Preamble: This is the second of three posts I intend to write on the transport profession. My goals are to 1) encourage people, especially students, to consider a career in transport and 2) foster a better understanding of pertinent transport issues.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of popping into the Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) Transportation Group conference in Hamilton (NB: Peter’s Sunday reading post linked to a couple of interesting papers from the conference). Attending the conference caused me to reflect on the transport industry, of which I have now been a part for just over a decade, and in particular how it has evolved over time.

In thinking about the evolution of the transport industry, I think it’s useful to distinguish between external and internal pressures. If you have been reading Greater Auckland (nee TransportBlog) for a while, then you may have noticed several blog posts that have been openly critical of transport engineering practices. Here’s one of mine from a few years back comparing roundabouts in New Zealand and the Netherlands, and another one looking at problematic intersections, for example. Such posts are examples of “external pressure”; they are a public statement that all is not well with transport industry practices in NZ.

External pressure can be effective, as evidenced by a number of changes that have been made after issues were raised on this blog. The intersection highlighted in this post, for example, has been modified such that pedestrians no longer have to make like Moses and part vehicles while crossing the Dead (asphalt) Sea.

While external pressure is important, I wouldn’t assume that it can be effective on its own. If you want things to change, then you will need to get people within the transport industry to agree. In my experience there are a lot of people working within the transport industry who are keen and willing to do things differently, who acknowledge the need for and benefits of external pressure, while also recognising its limits.

Having identified the need for both external and internal pressures to bring about change in the transport industry, I now want to highlight one positive trend that seems to be affecting the transport industry, which I’d like to see continue. That is, over the last decade I’ve noticed that people working in the transport industry are being drawn from an increasingly diverse range of backgrounds, and in particular academic backgrounds.

It should be fairly clear that developing effective transport networks demands more than skills in planning and design. Instead, your typical (large-scale) transport project might require people with skills in — for example — strategy, policy, planning, design, construction management, and analysis. The engineering and planning professions obviously don’t have a monopoly on such skills compared to other academic fields, such as policy, law, and the social/physical sciences.

Unfortunately, I still get the impression from talking to university students that the transport industry is perceived as a career primarily for engineers and planners. Many of us within the industry would like this to change; we’d like the transport industry to become a career of choice for talented people from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. We want to work with passionate people from across all the colours of the academic rainbow.

Partly for this reason, the IPENZ Transportation Group is coordinating a career’s day at the University of Auckland. The flyer is shown below; you can find out more on their FB page.

I’d encourage anyone who might be potentially interested in a career in transport to attend this meeting. Or if you know someone who is at university that is looking for a direction in which to head, then share this post with them.

In advance of the careers evening, I thought it might be useful for me to indicate some general associations between academic fields and industry activities, as shown in the table below (rows and columns respectively). The number of + indicates the strength of the association (NB: All this is fairly arbitary and unscientific, but it gives you a feel for where different academic fields might land).

Academic fields

Industry activities
StrategyPolicyPlanningDesignConst.Analysis
Engineering++++++++++++
Planning+++++++++++
Urban design++++++++++
Architecture++++++++++
Law+++++++++
Economics and Business+++++++++
Other social sciences (e.g. geography and psychology)+++++++++
Technology (e.g. computer science and industrial design)+++++++++
Physical sciences (e.g. mathematics and physics)+++++++++

The first (somewhat obvious) thing to highlight is that there is a wide variety of academic fields whose training leaves one well-placed to contribute to certain activities within the transport industry. Simply put, you could pretty much study anything and be useful, if you were passionate and dedicated.

The second thing to notice is that while each academic field is most relevant to a couple of activities, almost every field can be involved in almost every activity. Engineering tends to focus on planning, design, and construction, as does a couple of other fields such as planning, urban design, and architecture. Involvement in these activities is not, however, limited to these fields. I can’t imagine trying to get a major business case and construction contract over the line, for example, without some decent economic and legal input respectively. All the colours of the academic rainbow are needed!

Considering the industry activities denoted by the columns of the table, I think there are two that deserve specific mention: Strategy and Analysis. I mention these two because they 1) have historically not been strongly associated with the transport industry and 2) are increasingly important and inter-connected. Much of this change is driven by the need to link strategy to analysis so as to ensure the former is up-to-date with socio-economic and technological change. Strategy and analysis are also where non-professional degrees, such as the social and physical sciences, often have the most to offer the industry.

