TRC Role: M.S. in Community Development and Applied Economics (2014)
Current Role: Special Investigator, Vermont State Auditor's Office
What have you been doing since leaving the TRC?
It’s been a whirlwind! In August 2014, I migrated north of the border to begin a doctorate in geography at McGill University. My dissertation, titled Incorporating Social Space into Pedestrian Planning, sought to reconfigure urban planning procedures and instruments to better register issues facing “captive” pedestrians, i.e., those whose walking behavior depends on socioeconomic disadvantage rather than the attractiveness of the walking environment.
My supervisor and I acquired funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to conduct several dozen hours of interviews, both sedentary and video-recorded walking versions, in a low-income neighborhood in Montreal. I organized the multimedia data in a qualitative geographic information system (QualGIS) to illuminate how built and social factors interact to shape walkability. I juggled a couple other projects too: (a) investigating how transportation planners negotiate their professional expertise with public feedback; (b) evaluating social inclusion measures taken in Canadian municipal pedestrians plans, and; (c) assessing how professors might teach QualGIS in the classroom, given its advantages for analyzing complex urban issues. Amid all these projects, I attended many conferences, assistant-taught many courses, and even coordinated marketing research for the university’s teaching assistant union.
Leaving McGill, I had the opportunity to join the Pembina Institute, Canada’s leading clean energy think tank, as a senior analyst at their Toronto office. I tackled a number of projects centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in transportation. This included working with developers to promote transit-oriented housing, working with freight industry leaders to design low-carbon solutions to last-mile and long-haul logistics, and policy analyses for multiple levels of government. This was a great learning experience, and now I am back in Vermont conducting special projects for the State Auditor, Doug Hoffer.
How did the TRC prepare you for these positions, and life in general?
The TRC’s lectures and events gave me insight on how transportation systems really work. Jumping from, say, New Urbanist developers in South Burlington one day to climate change resilience the next prepared me to address complex mobility challenges at multiple scales. I was also fortunate enough to have research funded through the TRC. The fellowship paid for many long car rides to meet stakeholders across the state and, once the results came together, to disseminate my findings at a conference or two. I could not have gone on to my doctorate without these experiences, and I remain thankful for them to this day.
The UVM TRB, whether through lectures or office discussions, also nudged me toward sustainable commuting. I now make a point of living near transit and purchasing nice boots and jackets for all-season walking. Why? Transit is cheaper than a car, yields physical activity gains from walking to stops, and promotes clean and vibrant communities through transit-oriented development. The academic literature also says dog ownership improves physical activity outcomes, presumably from walking the dog, so I’ll use that as an excuse for a pet in the next year or two.
What would you recommend to current researchers at the TRC?
I’d strongly recommend digging into unfamiliar methods: if you’re a geospatial modeller, learn to interview stakeholders; if you’re a community advocate, learn how to read technical reports and literature reviews. My methodological fluency has opened doors in academic funding and job opportunities that would not have been possible otherwise.
I’d also advise researchers to venture outside the transposphere as they conduct their work. I’ve found that public health researchers, housing advocates, and even business/labor interests can provide higher resolution insights on certain transportation issues than the civil engineers and planners who “run the show” at major transportation conferences. It’s also great to tap the pulse on the news media and weekly periodicals. They keep me up to date on new mobility services and government budgets, and it’s always nice to have topics ready for the office water cooler.