S1E25: Educating Future Transportation Leaders

Oct 14, 2021

Andy Keeton

VP Global Strategy

Between the Lines S1E125: Educating Future Transportation Leaders

with Jean Sanson


Why will Educating Future Transportation Leaders help save the planet?

On this week's episode of Between the Lines, we chat with Jean Sanson, a Senior Transportation Planner at the City of Boulder and an Instructor with the Masters of the Environment program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Jean Sanson has dedicated her 20+ year career to the field of transportation planning, developing and delivering innovative mobility solutions vital to a sustainable urban future. She brings a collaborative approach to her work and expertise in the areas of regional and corridor transit system planning; complete street design; transit-oriented development; alternatives analyses; and community facilitation. Jean has built a reputation in the national planning community as dynamic and engaging professional, drawing on a wide array of experience in the both the private and public sector.As a private transportation consultant, Jean led a number of interdisciplinary transportation projects throughout the United States.

Her work includes planning major transit infrastructure investments such as the TEXRail project connecting Dallas and Fort Worth, a commuter rail network for the Phoenix region, and an innovative multimodal transportation system for Bryce Canyon National Park.Closer to home, Jean has worked on the design of several of the complex RTD FasTracks corridors, an expansive bicycle system for the Colorado Springs region, and transit-oriented development plans for communities throughout the Front Range.In her current position as a Senior Transportation Planner for the City of Boulder, Jean is leading efforts to transform Boulder’s regional commuter corridors from car-oriented highways to corridors that offer convenient travel options, reduce car dependency and move the city and region towards our aggressive climate and sustainability goals.Prior to arriving in Boulder Jean served in the Peace Corps in the remote region of Batanes, Philippines, enacting community development programs.

She received her Master of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her Bachelor of Arts, specializing in Urban Planning from the University of California, San Diego. She is a highly regarded speaker and has frequently presented at Rail~Volution, American Planning Association, and National Association of Transportation Officials conferences throughout North America. You’ll often find her on her bike or hiking the trails with her husband and two daughters.

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Episode Transcript

Commutifi presents Between the Lines, with Andy Keeton.

-(Intro) Each week we explore the challenging issues transportation demand management professionals face on their journey to transition commuters, from driving alone to more sustainable, shared and active commuting habits. Be sure to subscribe to hear next week's episode. And check out our exclusive commuter playlists on Spotify. This is Between the Lines, with Andy Keeton.

-(Andy Keeton) Hi, everyone. And welcome to this week's episode of Between the Lines. I'm Andy Keeton, and today we're joined by Jean Sanson. Jean is the senior transportation planner at the city of Boulder in Colorado, and an instructor with the Masters of the Environment program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has dedicated her 20-plus year career to the field of transportation planning, and her work includes planning major transit infrastructure investments, such as the text rail project connecting Dallas and Fort Worth, a commuter rail network for the Phoenix region, and an innovative multimodal transportation system for Bryce Canyon National Park. And in her current position at the city of Boulder, she's leading efforts to transform Boulder's regional commuter corridors from car-oriented highways to corridors that offer convenient travel options. But today we're talking not about that day job, but about her second job as the instructor within the Masters of the Environment program which, fun fact, is the program where I got my Master's degree a few years ago. So Jean, thanks for being on.

-(Jean Sanson) Thanks Andy, good to be here.

-(Andy Keeton) And today we're talking about this idea of educating future transportation leaders, and why doing this will help save the planet. This is a fun topic. It's a little different than what we normally talk about. So I'm excited to get into it. And near and dear to my heart, as a former MENV myself. But can you tell us a little bit about first, what is MENV, the Masters of the Environment program at CU Boulder? And what course do you teach specifically within it?

-(Jean Sanson) Yeah, sure. So the Masters of the Environment graduate program at CU is a two-year program, and it's interdisciplinary, and it's really neat. There are a few different specialization areas. So students can concentrate on environmental and natural resource policy, renewable and sustainable energy. A newer one is sustainability in the outdoor industry which is really interesting and exciting.

-(Andy Keeton) Fun.

-(Jean Sanson) Yeah, I don't think that was there when you were a student.

-(Andy Keeton) It wasn't, no.

-(Jean Sanson) No, I know. Sustainable food systems is also super interesting. And then I teach within the specialization area of urban resilience and sustainability. So, you know. And students have the option to take classes between the different specializations areas. Again, this is an interdisciplinary professional program. And essentially it's designed to give students the knowledge, the skills and the practical experience to become leaders in this, you know, 21st century where we're faced with these complex environmental challenges. And it's a really fantastic program and a privilege to be an instructor there.