I should say that sometimes it is worth undertaking graduate study, such as a masters’ degree, as part of a career in the transport industry. The goal of such study would be to hone your understanding of relevant issues, terminology, and methods. There’s a couple such post-graduate qualifications available in New Zealand, and many available overseas if you’d like to travel at the same time as studying (as I have done).

That’s probably sufficient amounts of industry boosterism for one-day, but do come along to the Careers evening if you’re at all interested.

To finish, I wanted to include this video, which originates from a public transport careers evening held a couple of years back. The video shows a talk from Jarrett Walker, who many of you may know as a consultant who specialises in public transport. I actually worked with Jarrett on consultant team who led the initial design of Auckland’s new public transport network, which Auckland Transport are currently in the process of implementing. Fewer people may know, however, that Jarrett also has a PhD in English Literature, specialising in drama. Jarrett’s take on matters is worth a watch, even though it’s a couple of years old.

As an aside, in his talk Jarrett touches on the (economically) interesting topic of preferences, and in particular whether they are stable and consistent. I won’t dive into the details here, but this is a contentious and active area of research that I am interested in, and which I think may have signficant ramifications for not just transport but public policy more generally. I think it highlights that one of the reason we want people from a diverse range of academic fields is because they can often provide new insight. I know that working with Jarrett has had this effect on me.

Anyway, try and get along to the career’s day if you’re interested in knowing more, or alternatively — if you can’t make it — then message me on LinkedIn and I’ll try to help.

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27 comments

  1. What about sustainability professionals?
    Transport solutions should include their carbon footprint, waste generated, water use, social impact, etc.

    1. I agree sustainability professionals are needed. I’d suggest it could fall under either the1) social sciences, 2) technology, or 3) physical sciences categories listed above, depending on the context.

    2. Nothing humans do is really sustainable. We are all parasites, putting a burden on earth. Making the burden smaller doesn’t really make much difference in the whole scheme of things.

  2. I’ve never been to a Transport lecture, but I am intrigued to know more. Does it teach / relate to CFD (computational fluid dynamics) as a lot of traffic management seems to be about keeping a steady flow of vehicles? And also – are traffic planners ever given scenarios where they are asked to plan for pedestrians / cyclists first and foremost, and then work out how to fit the cars through later? Because at the moment it seems to be the other way round… The notion of a room full of engineers sitting getting taught all the same current (arguably bad) practices fills me with despair.

    1. Good questions. In terms of models, I won’t pretend to be an expert on such matters, and am sure others can provide more insight, but my understanding is that there are a range of different approaches to modelling travel demands, which tend to have their own areas of focus.

      Large (all of Auckland) multi-modal transport models, for example, are used to answer strategic questions, such as congestion levels in 2040. They model aggregate vehicle travel demands as a continuum, similar to the flow of water through pipes. Public transport and walking/cycling demands are more complex, and often not well-described by such models. At their heart these models evaluates a generalized cost function for different modes and routes between origins and destinations, and then assumes that people chose the lowest cost mode/route (where the cost function considers both monetary and non-monetary factors).

      At the other end of the scale are microscopic models, which are used to analyse specific parts of the transport network in more detail. These models consider individual travel demands (cars, pedestrians etc) as a flow of particles between origins and destinations. Often the interactions between particles are of interest, especially around bottlenecks. Such models would be used, for example, to model the effects of ramp metering and/or the flow of pedestrians into the CRL station. Microscopic models tend to assume fixed demands, and focus on only one mode.

      In terms of scenarios that prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, I’m sure it is taught to some degree. One of the main issues, I think, is that our modelling tools and performance indicators are primarily intended to quantify effects for vehicles rather than pedestrians. There is a related issue that engineers and planners in New Zealand often simply don’t get exposed to some of the more creative (but often safer and more efficient) designs one finds in Europe. Also, such designs are not something that are implemented at isolated intersections; you really want a whole of network approach to safer walking and cycling facilities.

      1. In theory the models are flexible and can analyse PT and pedestrians as well as cars. In practise it depends on organisational policy as to how models are applied.

        A bigger problem is our engineering design standards, which are based on US and UK standards, which are based on rural roads and far from best practice on Pres, cycling and PT. Austroads has very little on designing for pedestrians, cyclists and a few references to Melbourne for teams. We would be better off adopting Dutch standards for pedestrians and cyclists and French or German practice for bus and LRT design.

    2. “’Does it teach / relate to CFD (computational fluid dynamics) as a lot of traffic management seems to be about keeping a steady flow of vehicles?”

