Improving Transportation: Diverse Communities, Diverse Mobility
Growing up in New York City, I never thought much about driving. My immigrant parents would trek one hour by bus and train into Manhattan to their jobs, and like a rite of passage, my siblings and I started taking transit to school in the 6th grade. Looking back, my experience taking public transportation not only led to me pursuing a career in engineering, but also contributed to me becoming a well-rounded traffic engineer.
From middle school through high school, I traveled alone by train from Queens to Manhattan on Saturdays to attend a STEM program. I immersed myself in subjects beyond the typical public-school curriculum: astrophysics, robotics, and engineering. My classmates were a diverse group representative of our city, and nearly all our teachers were women and/or people of color. These wonderful teachers showed us who we could be – to us they were not just educators, but also role models. I am only here today because someone like me showed me who I could be. Public transit, along with my teachers, literally transported me to a career in transportation.
Even now as a traffic engineer, I try to think less about driving, and more about the communities I serve – especially those where not everyone can drive. Working as I do in New York City and New York’s Hudson Valley, transportation professionals need to think about moving people, not cars. We serve the transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians; the students whose parents cannot drive them to school because of work obligations; the families who may not be able to afford cars, parking, or tolls; and those who may not have the immigration status to obtain a driver’s license. No matter one’s identity or background, everyone has a right to accessible, affordable, and reliable transportation options. As someone whose main transportation mode growing up was transit, I’m beyond proud to provide people with equitable solutions for their travel needs.
At AKRF I work with local municipalities in the Hudson Valley area to make transportation accessible to everyone. We have converted overdesigned roadways and highways into walkable and bikeable community connectors; plan sidewalks and bike lanes for non-motorized travel to work and school; and design Complete Streets to make roadways usable and safer for everyone.
I work with these communities to ensure that everyone’s voices and concerns are heard and addressed. Representation in engineering is crucial to building livable, vibrant neighborhoods. Everyone has their own unique challenges, and understanding the different perspectives help us represent the needs of society. The more diversity there is in our profession, the better we can serve our communities. What better way to represent your community than to become an engineer and shape it?
When we give people options in connecting them to where they need to be, we provide them with the chance to be who they want to be. I still think about those middle schoolers, excited to learn and optimistic about their futures. It’s one thing to tell them they can be engineers, and it’s another to build the opportunities, chances, and connections for them to achieve it.
As we celebrate National Engineers Week, let’s celebrate placemaking and the transportation and traffic engineer’s role in shaping communities that represent us all. Let’s do better to shape our communities, because both the built community and our community of transportation professionals will be best served by a more diverse and inclusive society.
As a young black boy, the thought of being a transportation engineer was not one that immediately jumped out to me. I was more interested in sports and rollercoasters. My fascination with rollercoasters led me to seek out professions that aligned with becoming a rollercoaster designer. I soon discovered that a background in engineering seemed to be a commonality within the niche and set my sights on becoming an engineer. Luckily, I enjoyed math and science, so it seemed to be a nice fit. After graduating high school, I enrolled at Jackson State University, an HBCU in my home state of Mississippi, in the civil engineering program.
Unbeknownst to me at the time but one of the coolest things about civil engineering is that it is an umbrella housing multiple disciplines (environmental, structural, geotechnical, and transportation). I was initially drawn to structural engineering because it made the most sense for designing rollercoasters, but overtime my interests shifted. Both environmental engineering and transportation engineering began to pique my interest around my third year. I was drawn to environmental after a research experience that studied the quality of water and its effects on communities in rural areas of Mississippi.
Not only was the work interesting but it also had a direct effect on people. However, the following summer I took a research position with the University of Florida Transportation Institute and became exposed to some fascinating things in transportation engineering. I was introduced to work with autonomous vehicles, transportation simulation, and smart cities. After that summer experience, I realized the range of work that could be done in transportation and that I could find something that really excited me. The next year I did my senior engineering project on a highway design project and got the chance to interact with transportation engineers and professionals throughout the process. I could picture myself in the field at that point, but I knew that I wanted to attend graduate school.
After graduating, I attended the University of Florida where I obtained my Master’s in transportation engineering with a minor in urban and regional planning. My time in graduate school really opened my eyes to how vital the field of transportation is to everyday life. Whether driving down a road, riding in a bus, or receiving deliveries we are utilizing transportation systems. I was specifically drawn to the movement of goods via freight and the adoption of autonomy within the freight industry. I began to see the overlap of transportation with other industries such as economics, policy, and planning throughout my work. This is also the time that I became heavily involved with ITE, serving as a member of the traffic bowl team and even vice president. The experiences I gained through ITE further solidified my decision to become a transportation professional/engineer and helped me secure my current position as a Transportation Analyst.
