natasha Pirani.
Q: Hi Nate! How did you become the planner, cartographer, and transit nerd of your email signature epithets? Who/what have been some of your influences and inspirations?
A: I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Ohio and for some reason that I still don’t fully understand I always had a built-in antagonism toward cars and suburbia. As a teenager, I got really into cycling (carbon racing bike, shaved legs, etc.) and rode absolutely everywhere as fast as I could. I took transit sometimes too, for no real reason except that it was difficult and no one else I knew used it. There was one transit route a mile from my house; you had to wave down the little bus as it came by once an hour and it would take you into what was left of downtown Canton, where I would walk around sometimes. I guess I’ve always liked exploring neglected public spaces – there are few public spaces in the US that aren’t neglected though; everyone just passes through inside their private isolation chamber. As an outsider to that, I got to see a lot of really terrible and even, I’d say, brutal behaviour from ordinary people inside their cars. It’s astonishing how cars can make their drivers feel so disconnected from the world around them.
I wanted to get out of the suburbs ASAP and I went to college with a major in urban planning. I ended up in a design school – planning departments seem to be lumped in either with architecture or geography and this one had architecture for a roommate. Some of my first classes focused more on color theory and graphic design than transport planning or housing policy. Eventually they exposed us to ArcMap too, though GIS and design didn’t really come together into cartography for me until after I graduated and started using better, open-source software like QGIS.
Q: To get wordy and mildly transit nerdy…I recently learned the English word vecturist – a collector of transportation tokens. It seems like a relevant occupation in this age of automated transit fare payment/collection. Your interest in its Latin root piqued my curiosity: what are your favourite transit-related (or other) cognate words or etymology facts?
A: What a fun question! One of the Latin words I had the most fun learning is the verb “trahere” (meaning: to pull or drag) which is where we get “tractor”, as in Star Trek’s “tractor beam” which is of course always pulling things. I don’t know why I’d never thought to wonder why they called it that. Thus: tract, distract, protract, subtract, abstract, extract, contract… it’s amazing how many words you can make with a few prefixes, all of them having to do with pulling things metaphorically from, away, for, below, with, etc.
I’ve also been doing a bit of work lately with a company called Conveyal, which shares the ‘ve’ root of vecturist, and also ‘vehicle’ for that matter. It’s fascinating to find similarities in English words and then explain them with Latin. But once you learn enough Latin, you start to see similarities there that take you back to Proto-Indo-European for an explanation and then before you know it you’re an amateur linguist.
Q: And what do you think about automated transit fare payment and its implications?
A: I really like it! As you know, the Toronto Transit Commission has finally got their smartcard system working now, more or less. I used to always have to carry a couple tokens in my pocket and then I was always finding tokens later scattered all over the apartment. It’s one less pocket I need to pat before walking out the door.
I really like the data collection they make possible as well – I’m hoping some day to work for the agency that collects that tap-on smart card data. To be able to track individual travel behaviour over months and years like that is an absolute gold mine for anyone who wants to study how and why people use transit. I really hope transit agencies are able to leverage some of that data – but I’m afraid they’re mostly not doing much with it at the moment.
Q: You make exquisite maps that are both beautiful and useful. Especially for cyclists. Tell me about your work on rethinking urban bike maps.
A: Gosh. Thank you.
I made a bike map for Cincinnati during my last couple of years living there after getting fed up with a couple of crappy bike maps that kept getting circulated year after year. They were very subjective maps, though without really declaring their subjectivity in any way. Maps with a subjective, biased perspective can be really interesting but they need to clearly put a face on that perspective so the reader can know where they’re coming from and how to relate to them critically. You can’t print maps like that out of a big faceless bureaucracy as though they contain some objective truth.
Anyway, I reacted against those maps and made my own bike map that was explicitly objective and based on verifiable facts like posted speed limits, elevations, and the number of lanes in a street. It was really detailed data and I think the map was able to convey a lot of nuance that people hadn’t been able to see before. I got some funding for the project and printed a bit more than my weight in paper maps. For anyone who hasn’t printed a giant quantity of something they created, I highly recommend it. It’s a really great feeling – totally worth cutting down a tree for it.
Q: What if everyone were a cyclist? (I obviously borrowed this question from your old blog).
A: So I’ve been working on this new bike-map concept, which I’m applying to Toronto because that’s where I live now. The idea is that there is a bias toward cars in the street network itself and that in order to properly map that network from a cyclist’s perspective, we need to do a lot of extra work just to get around that. Look for example at a typical street map of any city and you will see a clear hierarchy of streets, from highways on down to ‘local’ or ‘side’ streets. The bigger, more prominent streets are longer and straighter. The lesser streets are more indirect and fragmentary. This is a world built for cars.