      Transport engineer who actually studied CFD at university here: no, the models use specific traffic theories, although sometimes there are strong parallels between the two types of models.

      “And also – are traffic planners ever given scenarios where they are asked to plan for pedestrians / cyclists first and foremost, and then work out how to fit the cars through later?”

      Yes (I’m working on a big one right now), but not very often. This is sadly usually a political decision with regards to what to fund, but engineers could almost always do more to push back.

      “Because at the moment it seems to be the other way round… The notion of a room full of engineers sitting getting taught all the same current (arguably bad) practices fills me with despair.”

      No practice in and off itself is bad; simply way it is used.

      I’m not very experienced in the industry, but all of the systems and practices and tools that we use can also be very useful in arguing for better provision for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport. We just need people to actually make that argument more often and make it to the right people.

    3. As someone who’s sat through many transport lectures (and even some of your own architecture lectures Guy) I can say they’re not really that intriguing. As Stu says there hundreds of different types of models that have been developed, some are loosely based around similar principles to fluid flow, while others are not. In my opinion my engineering degree focussed far too much on technical skills like design and traffic modelling, but not much at all on softer things like strategy, planning and the philosophical trade-offs inherent in transportation decisions. I think I agree with Stu that getting more people involved from non-engineering backgrounds would be a good thing, as they probably are better equipped to think more about these sorts of issues.

      In relation to your last question there are definitely projects where engineers are asked to plan for peds and cyclists foremost. But in my experience (as a consulting transport engineer) these sorts of questions are not just decided by any one person – they emerge from strategic documents like the Government Policy Statement, asking the public what they want through submissions and workshops, talking to key stakeholders like local businesses, and is all operating under pressure from MPs/Councillors/ministers who are trying to make you do whatever they know will win them votes. Public opinion plays a massive part in what gets built. That’s why I think forums like this blog are so important in changing transport in NZ for the better – they slowly change public opinion on what are good and bad ideas, which then filters up to the politicians and then back down again to the practitioners. Over the last decade I’ve definitely seen the emphasis on different modes gradually changing, but it’s a slow process – I see the glacially slow pace of change as just one of the trade-offs of living in a democracy.

      1. ChrisM – it’s scary to think that one of my students has become a consulting transport engineer… or maybe it is inspiring. Fingers crossed that you are helping to make a difference!

  3. As an engineer working in transport, I would agree there is a need both for more multi disciplinary input into transport and for better training of engineers in it. I suggest the following:
    1. Engineers need to be trained in how to design rail and PT as well as roads. There was no training in rail track design when I did my degree. I wonder if this is an issue for NZTA engineers in my age cohort?
    2. Travel behaviour is changing so we need more behavioural scientists.
    3. Engineers and economists need to think more flexibly and know when to throw their models away. Models based on old behavioural assumptions are becoming obsolete.
    4. The best transport systems are often not in the English speaking world. We need all our transport professionals to be more international and look beyond UK and USA. Most of our engineering standards are based on UK and US standards and that is not a good thing.

    1. Thanks for your comments Scott and, yes, I completely agree with all of your suggestions.

      I actually think that blowing the transport industry wide open, e.g. by attracting people from a wider variety of disciplines, would create more demand for specialised engineering skills; the kinds of one-design-fits-all-roads AustRoads type approach would yield to designs that responded to some of the lovely complexity of the world we live in.

      And I agree with the suggestion that the best designs are often not sound in the English-speaking world. IMO Spain has excellent highways, the Netherlands has excellent rail infrastructure, and Norway/Sweden has fantastic bus infrastructure.

  4. heh Stu I think you can give +++s for Strategy and Policy with ++ for Planning if you are a Geographer especially a Human or Urban Geographer (okay bias I am one) 😉

    None the less good post and indeed the need to break down the perception of just engineers and planners with the transport industry. I can say at least with Council they do reach out across quite a lot of disciplines now to get a broad spectrum analysis into transport and land-use policy. Not sure of an example? Watch the Auckland Plan refresh and the Future Urban Land Supply Strategy debates currently under way.

  5. Genuine question here Stu, I have a planning degree from Massey but only really want to work in transport. How much value would i get from doing the Auckland urban design masters?