One of the things I have enjoyed about currently working in transportation, is that the field is on the cusp of major innovation with the introduction of autonomy, advanced technology, and more creative solutions to complex problems. This makes work challenging, but also interesting. It is fair to say that in the next 10-20 years the transportation realm will be undergoing major changes as new ways to increase safety, mobility, and efficiency arise. Transportation decisions made in the upcoming years have the potential to alter communities physically, financially, and politically for better or for worse.
This is why it is imperative that the engineers and professionals working on these transportation projects are as diverse as the populations that they design for and facilitate benefits equally. Diversity amongst transportation engineers is crucial for more equitable transportation innovation and solutions in the coming years.
As a young black transportation professional, it is increasingly important for me to push for more diversity within our field. Black engineers account for less than 5% of all engineers and make up an even smaller portion in transportation. Representation is a vital pillar in reimaging the possible and I want anyone who is a minority to know that there is a place for them in transportation. It is my hope that I can serve as positive representation for the younger generation and encourage them to explore engineering. I also my hope that more companies take time to explore the wealth of talents that come from HBCUs!
“Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. [. . .] He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other”
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Reimagining Infrastructure – The Need for Gender Diversity in Design
There is much to celebrate in the transportation engineering industry, with the world transitioning into a new normal because of COVID-19, and the signing of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill (called a “once in a generation” investment in infrastructure) to renew and revamp US infrastructure. The bill comes with the hope of creating more and better jobs in the infrastructure industry and is expected to advance the economy of the country. It also comes with a “once in a generation” opportunity for us to re-shape the transportation system to be more gender inclusive. However, despite the progress made in the field of engineering over the last 25 years, gender equality continues to be a challenge in infrastructure design.
Women have been overlooked in transportation planning and design for a long time, with cities being historically planned and designed to reflect traditional gender roles and gendered division of labor. Poor urban design has been shown to have a negative effect on women, preventing them from accessing basic necessities like water, electricity, healthcare, and jobs. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women’s participation rate in the labor force has seen a steady increase from 33% in 1950 to 57% in January 2022. This data shows how the role of women in our economy has shifted over in the last 70 years; however, it would seem that our systems have not similarly evolved to support them.
A Mineta Transportation Institute study shows that women comprise only 15% of a 14.8 million transportation workforce, with an even lesser percentage in engineering, executive and decision-making roles. This low representation of women among policy makers, engineers, and planners, combined with unconscious bias towards the average male are some of the reasons why “gender-neutral” designs benefit men more than women. Although organizations and institutions like ITE are committed to advancing women in engineering and promoting gender equality, there is still a lack of awareness on the importance of prioritizing gender in the urban design process among practitioners and policy makers.
Under-representation of women is evident not just at the engineering and decision-making level, but also in the data that we collect to help make our decisions. Gender segregated data on travel behavior, crashes, trips, needs and concerns in mobility is either not collected or not analyzed systematically. Research around the world has shown the difference between men and women in different areas of mobility including public transit usage, choosing employment destination, travel patterns, and number of driver’s license holders, to name a few. Analyzing gender segregated data with regards to mobility and transportation will shed light on the existing inequalities and can help bridge the gender gap to create better mobility for all (Gender and Mobility Green Paper 2021, Ramboll Smart Mobility).
As a traffic engineer who works majorly on improving traffic safety, I had come across a research done by the University of Virginia that suggests seat-belted female drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured. Another National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) research shows that the fatality risk of females is 17% more likely than males. The difference in ways men and women sit when driving and the way our bodies are designed to take impact all contribute to these statistics. For decades, crash test dummies that were used to test vehicle safety were designed to imitate the male muscle-mass proportions and body features. US started using a female crash-test dummy only about a decade back. As the Safe-Systems Approach to traffic safety and vision zero is an emerging topic in the field of transportation engineering, researchers, practitioners and policy makers need to consider gender-inclusive data collection, analysis and design for safer roads and safer vehicles.
To achieve the vision of gender-inclusive cities, it would require practitioners and policy makers to adopt and commit to incorporate gender inclusion into all phases of a project and not just as an add-on, but as an integral goal of the project (The World Bank Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning Design). Closing gender gaps should be considered central to sustainable development goals. Designs, policies, and programs need to include budget, systemic reforms, and a solid framework to building enduring gender-inclusive infrastructure. Ultimately, gender inclusion is an opportunity to building infrastructure that would be transformational – for women, for economies and for society as a whole.
How did I get here and what I love about being a plangineer?
I consider myself a transportation plangineer – a planner by practice and an engineer at heart! My humble beginnings started in a small city in India called Chandigarh, located 150 miles north of the capital New Delhi. The symbol for the City of Chandigarh is an open hand which symbolizes “free to give and free to take; and it stands for peace, prosperity, and the unity of mankind". I grew up very much in line with the ideology of openness and freedom.
Chandigarh was designed in the 1950s by the Swiss French architect Le Corbusier organized in a grid like manner into sectors. Living in the most well-planned city in India gave me early exposure to the concept of urban design and integration and I started learning the importance of the connection between land use and transportation whenever we were stuck in congestion (which was quite often)!
