Transportation Planners Do It for the Community

Got a wonky interest in all things transport, strong analytic and communication skills, and the drive to make cities better places to live? The transportation planning profession may need you.

"We’re in an era of steeply rising expectations for transit," said Jarrett Walker, president of Jarrett Walker + Associates in Portland, Ore. "So transit agencies will need to make a lot of changes in the next decade." And that requires a lot of skilled planners.

Urban and regional planners in the D.C. metro area earned an average of $83,260, according to a May 2014 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 790 planners were employed in the region.


"Planners come from diverse backgrounds," said Monica Meade, a supervising planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Baltimore. "Some are what we call 'plangineers' – engineers who are more interested in the planning side, often going back to school for a masters in planning. Others come from the public policy side." Graduate programs in transportation engineering typically cover roads, traffic, networks, modeling and more.

Positions in the field range from entry-level planner at a consulting firm to city chief bicycle officer to executive director of a major metropolitan transit system. The basic skills of transportation planning include analysis, GIS, and verbal and visual communications. Areas of responsibility range from data analysis and interpretation to project planning and management, survey development and community communications, among others.

Career opportunities are divided between government agencies and the private sector. As a public-sector transportation planner, "you're going to live inside an agency, and you get to follow what goes on in your city," said Walker. "You also get to be with your family and have a reasonably normal life." That contrasts with consulting, which is "a lot of travel once you’ve earned some recognition," said Walker.

Walker got his start as a teenager, when he wandered into transit agencies to chat up planners. This led to an internship and eventually an international reputation as a transportation consultant.

"Most people don’t understand how transit works," said Walker. "Most universities don't teach this stuff.  So when I’m hiring, the degree matters less; more important is critical thinking, spatial thinking, and communication skills." Still, these days most employers are looking for a graduate degree in planning.

MoveDC, the District’s long-range transportation plan, is the sort of meaty transportation project that planners drool over. "For moveDC, we needed people with expertise in each mode of transportation: transit, car, bike, walking and freight," said David Fields, principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates in New York City.  "We also needed people who could bring it all together to function as a complete network. There was a lot of technical analysis."

At its heart, transportation planning is about optimizing opportunities. "We’re not just talking about moving people, it’s about how good transportation helps create great communities,” said Fields. “There are huge economic disparities in D.C. With moveDC, the city was trying to balance transportation systems so that everyone had equal choice in their lives, in terms of education, economic development, and so on."

Planners – whether worker bees or rock stars – have great stories about how they got started. "When I was little, we lived in suburban Long Island," said Fields. "Sometimes my father would drop me off to spend the day with my grandparents in New York City. One day, when I was 8, my grandfather pulled out a subway map and said, 'We can go wherever you want to go today, but you have to figure out how we’re going to get there.' ”

John Rossheim (@rossheim) is a freelance journalist who writes about employment trends, healthcare, technology, and travel.


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