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Masooma Ali’s graduate research and transit advocacy is making a global impact

The School of Urban and Regional Planning’s sustainable and equitable approaches to planning have a far-reaching impact
By: Bonte Minnema
March 04, 2022

School of Urban and Regional Planning graduate and transit advocate Masooma Ali works internationally.

Recently I was able to speak to Masooma Ali about her experience in the world of urban planning and her exciting career as a planner since completing her master of planning in urban development (MPI) at the School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) in the Faculty of Community Services (FCS).  Her master's research project (MRP) and others can be found online at the Ryerson Library.  In her own words:

Where are you in your career? How does your master of planning (MPI) play a role? 

I have just begun my second year as an urban planner at Urban Strategies, external link, an urban design and planning consultancy based in Toronto where I am a part of complex projects in the GTA, across Canada and in Europe.

What was your master's research project (MRP) about? What attracted you to this subject matter? What did you measure?

My MRP was focused on smart payment systems, digital divide and transit inequity. It was a study of the Toronto Transit Commission’s implementation of the PRESTO system, external link. My analysis looked at the impact of unreliable technology, the new station structure, transfer inequity, data privacy and surveillance, and the upcoming open payment system, with a specific focus on those that face barriers to access. Recommendations were presented in the form of tech, design and policy changes with a specific focus on the implications this research has on the professional practice of planning. My graduate research supervisor and mentor, professor Pamela Robinson, really helped to open doors for me and take my work to the next level.

How has your work shifted given the COVID-19 pandemic?

My research was heavily impacted by COVID-19 while I was still conducting it and writing my MRP. We saw two major changes take place as soon as the pandemic hit. First, ridership fell significantly. However, those that did not have the ability or luxury of working from home were still using public transit and were disproportionately impacted by the sudden reduction in services and a lack of protection measures.Perhaps the most poignant was not accepting cash payments, which significantly impacts unbanked and underbanked individuals.  The pandemic made clear what experts had already known, that public transit is not an option for all, for some, it is an absolute necessity. It can be argued that for that ridership group, service is ‘second-class.’ 

Looking forward, what do you see as the future, for yourself?  What impact do you hope to have in your field? How does your MPI factor into that?

In my experience, those that are making the decisions that shape our cities, neighbourhoods and communities are not the ones that are most impacted by these decisions. For some, the choices made in offices and at city hall, at the provincial level, result in nominal changes. For others, it is life-changing and groundbreaking. I want to make sure those are the people that are heard and included. I just want to be a part of the movement that is trying to bridge the gap. 

What has been one of the highlights of your MRP experience?

My MRP experience carried me far beyond my time at SURP. I was able to connect with so many people and organizations to continue to work beyond the classroom. 

In April of 2021, a year after my MRP was completed, The Ontario Human Rights Commission released a letter raising concerns, external link that the use of the PRESTO fare payment system presents barriers to accessing Toronto’s public transit for some Human Rights Code-protected groups. The OHRC called on the TTC and Metrolinx, as the owner and operator of PRESTO, to make sure that they adopt a human rights-centred approach to their fare system planning and implementation. 

Though this was not based on my work alone, it felt very rewarding to contribute to this push for change. 

What would you say to someone considering graduate work, and doing that work at FCS?

If there is even a slight interest within someone to pursue a graduate degree I would say, “do it.” We have all been through so many years of schooling, but to decide to continue and in a field of your choosing is such a powerful thing. It is so rewarding and fulfilling to have control over your learning and pursue topics that you feel are important.

Graduate-level work can be all-consuming. What is something you enjoyed doing outside of your graduate work, for school/life balance?

I maintained my creative pursuits throughout grad school to keep me grounded. Photography; film making; sewing; painting; writing; reading, I made sure to make time for it just as I did my school work. It also made me a better student because creativity also found its way into my academic work and inspired the work I was doing. Balance is key.

Is there anyone you'd like to thank for their support on your academic and/or career journey? Perhaps a professor, friend, or colleague?

My supervisor and mentor Professor Pamela Robinson. I could not imagine achieving anything during my time at SURP and beyond, without her relentless encouragement, support, kindness and mentorship. 

Do you have any career highlights you'd like to share?

Working for New York City’s Department of City Planning, external link stands out as a major highlight. I learned so much in a short time, not only as a planner but just navigating through the city, meeting people, exploring the neighbourhoods, taking the MTA, walking the streets. Working in the public sector and in a different country allowed me to see the commonalities amongst our profession as a whole. I still apply so many of the lessons I learned to the work I do today.

Graduate Research Series

This past summer graduates and students at the Faculty of Community Services (FCS) were invited to tell us about their research projects and graduate studies experience. This is part of a series of introductory profiles about alumni and graduate students featuring their research and their advice for prospective graduate students. It is our hope you are as inspired by their research efforts and success as we are.  If you would like to submit a story idea for consideration please contact Bonte Minnema at bminnema@ryerson.ca