-(Andy Keeton) Yeah, I mean, I loved it. It was great. It got my toes wet. And a lot of different disciplines which was really interesting. And like, I knew I wanted to be in environment. Like what does that mean? So I got to take a lot of classes, found transportation. So I guess, you know, MENV did something well there with getting me in there. So can you tell us a little bit more about, you know, the course you teach on transportation? What is that like? Who's taking the class? What are the, you know, maybe some of the topics you actually talk about?

-(Jean Sanson) Yeah, you bet. So I teach a course called Transportation Mobility and Sustainable Cities. That's a mouthful.

-(Andy Keeton) That's a fun name, though.

-(Jean Sanson) It is a fun name. And, you know, what I teach is, I teach not just the theory of transportation planning, but the history, where we are today, and where we want to go in terms of how transportation is going to help us achieve our greenhouse gas, targets, our climate initiatives, our quality of life initiatives. And it's really fun and interesting. I talk about why transportation and, you know, oftentimes folks don't really stop to think about how they travel around during the day. And not a lot of folks who are in my class are really coming from a transportation field. So we talk about how there's this revolution in transportation happening, right? Like, you know, when my students were born we weren't ordering cars and trips on our phones, right? But we are today. You know? And we didn't have electric cars. And we didn't have e-bikes. And we didn't have a lot of the choices that we have today. So there's this revolution happening about how we think about transportation from a more auto-focused discipline to one that is just strictly multimodal. I mean, the idea is that we need to be providing our communities with transportation options that are fast, and efficient, and reliable, and not dependent on single occupant vehicles. So it's exciting. It's exciting to think about how goods movement has changed. So, for example, we weren't having our UberEats come and bring dinner to us, you know, a couple nights a week. But now we are. What does that mean for our transportation system and our network of roadways? And so I talk about that. And we also talk about kind of the history of like where we've been. Because a lot of the solutions that we're looking at, in terms of creating sustainable transportation systems, is getting back to basics. Like our students find it really surprising that, you know, LA was built up around a trolley system. I mean, that was really good. That was the backbone of transportation in Los Angeles of all places, right? And so, you know, we can't really talk about where we're going until we understand where we've been. And so we spent a lot of time talking about that. We also talk about innovations and technology as I mentioned. Like there are different ways we're traveling today, either, you know, by phone and this kind of on-demand type service, and then, you know, the electrification automation of transportation, right? Are we all going to be driving automated vehicles? Or not driving, sitting in self-driving vehicles in the future. And what does that mean for us? And then we spend quite a bit of time talking about how decisions are made related to transportation planning. So, you know we're in a period right now where we're rethinking how we use our roadway space, and what's an equitable distribution of that space. There's such tension between how we use it. And so we talk about that. And we also talk, and then we talk about how decisions are made about. How those choices are made to distribute space within the public realm for people to move in different modes. And then finally I would say that we do spend quite a bit of time also talking about transportation funding and financing, right? So I'm sure that you talk in your other podcast about the dire needs that we have to invest in our transportation system. And so from a very practical standpoint, we talk about funding sources, and options and different ways of moving forward, whether it be taxes on vehicle miles traveled or other resources. So it's very holistic. Like I said, for many of the students it's really an introduction to this topic. And kind of a third eye if you will. For the first time they're thinking about how they move and how they travel in a different way. In fact, one of the first things that we do is a travel diary survey. And we have students try a different mode of transportation. It's a little bit challenging during COVID, but pretty fun. Prior to COVID, to get folks to travel in a way that they hadn't before, whether that's, you know, an e-scooter or a bus or, you know, something that they're just going to try for the first time, and understand like, what worked well? What didn't? And that's just a fun way to start thinking about how we move through our communities.

-(Andy Keeton) That sounds like an amazing class. I mean, like you weren't teaching when I was going through this program, unfortunately. This sounds so fun. I love the idea of a travel diary. I mean, that's like, that's super cool. Like let's actually get out there and try them. I feel like a lot of people in the transportation industry who've been in it forever, there's plenty modes that they probably never actually used. And so, like you actually have to use it to understand. I think it's a great idea.

-(Jean Sanson) I mean, you know, I didn't start my career as a transportation planner. I kind of fell into it. But that said, I was a consultant commuting between Boulder and Denver for about 16 years, and I rode the bus every day. And I didn't ride the bus because i'm a transit Evangelist. I rode the bus because it was faster, cheaper, more reliable, and I had to pay for parking, right? So, you know, when we think about it from the user experience, I think that really shapes how we think about the transportation industry moving forward.

