Research Paper - An Academic Exploration of Transportation Equity Needs in Tompkins County

With confidentiality concerns, I cannot reveal data or preliminary findings from my summer research project. Therefore, I decided to instead write about my thought process connecting this project to my major and my life.

The realm of transportation extends beyond practical conveyance, intricately shaping access to opportunities and services. However, structural inequities often amplify disparities, disproportionately affecting underserved communities. This report delves into my summer research experience with the Tompkins County Transportation Equity Needs Assessment project, elucidating its objectives, methodologies, expected outcomes, and experiential insights gained from active engagement.


Part 1: Introduction

Transportation disparities have profound implications, particularly within the context of underserved communities. Marginalized populations, including BIPOC individuals and those with limited income, face pronounced challenges in accessing essential services due to unequal transportation access. This report centers on the Tompkins County Transportation Equity Needs Assessment, a strategic initiative led by the Human Services Coalition. The objective is to comprehensively address these disparities, focusing on underserved communities' transportation needs and experiences. By deploying a multifaceted approach, the assessment aims to unravel the complexities of transportation inequities and foster informed, inclusive solutions.

The assessment is guided by community-based participatory research principles, underscoring the significance of involving community voices directly. This approach champions a more authentic understanding of the challenges faced by underserved residents and positions them as co-researchers. The assessment draws upon diverse methodologies, including a county-wide survey, focus groups, data analysis from various sources, and facilitated stakeholder meetings. These methodologies collectively furnish a holistic perspective on transportation needs and barriers, informed by both quantitative data and qualitative narratives.

The outcomes of this assessment hold potential to catalyze positive change. By elucidating transportation disparities, the assessment can inform policies, interventions, and infrastructural improvements that foster equitable access for underserved communities. This report illuminates the multifaceted nature of the project, encompassing its objectives, methodologies, and anticipated outcomes. It further delves into the experiential insights gained, emphasizing the transformative power of community-centered research in reshaping transportation equity paradigms. Through active engagement in this assessment, a more equitable transportation landscape in Tompkins County is envisaged, one that takes into account the unique needs and challenges of underserved communities.


Part 2: Methodology

The Tompkins County Transportation Equity Needs Assessment employs a multi-pronged methodology that systematically addresses the complexities of transportation disparities experienced by underserved communities. The following methodologies are integrated to provide a comprehensive evaluation:

  1. County-Wide Survey: A pivotal component of the assessment is the county-wide survey, which serves as the bedrock for gathering quantitative data directly from the community members. Informed by community voices, the survey is meticulously designed to uncover intricate transportation needs, preferences, and barriers encountered by individuals within underserved communities. By actively involving the community in survey development, the assessment ensures alignment with pertinent issues and a faithful representation of their experiences.
  2. Focus Groups: The assessment leverages the expertise of partner organizations to orchestrate focus groups, offering an avenue for in-depth exploration of key topics. These focus groups, led by proficient partner organization staff, create a safe space for participants to share lived experiences, insights, and the challenges woven into their transportation journeys. This approach achieves a harmonious blend of structured methodology and authentic community voices, ultimately fostering a deeper comprehension of the multifaceted issues at hand.
  3. Data Collection and Analysis: Diversity in data sources is fundamental to the assessment's comprehensiveness. The inclusion of data from an array of sources, ranging from transportation service providers to support organizations and existing secondary data, culminates in a panoramic perspective. Incorporating data from the Human Services Coalition, community health assessments, and Census data enriches the analytical depth. The incorporation of factors such as broadband access and accident rates contextualizes transportation disparities within a broader societal framework.
  4. Facilitated Stakeholder Meetings: Stakeholder engagement lies at the core of the assessment's integrity. Facilitated stakeholder meetings serve as a dynamic platform for shaping measurement instruments and jointly interpreting results. Stakeholders, armed with contextual knowledge and domain expertise, contribute to the refinement of assessment methodologies, ensuring alignment with real-world dynamics. This engagement substantiates the credibility of the findings and bolsters the relevance of the assessment's conclusions.

The methodological orchestration of the Tompkins County Transportation Equity Needs Assessment has offered profound insights into the intricate web of transportation disparities and their societal ramifications. The community-based participatory approach has underscored the significance of involving the community directly in research initiatives. This approach not only generates data but empowers the community, elevates their voices, and augments the authenticity of the assessment's findings.


Part 3: Insights and Implications

“I need an affordable transportation method that can help me transport a 500-pound family member.”[1] This is a surprising response to one of our typical survey questions, “Do you have any other suggestions for the county's transportation system?” This response deviated from the standard categorization method employed for open-ended survey responses, where themes like "high prices" or "unreasonable bus routes" are typical groupings. However, the uniqueness of this response defied alignment with existing categories. This scenario introduces the theme of "extreme users."

In essence, extreme users denote individuals who diverge from typical product usage patterns, often due to unmet or unaddressed needs within their current context. The concept was introduced to me in a university setting, where my instructor Siri exhibited a photograph taken during her field research. In this context, users who creatively employ products in unconventional ways, distinct from the designer's intent, are labeled as “extreme users.” The reason they exist is that the design of the product cannot fulfill their needs, so that they have to make their own creative adjustments to the product.