    1. In my slightly biased view (as an ex-lecturer in the programme), I’d say that you would get more value out of the doing the Transportation Masters programme offered at Auckland and Canterbury (can cross-credit papers between both and attend block courses while studying part-time)

    2. Hi harrison – if you are considering postgraduate study, but only want to work in transport, then I’d suggest only considering postgraduate degrees that specialise in transport. I suspect the MUD would be pitched too broadly for your tastes. As glen notes there’s a couple of masters in new zealand, but I’d also suggest looking offshore especially if your grades are good. And aiming for the best course you can get into rather than just accepting a position in what is convenient. Alternatively it can also be good to get some general planning work experience before specializing in transport.

  6. I find it interesting how strategy has + no matter what degree. I think it is the most important part of any field and usually the most overlooked. Strategy is my favorite topic hands down. It is so grossly misunderstood in any sphere I’ve been in and the vast majority of the stuff called strategy out there is just bad. Usually it’s a long list of stuff to do with no coherent thought. At worst it is “Be the best and win!!!!!” People just stick ‘strategy’ or ‘strategic’ on the front of a document to make it sound cool, but its usually rubbish.

    Strategy is barely taught anywhere in any degree.It wasn’t covered in my engineering degree. In my MBA we barely scratched the surface. Most people who talk about strategy know nothing about it.

    1. yes I agree that strategy is important.

      And yes you’ve correctly identified why I haven’t differentiated between academic fields. Basically, strategy is not taught, and more often innate/learned. On this basis I didn’t feel that I had any subjective reason to distinguish between fields. And in reality I feel like all fields could make a reasonable contribution to strategy.

      1. I strongly disagree that strategy in innate. I used to teach sailing and strategy (racing in this case) can be taught to literally anyone; one just needs to find the way to make strategy fit in a person’s understanding of the world.

        1. There are two key subsets of “strategy”:
          1. Strategic GOALS
          2. Strategies

          Now, in yachting, 1. is usually set (to win), but even then, it can vary (there may be times where you don’t want to win to ensure a particular outcome)

          Most of the time, in my experience, 99% of the focus is on element 2 i.e. the strategies, not on the strategic goals. But the problem is you then get “garbage can” policy with solutions popping up to deal with so-called problems.

          Almost all government strategy could be improved by being more explicit about goals and objectives at the strategic level. But the thing is, that can bring up complex and controversial issues.

          The only fields where I think there’s been a lot of debate about strategic goals is in defence, where we do say “what is the role of the NZDF?” – but how often have we actually had high-level political debates about, for example, the role of the health ministry and DHBs (vs. specific decisions about a hospital)? In the field of transport, why doesn’t the Auckland Plan have really clear goals for what transport in Auckland will look like in 2040?

        2. SB — I admire the confidence you have in general ability, but nonetheless tend to disagree.

          You suggest anyone can be taught successful strategies. I agree. That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone is equally good at developing those strategies in the first place.

          I think the ability to develop new strategies is somewhat innate, insofar as it is related to underlying personality and ability. Things which are not equally distributed, as far as I can tell.

          I also think the distinction JDEPLH outlines below is useful. Everyone can provide input into strategic goals; indeed that is part of our civil/democratic rights. However when it comes to designing effective strategies to achieve those goals, not everyone seems to be equally proficient, IMO.

          1. Given that no one anywhere, ever, seems to attempt to actually teach the ability to formulate strategic goals it might be a bit hard for us to draw conclusions….

            I completely agree that it’s definitely much easier to teach the second one though.

  7. Great post. What do you see as the difference between strategy and policy? Classically, policy sits above strategy (which is then followed by operations and lastly, tactics) but in this case I think there’s a slightly different view. National strategy vs. local policy?

    1. thanks and good question.

      Where I wrote “strategy” you could probably also read “strategic objectives”. That is, what we are trying to achieve. The Auckland Plan is a strategic document, for example. And yes you’re correct, in transport there’s a need for national level strategic objectives (such as those set out by the Government, MoT, and NZTA) to inform regional strategic objectives.

      In this context, I see “policy” as a set of measures designed to deliver on the agreed strategy. You could call these “strategies” in a strict sense, except that policy tends to be shaped by specific legislative constraints, and other realities, which sometimes aren’t so relevant to strategies in general.

      An example in the Auckland context would be the Unitary Plan and the Regional Public Transport Plan. They are examples of statutory documents that outline policies designed to achieve on the strategic goals identified in the Auckland. The City Centre Master Plan is an example of a non-statutory policy document, so is probably closer to the general notion of a strategy.

      But my thinking on these issues is fairly superficial, so feel free to correct me!

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