-(Andy Keeton) And I think this is, I mean, this is great. Because we, one of our first podcast episodes was with Jessica Alba, who was talking about the TDM CP, the TDM Certification Program that association for computer transportation puts on. And all the things when I went through that program to get that certification like, everything you're talking about is exactly what this certification is. It's understanding the history of it, understanding funding, understanding all the different modes. How they work. How they interact with people. So this, I mean, I feel like you're doing a good job. Actually putting the right information in front of people. It's really interesting. I'd love to actually talk a little bit more about the students taking this class. Before we got on we were talking about kind of new, you know, young professionals and what their outlook is. And you said that young professionals don't hold the preconceived notions of what is, but are pursuing what we want our communities and our planet to be. I thought that was interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about like what you mean by that, and what you're seeing from the people taking your class?

-(Jean Sanson)Yeah, that's a really great question, Andy. You know, what I'm seeing is that we're getting students from, you know, just a variety of disciplines. So I have students who, you know, left the real estate industry to come to the sustainability program. I have students who are coming from undergraduate school and have really focused on the hard sciences, and are stepping back into the, you know, broader environmental studies realm of education. I have students who have worked for non-profits. But the single thread that I see through all these students is that they're attracted to the idea of sustainability. They're attracted to the idea of what we've done historically isn't working, and it's their job and it's their mission to change how we think about our systems, and how we move forward in a way that isn't creating the the climate challenge that we're facing now. But finding a way to move out of that. I don't know what I'm trying to say. To move out of the old paradigms of how we live, and how we travel, and how we arrange ourselves from a, you know, community and a society perspective to do so in a way that's more harmonious with our environment. So it's just this, you know, and again, it transcends transportation, right? Because I've got students who are studying, you know, agriculture and food sustainability, but they all have this singular mission which is, you know, exciting for me. And I think what I'm also finding is that, particularly for the students who are pivoting from careers and coming back to a graduate program, is that they're looking for something more inspiring. And they're finding it here. So that's really, you know, just heartening for me to see.

-(Andy Keeton) And I like actually one of the points you made which is that people are taking this course who aren't likely going to be transportation planners, right? But you're still giving them the, and having these discussions around the importance of transportation, and why, you know, why it impacts every, you know, everything going on around them. I wonder like, is there a, you know, what is the benefit of having a class that's teaching transportation to people who actually aren't going to be doing anything in transportation? Like what are they getting out of it for their future careers that you think is going to be beneficial to kind of society into the transportation? It's kind of a big question, but yeah.

-(Jean Sanson) I guess I. Yeah, I would beg to differ. I think that, you know, regardless of what you do, transportation is going to impact your world. And particularly your professional world. Whether it's, you know, sustainable agricultural systems and how we move those goods between cities. You know. I've got a student who's following her passion for zero waste management. Again, all having to be transported somewhere. So that could be, you know, the goods movement side of things. I think it also relates to, you know, thinking about the outdoor industry, and how businesses are developed, and how they're developed in such a way that, you know, they're providing sustainable travel options for their employees and for their consumers, and how things are packaged and moved, you know, between the point of origin and destination. So, you know, it's interesting. I think that what it does transcends the transportation industry. Again, it's all about our systems and how they interact with each other, whether it's someone who's going into, you know, urban land use planning or smart growth planning. You know, transportation is the foundation, you know, that supports these types of smart growth initiatives, etc. So creating those connections is super important. And then what I found is that, you know, I teach a pretty small class, I've had between like 9 and 12 students, is that I hook them. And I have. I do. I've got, you know, I have three students who are right now employed in the transportation industry who.

-(Andy Keeton) Amazing.

-(Jean Sanson) They hadn't thought of that as a career path beforehand. So that's pretty fun. And quite a few students who are very interested in the energy sector, and how this all relates to the electrification of vehicles and charging infrastructure, and really understanding the nuts and bolts in that, which is kind of beyond my area of expertise, but we learn from each other, right? So that's been super fun to follow their progress.

-(Andy Keeton) Yeah, that's how I actually got into transportation. I was originally like oh, I'm definitely going to go into energy and solar, wind or something. And then I found transportation. I was like oh, this is so interesting. Because there's, it's not just a technical problem that we can solve. There's like a huge human element to it, right? Like we can put in the best bus line in the world but maybe no one's going to take it. So I think that's really interesting. And you can bring in that kind of interdisciplinary group of people to have those discussions around, something that is inherently kind of interdisciplinary. People are using it for all sorts of things. I think it's really cool. It sounds like a great class.

-(Jean Sanson) Yeah, I enjoy it.

-(Andy Keeton) So, I wonder, like what if you personally taken from it? Because I know that in your day job you are a senior transportation planner, you do transportation all the time, which is even bolder. And you are taking the time now to teach a course about transportation. What have you taken from this course, personally? Why is this so great for you to be teaching it, you know, outside of educating the future?