Those same big straight roads generally aren’t safe for cyclists because of all the cars and we end up following more indirect, twisting, fragmentary paths in order to avoid them. Those twisting paths aren’t totally improvised though – they keep recurring in predictable sequences as cyclists settle in and find the best alternatives for common trips. Those paths themselves are the bicycle “highways”, even if they aren’t marked as such – and they usually aren’t. My idea is to simulate this path choice behaviour at a regional scale, as though everyone were a cyclist, though riding in current car-centric conditions. This can be used to generate a bike-specific street hierarchy which actually looks totally different from a “normal” map.
Q: You seem like a modern renaissance academic; you completed a PhD last year in urban planning (congratulations!) yet have written that specialization is a curse. I think I can relate to your concurrent desires to “keep moving, and learning, and developing” and “to get stuck doing something”. I’m curious to know more about how you feel about these academically and otherwise – do you see these pulls as contradictory? Complementary? Normal? Necessary?
A: I graduated from undergrad into a really abysmal job market for urban planning. I spent a year freelancing in design stuff and burning through my savings before I met the man who would become my academic advisor, Michael Widener. I mentioned that I was looking for work and he followed up with an offer to supervise me with a modest stipend – enough to keep the lights on for a couple years anyway. So I actually started my master’s program for the money, such as it was. I wanted to stay in academia for a PhD because I really liked the people I met during the master’s and the challenge of learning new things – the people in that department were very different from me – lots of geologists and archeologists doing remote sensing and historical GIS. I was the only person talking about transit among a bunch of people studying arctic ice and Mayan ruins and Martian topography.
But I guess I found out that a PhD is a somewhat different beast – or maybe my new department was? I still really liked the people I got to work with, but the tasks kept getting more repetitive. Problem statements were followed by statistical analyses were followed by literature reviews were followed by conference presentations were followed by long epistolary editorial processes, and then it all starts again. I was also increasingly surrounded by people doing really similar work, all of whom were great by the way – no complaints, but I think I stopped learning or feeling challenged in that context. I wasn’t encountering new ideas, only different applications of the same ideas.
So that’s the downside of specialism, that kind of intellectual and spiritual isolation that will creep up on you if you’re not careful. By contrast when I say that I want to get stuck doing something, maybe what I’m getting at is that total freedom of association is also a curse. That superficial exposure to novelty doesn’t teach; you have to really cement yourself to it for a while, like learning a language by immersion.
I think both specialty and focus; and novelty and excitement have addictive properties and are always pulling hard in their own direction. Specialty gives money and merit and stability, novelty gives growth and vitality. I’ve found it difficult to strike the right balance and even harder to maintain it.
Q: What is Civic Tech Toronto and what have you learned and unlearned as a regular at the meetups? And what else do you like to do in Toronto?
A: Civic Tech TO is a weekly meetup where people with a range of technology interests get together to work on civic problems. Some people are teaching homeless youth how to code, others are using data to advocate for better transit, I’ve mostly been using it as a way to hold myself accountable to my own bike map project. It’s as much a social activity as anything and I’ve met some really interesting people there.
If I’m being honest though, one of the things I’ve learned is just how weak Toronto’s civic culture is. Canada has much more of a safety net than the US which I think allows people to get a bit complacent and rely on government for a lot of things that people would be organizing around in the US. There’s an obvious upside to that, but it does make civic engagement very different here – more professionalised, less accessible, and so many things seem to circle back to some big institution. Civic Tech is very much becoming its own civic institution though which I think is great.
I’m still trying to figure out how to enjoy Toronto – everything is so expensive here. I like to ride bikes and hang out on the beach as much as possible.
Q: Planner, cartographer, transit nerd…what else are you (becoming)? (A geohipster, perhaps?)
A: I design and sew most of my own clothes and consider myself a half-decent seamstress; I’ve been looking for work lately so there’s been a big push to make some more formal, conservative stuff to eventually wear in a government planning office. I’ve also kept aquariums since I was a kid and I spend a lot of time building ever more elaborate aquatic environs to keep the fish and plants and molluscs happily munching on each other’s chemical byproducts.
Geohipster is an interesting term! It seems like a “hipster” is defined in part by an aesthetic eclecticism, and also (and more importantly?) by irony. I’m definitely an eclectic user of GIS, but I think I’m much too earnest about it to be accused of irony. But isn’t that exactly what a real hipster would say?
Q: Do you have any wisdom or advice to share with readers?
A: Don’t forget to stop and pet the cats.