The highest reward for me in transportation engineering is being able to provide services that directly help communities. Almost all of the projects in which we participate originate from a need directly affecting the traveling public, often stemming from a request from an individual citizen, community group, business owner, or elected official. Our projects can solve many problems that people experience in transportation, whether it is related to safety, congestion, accessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists, or environmental issues.
The transportation network is the backbone of a working economy. Transportation professionals, including engineers, have the responsibility to provide the best system possible for people to get from A to B. Every single person in our country and across the world relies on transportation in some way, shape, or form nearly every day of their lives. Have you left your home today? Your home is connected to a public street, regardless of how far it is from that street, that gets you to school, work, the library, the grocery store, the doctor, your relatives' and friends' homes, and any other place you need or want to go. Without a working transportation system, we would get almost nothing accomplished. If you haven’t left your home today, the system is still crucial for making sure goods and services can get to your home.
The work I have found to be the most inspiring and meaningful in my career was not on a project. It has been the opportunity to meet directly with citizens. Most notably, during the time when I worked as a traffic engineering manager for a state Department of Transportation, I attended public meetings pertinent to specific projects, community working groups, and immediate roadway maintenance and operations concerns. I was the manager responsible for a jurisdiction that has many communities of mostly minority populations, many of them lower-income and disadvantaged. They also live relatively close to communities that are more affluent, so they often feel overlooked and ignored when it comes to prioritizing transportation improvements in the region. In some of these meetings, I was the only white person. Adding the fact that I am much shorter than the average American male, the first impression people had was not usually of confidence nor comfort in this type of setting. However, I tried my best to do more than just talk about projects, data-driven decisions, and what we can and cannot provide them. I told them that they and their needs matter regardless of their socioeconomic status, gender identity, race, or religion; they deserve access to the same quality transportation system that everyone else can have; and that I will do everything I can to help provide them access to safe and reliable transportation services. This did not immediately solve their problems, but it built at least a certain level of trust for them with a government agency that is often looked upon unfavorably by the public.
A positive working relationship with the public can change the course of any public service project. It can make the most contentious of projects more likely to be accepted by communities and also open up honest and meaningful dialogue that can add immense value. The most valuable lessons I have learned in my career thus far have been on communication -- the engineering itself can be difficult, but it is far from the hardest and most important part of my job.
My inspiration to become an engineer stemmed from an experience in elementary school. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher asked everyone in our class to bring in a relative or family friend to talk about their job, how they got there, why it is important to them, and how it relates to what we learn in school. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer for the Federal government for his entire career and was one of my greatest inspirations, so I clearly had to ask him to be my guest in class. That day, he spun an engineering discussion into how you build the inner workings of a school building, such as the lighting, plumbing, and HVAC. He finished his discussion quite early, so he asked my teacher if he could add a bonus presentation. I had not told my teacher nor my classmates that he worked as an engineer for the military focusing on weapons systems, but off he went. He started his career during World War II working in a wind tunnel on the B29 bomber plane and progressed into other weapons after the War, mostly involving tanks. To paraphrase his key point, "you can get paid to blow stuff up". My friends told me that I had the coolest grandfather in the world, and I certainly agreed. From that point on, I knew I wanted to study engineering.
I did not plan at that point to focus on a future in transportation, but once I had a better idea of what engineering was generally, it started to slowly come together. I was born and raised in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia, close to the King of Prussia Mall, which is the largest mall in the United States based on square footage of retail space. When you have that many stores, you are bound to attract plenty of shoppers, meaning plenty of traffic. I would often visit the mall with my family and wonder about the heavy traffic going to and from it, especially when it was even busier around the holiday season. On top of that, access by car from my home to the city of Philadelphia was almost always in congestion. I often thought to myself 'why is there so much traffic, and why can't we fix it?'. Then I learned, 'we can'. Adding in a childhood fascination with tunnels and bridges, I self-propelled towards the transportation profession without ever looking back, but yes I do remember to check my rearview mirror.