My earliest memories of being interested in engineering stem from my numerous visits to the factory that my dad owned and operated. As a young school going girl, I would measure the parts being manufactured; learning to work the vise. My dad would patiently explain to me who the client was, what their needs were and what was being manufactured for them. The planner in me comes from my mom who impressed on us the importance of being organized, having a methodical approach when juggling several tasks and developing time management skills.
From obtaining a bachelor’s from Punjab Engineering College in Civil Engineering to doing my masters in Transportation Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, I constantly applied and honed my problem-solving skills. From my early internship at Cambridge Systematics to my active involvement with the San Francisco Bay Area Section of the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE) as the Secretary/Treasurer, Vice President and then President of the San Francisco Bay Area Section in 2010/2011 were all steppingstones to my development as a professional and a leader.
In my current role at Mott MacDonald, I lead the Transportation Planning practice for the West Unit (spanning our offices from Vancouver to San Diego). On any given day, I wear several hats to grow our practice such as recruiting talent, mentoring staff, identifying opportunities, submitting proposals, expanding our client base, leading multimodal transportation projects as a project manager, working closely with clients to build strong working relationships, ensuring QA/QC on deliverables to clients, participation in conferences, networking with peers, and staying involved as well as presenting in professional organizations such as the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE).
There are several aspects that I find rewarding about being a plangineer including:
As we get into National Engineers Week 2022, my advice to students/early career professionals would be to constantly push themselves out of their comfort zone to try new things and learn new skills continuously as our profession continues to evolve. The transportation profession has an immense impact on society and quality of life. Never has it been more apparent than in the current pandemic. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to redefine what we mean by mobility, equity, and access so come join us in this quest!
Accidentally in Transportation
I hear a lot of stories from peers in my industry about a triggered interest in traffic or transportation early in their lives. Honestly, that was never the case for me. I grew up naturally excelling in math and science and was generically told by family and teachers “You should be an engineer when you grow up!” I just sort of responded, “OK sure!” But I had no direct experience with engineering or personal interactions with an engineer and transportation definitely never factored in. My early impressions of engineering centered around buildings and bridges. In college, I started freshman year as a chemical engineering major since I really enjoyed honors and AP Chem in high school. But I dropped my chemistry lab after the first class when they handed me a bag of unknown substance and said, “figure out what it is!” So, to decide what to do next, I took an Intro to Engineering course that rotated through the different disciplines each week. I settled on civil mostly because it covered a wide umbrella of sub-areas and I was still undecided. I made it through my whole degree on the “general” track without a specialty.
When it came time to find an internship, I’m still not entirely sure how I serendipitously found my way into the company and the office and the supervisor and the practice that I did. I really just went where there was a need. And now 15 years later I’m still there today and in hindsight I can recognize what a perfect fit I accidentally stumbled into for my strengths and passions. From the first day, I began reading crash reports and plotting collision diagrams, trying to figure out why crashes were happening and what we could change to avoid them. I could use my technical communication skills to concisely describe the traffic patterns, crash trends, observations, and solutions. We had traffic signal and interconnect designs simultaneously under development where high-quality and attention to detail were needed for successful submittals and constructability. These are tangible public service outcomes. It’s community building. I can drive around town and geek out to my children (though sometimes to their exasperated indifference), pointing to the mast arm with a flashing yellow arrow I designed or why there’s a new crosswalk and raised median where there didn’t used to be.
What I love about this field is how much breadth it covers. It’s like tracing a fractal. You can call yourself an engineer but beneath that there are so many disciplines. You can major in civil but dive even further into so many specialties. You can pursue transportation but there are yet more areas of expertise to whittle down to and they’re growing exponentially as technology changes. Safety, traffic operations, corridor planning, traffic impact studies, signal design, intelligent transportation systems, connected vehicles, complete streets, bicycle/pedestrian, transit, rail, education, equity, health; the list goes on. From a trunk to branches to twigs to stems to leaves. And many of our contributions are coming from backgrounds outside of the traditional traffic engineering or planning courses of study. We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer programmers, technology vendors, human behavior psychologists, all helping us diversify and advance at a greater rate, embodying a true community of transportation professionals.
Our work in transportation affects every single human. Even as the reliance on personal vehicles wanes given the multitude of alternative options, transportation will be a constant. Someone who chooses solitude – to work remotely from home, have their goods and groceries delivered via Amazon Prime and Shipt, use WebMD and telemedicine consults for diagnostics, exercise on their Peloton, and homeschool their children – will still be dependent on others having access to safe, reliable transportation to provide these services. There is no future in which transportation is no longer a necessity. Therefore, the transportation profession is one of the most significant in shaping how our world functions and the societal expectations of how to accomplish all that’s wrapped up in our everyday lives.