How Do I Become a Transit Planner?

Updated Sep 2020.

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

  1. Become a bus or train driver, then 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 transportation 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.  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 works best in cultures where there is high reverence for management as a profession and a belief that managing doesn’t require a professional background in the thing being managed.  Australia is one example.
  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.
  5. Be a blogger and advocate.  This is a very narrow path, but I’ve seen it work.  You have to do a lot of commentary that is extremely fair, courteous and fact-based.  Transit staff will be irritated with you sometimes but at other times they’ll appreciate you for saying things they can’t say.  I’ve seen a few people hired from this role into agencies.

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!

34 Responses to How Do I Become a Transit Planner?

  1. David February 17, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    This is really interesting, thanks. I’ve just finished my bachelors degree and though I’d like to work for a couple of years before I go on, I’ve been thinking of taking the fourth route. It’s just unfortunate I’ve only discovered this field in the last year of my dual major bachelors in two completely different fields, otherwise I would’ve swapped one of my majors for Urban Studies/Urban Geography. The third route sounds interesting too, because I’ve just begun my job search in the last month and Administration has been one of the fields I’ve been targeting. The economy is a bit tough though.
    That said, I have two questions. I sort of know the answer to the first one but I’m going to ask it anyways.
    What’s your opinion of work experience in bolstering a grad school application (as it pertains to option four)? Does it do a lot, or not so much? Most schools seem to say that it’s helpful but I’m just wondering to what degree? (FWIW I tend to meet the grade requirements of most schools I’ve looked at, it’s just that in practical terms they usually require significantly more than that due to competition and therefore I’d need work experience to make my application more competitive.)
    Another question is, what’s your impression of the helpfulness of a Masters of Business Administration? Option three makes it sound like you think it could be useful in becoming a planner, but I’m not quite clear whether or not you think this is so as you seem to be talking about Administration work experience as opposed to an MBA.

  2. Adam Parast February 17, 2010 at 2:47 am #

    I would say that people should look for graduate programs that integrate path 2,3 and 4 into a single department. Portland state is a good example that does this.
    I’m going through the University of Washington transportation masters program and while it is good it is only fairly well integrated into the urban planning department and isn’t integrated at all with the public administration department. I wanted to take classes in public administration but that department simply wouldn’t let me into the classes. With a single department this isn’t an issue.

  3. Jarrett February 17, 2010 at 3:30 am #

    @David. I’ve never been in grad school admissions, so I wouldn’t venture to tell you what matters on that score. In hiring, I value work experience even more than education, but I’m a consultant, not a graduate faculty.
    I definitely think an MBA is excessive for transit planning. Also, if you have an MBA, you’ll probably have a range of much more lucrative options.

  4. Barry W February 17, 2010 at 3:58 am #

    Having an engineering undergraduate degree, and having finished an MBA just last week, I can honestly say that little in the MBA will make a person a better transit planner.
    Two exceptions to this would be: 1) The process of developing business strategy closely mirrors the development of transport strategy, in terms of the conceptual processes that need to be worked through, and 2) the MBA will help a person be a better manager of a transit planning team, agency or consultancy.
    My general path has been a civil engineering undergraduate degree, worked for about 7 years in a number of traffic engineering and transport planning roles, then was lucky enough to land a job in a fledgling transit agency 7 years ago. From there I haven’t looked back.
    A good transit planning team benefits from people from each of the paths that Jarrett lists. In my case, my background in traffic engineering and transport modelling brings a variety of useful skills, particularly when it comes to areas like interchange design, bus priority or using GIS. Working with people whose background has been in land use/town/urban planning certainly adds a new dimension. And there’s a definite benefit in working with someone who has followed the driver/controller/scheduler path because their detailed knowledge of things that do and don’t work out in the field is indispensable.
    I’d suggest some caution in the postgraduate degrees that contain public transport planning elements. I know of one major Australian university that offers such a course, where the course content is taught from an academic and almost mathematical perspective, and offers (in my opinion) little real, practical advice.