Upon encountering the aforementioned response during my data analysis process, the concept of extreme users resurfaced in my thoughts. Such users transcend conventional approaches due to unfulfilled needs, often ones neglected or abandoned due to their niche nature. Furthermore, within the transportation system fairness assessment survey, I identified another instance of an "extreme user" and decided to expand the concept. Thus, I propose an extension of the definition of "extreme users" beyond its original confines. Specifically, in user data analysis, the data points that are difficult to categorize into prevailing themes, and are thereby remain unnoticed, frequently signify "extreme users."

This leads to the query: Why identify such individuals as extreme users? The term "extreme" underscores an objective position rather than subjective sentiment. Employing this term encourages a comprehensive evaluation of statistical data from an overarching perspective. When our designs and services organically cater to the formerly designated "extreme users," the distinction of extreme user status dissipates.

Upon clarifying the definition of extreme users, now comes the question of why we should care about extreme users. Referring back to classes in my design major as well as my life experience, I summarized three main reasons. The first one is that everyone could be an extreme user at some time or space. This summer, I witnessed an old lady trying to make her daughter on the phone to talk to the Ourbus driver to figure out when she should get off. The driver was irritated because the difficult conversation distracted him from doing his job responsibly, but the ultimate reason was that the Ourbus interface was not designed to accommodate the needs of people with limited English ability. This scenario could also happen to anyone traveling to a different culture with no accommodating language services. Similarly, everyone was once young and will turn old, which changes our abilities too. If our living environments are not designed considering these extreme user cases, there will always be someone less cared for, and one day it could be us, too.

The second reason is that noticing and designing for extreme users pushes the development of our society in the long run. For example, when the seatbelt was first invented, it protected the lives of adults but put young children at the risk of choking. The effort to invent baby chairs on cars that protect those “extreme users” ultimately led to the decreased death rate of children in car accidents, protecting the future of our society.

The third reason is that especially now as our economy and technology has development to a certain level, we have more than ever the resources and capability to be inclusive. Standardized and normalized production can increase efficiency to a certain level, but now we need to pay more attention to the quality rather than speed of out development.

After understanding the necessity and possibility of considering “extreme users” within the design of our processes, I moved on to thinking about the three roles that I might play in improving the inclusiveness of my immediate environment: as an organizer or designer of an event, as a design professional, and as an “extreme user” myself.

As an event organizer, creating an inclusive environment entails more than just surface-level accommodation. It involves fostering an atmosphere where everyone feels valued and heard. To achieve this, event organizers can implement a range of strategies. Firstly, open channels of communication should be established, allowing attendees to express their specific needs or concerns. This could be done through pre-event surveys or providing a designated point of contact for inquiries. Additionally, event organizers can proactively identify potential challenges that might arise for extreme users and address them beforehand. For instance, considering dietary restrictions is essential, but it goes beyond just offering a few vegetarian or gluten-free options. It involves collaborating with caterers who understand the intricacies of various dietary needs, such as allergies, religious restrictions, or specific medical conditions. Moreover, event organizers can provide clear information about the event's accessibility features, including wheelchair access, sign language interpreters, or sensory accommodations, to ensure that extreme users are aware of the available support. The implementation of these measures not only enhances the experience of extreme users but also sets a precedent for inclusivity that benefits all attendees.

As a designer, the responsibility of promoting inclusivity extends beyond the realm of product design. Disseminating inclusivity theories and tools to a broader audience is pivotal in creating a more inclusive society. The Microsoft Inclusivity Handbook serves as an invaluable resource for this purpose. This handbook not only outlines the core principles of inclusive design but also offers practical, actionable steps to implement these principles. One particularly compelling idea put forth by the handbook is the concept that designing for one extreme user often results in the inclusion of many. This resonates across diverse fields and industries, making it a powerful tool for driving change. For instance, a product initially designed with a focus on accessibility for individuals with disabilities can benefit a wide range of users, including those with temporary injuries, parents with young children, or the elderly. By championing this concept and sharing it with professionals across various sectors, designers can inspire a collective shift towards more inclusive practices.

Lastly, as an "extreme user", I firmly believe that it is essential for all individuals facing unique challenges to advocate for their needs and preferences. The experiences of individuals like Terri Bryant and Ibtihaj Muhammad illustrate the impact that personal advocacy can have on broader societal change. Terri Bryant, a makeup artist diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, recognized the lack of accessible makeup tools in the market. Instead of accepting this limitation, she founded Guided Beauty, a company dedicated to designing easily graspable makeup tools. Her initiative not only provided a solution for individuals with Parkinson's but also highlighted the need for greater inclusivity in the beauty industry. Similarly, Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad spoke out about the lack of sports-appropriate hijabs for Muslim women. Her advocacy efforts prompted Nike to develop products that enabled many Muslim women to participate in sports comfortably. These examples emphasize the power of personal narratives and advocacy in driving change and creating a more inclusive world for all individuals, regardless of their unique circumstances.

In conclusion, the concept of "extreme users" challenges us to rethink the boundaries of inclusivity in our society. By recognizing and addressing the needs of those who deviate from conventional product usage patterns, we not only improve the lives of extreme users but also pave the way for broader societal advancements.


In essence, the Tompkins County Transportation Equity Needs Assessment's methodology embodies a harmonious interplay of methodologies that encapsulate the lived experiences of underserved communities. This synthesis of quantitative data, qualitative narratives, and stakeholder insights culminates in a comprehensive evaluation of transportation equity needs, paving the way for targeted interventions that can foster a more inclusive and equitable community. At a broader perspective, taking into account the “extreme user” could be our next key point no matter when improving the organization of small events or when seeking social development and policy change.


[1] Paraphrased to protect data and participant.

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