Humantransit has a very interesting post on how to become a transit planner. It’s worth quoting in full i think:

Every week or two, I get an email asking me how to get into the transit planning business. I’m aware of four fairly common paths, none of which I took myself:

  1. Become a bus or train driver, and rise up through the ranks of operations management. Have good ideas about service design and express them enthusiastically but very, very patiently. If you’re smart, practical, personable and patient, this may be your best path, especially if you lack the grades or inclination to do graduate work.
  2. Get a graduate degree in transport engineering, where you’ll learn a lot about networks, modelling, traffic, roads, etc. Success in that degree can lead to entry-level jobs, either in consultancies or governments, and there are many opportunities to move into transit planning from there.
  3. Get a management or public administration credential, become a bureaucrat, someone who manages processes inside governments or large organizations. Sell yourself as a process manager. You can easily end up managing a public transit planning process. This, I think, is an especially common path in Australia or New Zealand, where there is a particular reverence for management in general and a belief that managing doesn’t require a professional background in the thing being managed.
  4. Get a graduate degree in urban planning with an emphasis in transport if available. You’ll learn a lot about land planning, development economics, urban structure, and a range of other useful things about how cities work in general. There are plenty of opportunities to explore public transit in this context.

What, you ask? Isn’t there a standard training path that all transit planners take, and exams they all pass? Not really. Different universities will have programs with more or less focus on transit. (Tip: At graduate level, what matters is not the courses offered but the specific expertise and interests of the faculty.) But there really isn’t a standard curriculum, or set of qualifications, or certification exam, that all transit planning professionals have done.

The diversity of backgrounds among transit professionals is, on balance, a good thing. Transit is intimately connected to a lot of other disciplines, and the best way to stay aware of those connections is to have each of those disciplines inside your team or organization. When I put together “core planning teams” to work intensively on a particular project, I try to make sure that I have a mixture of types of education and qualification. (It also keeps us from lapsing into professional jargon.)

So is there a “best” path to take? It depends on your goals and skills, but I do have an idea of what’s most needed. We need more people to come at transit through path #4, the study of urban planning in general, because the sustainability agenda of the next few decades is about building cities a certain way. Remember: Urban form dictates a city’s transit outcomes much more than transit planning does! That, for example, is why I belong to the Planning Institute of Australia, the professional body for land use planners, even though many of my colleagues belong to engineering groups.

In comments or emails, I’d welcome feedback from transit professionals on whether I’ve described the main paths correctly, and what I’ve missed. Again, I took none of these paths myself, and I’m not the only one. Transit is, ultimately, a remarkably open and permeable field, receptive to many kinds of expertise, and on balance, I think that’s for the best.

While I’m not a transit planner (although some day I might be), I do approach the topic from the perspective outlined in “point 4”, which is probably a good thing. I guess that’s why I focus so much on the inter-relationships between transport and urban planning. After all, transport should help us have better cities.

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  1. No, no, no, Jarbury. Let me tell you, from a REAL expert, that you go it all wrong. Transport is all about TRANSPORT. It doesn’t have to have any fancy external benefits or even reasons. The way is the goal. And that way is the motorway (of course).

    BTW, I agree with you. Though I come from the other direction, and have always been curious to branch out into urban design. With… “qualified approval” of my clients, sometimes 😉

  2. Max, I’m glad that you’re around as you give me faith that not all transport engineers are “part of the problem”. Just most of them.


  3. If it encourages you, even most of the older engineers I work with (as well as my corporate clients) seem to increasingly understand the need for better urban design/transport design interaction. But old habits die hard, and it is easier (and cheaper) to just work in your own little box. So the changes to a better integration will be gradual.

    Then again, would you have expected shared streets (from a C&R Council, no less) in Auckland by 2010?

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