-(Jean Sanson) Yeah, for me, personally. This is such a good question. I am so inspired by the students that I teach and, you know, I have been in this industry for quite a while and have just recently started teaching this course for two years, and it has really energized me and given me the opportunity to think hard about how I share my professional experiences, and others. I bring in a lot of great guest lectures, with the students. So for me, it's given me the opportunity to kind of step back from my day job, be a little bit more thoughtful about the industry that I'm in, and how I was to curate the information that I have to share with students. So it's been a learning experience for me and, again, it's kind of pushed me into realms that perhaps I hadn't given as much thought to before. Again, like I have students that are so knowledgeable about, you know, battery systems and such, so I am learning as they are learning too. And, again, my take away is just how in awe I am of this next generation of professionals that are coming out of this type of programs. I mean awe with their ability to be critical thinkers. I'm in awe with their ability to communicate information, graphically, quickly. You know, thinking about how we share information, I think I am a kind of a dinosaur when it comes to that, right? But for them, it comes, you know, social media and all that is just second nature to them. So, again, to me that is super inspiring, and I get a lot out of teaching the class.

-(Andy Keeton) Yes, I mean it's great. There is a lot of people who have been in the transportation space a long time and maybe they are thinking about how to give back and this sounds like, you know, you can find yourself your own master's environment program and do some teaching. Maybe this is a good way to do it.

-(Jean Sanson) It is. Again, like, you know, it's motivating for me, you know, professionally to know that there is this wonderful cohort of professionals that are entering the work world. But, again, also from a professional stand point, for me it's been re-inspiring and energizing and motivating for the work that I do. So that's been fun.

-(Andy Keeton) Yes, that's great. So, we ask this to everyone every week, and normally we are talking about something like atomic vehicles, or buses or shuttles or whatever it is, and we say why all these will help save the planet. This is a little interesting because we are talking about education and teaching people, not a particular solution, but I would still like to hear your thoughts here. So, in a few sentences, why do you think educating future transportation leaders will help save the planet?

-(Jean Sanson) Right. So, we know that, you know, transportation is leading contributor to the green house gas emissions. I am not telling you or your audience anything they don't know. And that is all good and fine. And we know the science behind it. But, you know, the challenge is thinking about how people move from a personal stand point and a community stand point. So, you mentioned earlier in the podcast that you can put out there all the bus service that you want but if there isn't an incentive for folks to ride it they are not going to. So, understanding those relationships and providing the sustainable transportation options that are realistic for people is so important to this equation. And doing so in a way that is well integrated with smart-growth industry policies is really the key to creating this sustainable communities, moving forward. So, you know, that's super inspiring. You can understand the science and the policy of it. But, as important, and this is what I taught my students, the hard skills but it's also the soft skills. Being able to communicate information. You know, between yourself and your colleagues, and between yourself and your community members to understand what their needs are, is so important. And if we can't educate our future leaders to be the skilled communicators, then we are missing the boat on anything we are trying to do to save the planet. And so that's why I spend a lot of time talking through with my students, encouraging them to continue to pursue that skill set, to be able to negotiate solutions, moving forward. Particularly related to transportation but it could be any discipline.

-(Andy Keeton) And that is one of the things I liked the most about the master's environment program myself. Like hard skills are great but learning those soft skills and being able to apply them to the real world was really exciting. So anyone who is out there and being like I want to go back, get a master's degree, talk to Jean, talk to the MBMB program, maybe it's something that is for you. This course is really interesting. I wish it was available to me now. I would like to sit and learn a little bit from you. But Jean, thanks for being on. This has been a really interesting, kind of fun podcast, different from what we normally do. So it's been great to have you. And to all of our, you know, listeners and viewers watching on YouTube, thanks for listening, thanks for watching,. Make sure you subscribe, like the podcast, give as a rating, it all helps. And you can find the Youtube video, find all the other episodes and subscribe as well to our email list at betweenthelines.io. It is a good email list to be on because you actually get more information each week about the podcast and you kind of, you know, dive more into the topic that we've discussed Jean, once again, thanks for being on and I am excited to see the people that are coming out of your class and see what they end up doing in the world. It's going to be, I think an exciting next couple of years, a few years, you know, of what's going to come.

-(Jean Sanson) It is a pretty exciting time be in the industry. So Andy, thanks so much for having me, it was a pleasure.

-(Andy Keeton) Thanks for being here and thanks to everyone for watching. We will see you next week.

-(Outro) Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of Between the Lines with Andy Keeton. Be sure to subscribe to hear next week's episode, and check out our exclusive communal playlist on Spotify.

Better commuting starts here.

Better commuting starts here.

Better commuting starts here.