So You Want to be a Transit Planner? (Pt. 1): What the job is like

plannerI’ve recently had the pleasure of connecting with the students of UVic’s Urban Development Club (UDC).  A key mission of the UDC is to connect students with practising professionals in fields related to shaping cities.

Some of the most frequent questions I’m asked when I meet with students is about my job as a transit planner: what exactly I do all day, what I like and don’t like about my job and what combination of skills and experience is required.  This post speaks to the first part of those questions.

What Exactly Do Transit Planners Do?

To me, my job is essentially that of a facilitator and change agent.

I believe that every person in a community is an expert in their own mobility and my role is to absorb what these experts–passengers, front line staff and citizens–have to say, balance it against the longer term goals of a community, resources required and what’s technically possible and try to come up with a solution or vision that works better.

Nelson-20120709-00113Sometimes my day is focussed on the now and the short term: fielding questions from the public, figuring out immediate routing or schedule changes, looking at stop or exchange issues, providing transportation perspective on proposed developments, combing through data, and so on.

Other times it is focussed on the longer term: reviewing Official Community Plans, distilling what I’ve heard into longer term transit strategies, writing reports to try to clearly illustrate how a community or system might evolve over time.

Regardless, my days usually involve lots of listening, lots of writing and lots of relationship building with others.

The Best Parts of My Job

One of THE very best parts of my job: teaching others to do what I do, in this case with UVic's Urban Development Club.

One of THE very best parts of my job: teaching others to do what I do, in this case with UVic’s Urban Development Club.

I am filled with nothing but gratitude that I’ve had the opportunity to have this gig for the last two decades of my life.  The top things I like about it are:

  1. It contributes to something larger than me. I feel like rather than sleepwalking my way to climate catastrophe, I’m actually doing something to address it.
  2. The work I do is focussed on actually manifesting change not just theory and policy. While part of what I do needs to be focussed on what communities have said they want to become over the long term, a substantial part of my day also involves making fairly immediate changes to service and infrastructure and that immediacy drives me forward.
  3. I need to be creative, but that creativity has constraints.  Like any other creative field, I spend my days problem solving but I find those creative endeavours that much more interesting because I have to come up with the best solution within a certain number available vehicles, dollars, service hours, given road network, etc.

IMG-20120426-00067My very best days are those when I get to ride in and explore a new community and system.  I am constantly impressed by the diversity wrought through geography, culture and historical quirks.

Also right up there are the days when I come home with coloured marker all over my fingers from drawing and re-drawing out potential solutions with others to a particular system or issue and I feel like collectively we might have something that works.

 Some of the Challenges…

IMG-20121205-00370Some of the most challenging days on my job are when I’ve spent nine hours conversing with people who are very angry and disappointed and frustrated by a change in service or the fact they haven’t been listened to in the past.  Those days aren’t challenging because folks are mad: their anger is there because transit matters to them and that needs to be acknowledged and valued.

Instead those days are challenging because it takes a lot of energy to genuinely listen and try to translate that angry energy into a solution and feeling like they have been heard.  And sometimes I don’t have an answer or a solution because what is required or needed for that particular individual isn’t possible to coexist with what will work better for the larger collective whole.

The top things that might be the most challenging about my job (and which is why it might not be for everyone) include:

  1. You have to be willing to compromise.  No matter how good your ideas might be, the reality of this field is that you are working to achieve a vision amidst a constantly changing landscape.  The economics, politics, staff, stakeholders, culture, social values of any time and place are constantly shifting.  You need to stay true to a vision over the long term but be willing to take what you can when opportunities arise.  Sometimes this involves moving backwards–or at least sideways–to go forward.
  2. IMG_20150621_161117(1)You have to be able to really listen.  And I mean REALLY listen, not what I call “lawyer listening” where people only listen to you so they can refute you.  Doing a good job of transit planning means having the ability to take in many different stories and realities and letting them layer on top of each other until commonalities arise and you can find the best path. You also need to be able to listen well enough to figure out what people are really saying and what they need to hear.
  3. You have to be prepared to disappoint.  Try as you might, nothing you will do will work for everyone.  And anything you implement will involve change and many people do not like change.  Even good changes (“Hey, your route now operates every half hour instead of hourly!”) result in disappointment for some (“But now I need to walk two blocks further and I’d gotten used to the fact that the bus came by at seven minutes after the hour for the last 15 years”).

But if you can reconcile these things and live for the days that you really made a difference–when people have new access to work, school or the fundamentals of living–it’s a pretty sweet job indeed.

This post piqued your interest? Here are some thoughts on how to build the skills and experience to become a transit planner.

Transit planner yourself?  I’d be very interested to here how you try to explain your job in the comments below….

3 thoughts on “So You Want to be a Transit Planner? (Pt. 1): What the job is like

  1. Dave Kesson

    Thanks for the tips on getting into your line of work. I’m a senator. With this whole expense scandal thing I could be out of work soon and looking for a new job. Is there much swag or graft in your field? I’m used to
    a lot of perks.

    1. Tania Wegwitz Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Dave! Given the “creativity” shown by you and your colleagues, it could be a good fit. (But note that you’d likely have to eat cheese and crackers like the rest of us….)

      1. Thanks Tania. Great blog!


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