  5. Tom West February 17, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    I’m a transport planner (dealing with both transit and other modes) working for a transport consultancy and I took none of those routes: I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics. I ended up in transport planning because of my interest in transport, and the company I had my first job with liked maths graduates. All my detailed transport planning knowledge has been learnt on the job.
    Certainly ion the consulting buisness, I think employees accept that most new graduates aren’t going to have *all* the skills and knowledde they need, so the look for graduates with some, and teach them the rest.

  6. PSM February 17, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    Hello! I want to add another option to the mix. I have received my Masters of Landscape Architecture where I focused in the design of transportation corridors. I don’t have the stamp of a traffic engineer for my designs, but I feel the landscape architecture allows me to build in a lot of the social and ecological design aspects to a corridor.

  7. David in Ottawa February 17, 2010 at 7:03 am #

    I took route #4 and I’m afraid it doesn’t work too well, even as I agree this is where more transit planners should come from (#1 would be good too, but I can’t see that happening anymore, which is unfortunate because actual operators are seldom if ever consulted on transit planning yet their input is often the most valuable). Transportation “planning”, is, unfortunately, still way too dominated by engineers (at least in Canada) who make an engineering background a prerequisite for hiring anyone, thus excluding anyone else. Having degrees in economics and planning seems to be pretty meaningless to engineers, who somehow think they’re qualified to do planning. This is particularly the case for consulting firms, who now seem to do the bulk of transportation and transit planning; indeed transit “planning” is often assigned to people who’d sooner be designing a highway and driving cars around on them, a fact I think explains the appeal of BRT amongst engineering firms who mainly do roadway design. You have to try pretty hard to find a BRT advocate who isn’t a civil engineer.
    If you want to go into transit planning and you’re still in high school, the route I’d suggest is get a bachelor’s degree in engineering and then go on to get a Master’s planning degree. I don’t think this is the way we should be generating transit planners, but in the current climate of engineer-dominated transportation planning, it’s the best way to get in.

  8. Danny February 17, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    The transportation organization I work for, although not completely applicable to common public transportation agencies, has planners with nothing but marketing degrees. There is merit to that choice, and I attribute much of our profitability to it.

  9. Art Busman February 17, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    I think you missed one important one. You start out with any degree or background and get an entry level job at a transit planning department, clerical, data entry, intern, admin, bus surveryor, and you work up the ladder. Many transit planners I know started out this way. You can be a beauty school dropout, a Marketing major, a Cultural Anthropology major, a janitor, and turn yourself into a fine transit planner.

  10. Jennifer February 17, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    I’ve got a law degree and no formal planning training at all. While I’m not a “planner” by title, by managing the real estate department (within the Engineering division) of a transit agency and working with, for instance, TOD, I’m getting a crash course in the intersection of urban form, transit planning, and engineering.
    And I’m probably one of the happiest, most job-satisfied JDs in town!

  11. Jonathan Parker February 17, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Interesting topic, and I’m glad to see that Jarrett has emphasized that having a multi-disciplinary team is a positive element to achieving successful outcomes in transportation planning. Though I didn’t personally take path #4, I also agree that outcomes would likely be improved with more emphasis on land use and economics, rather than on the facilities/engineering side of the equation.
    I started with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a transportation focus, with my first job being in private sector engineering/consulting. After several years, I then shifted to public sector transportation planning, while developing skills in modeling, GIS, and planning processes–though I must admit it was not the most progressive of agencies from a planning policy perspective. I developed the policy side on my own, mainly through self study. Finally, I arrived at my current position in long range transit planning, partially due to my work skills and experience, but also my ability to analyze information, think comprehensively and certainly my passion for the job.
    I would suggest that if you have a solid foundation of skills (GIS/modeling, knowledge of planning processes, etc), have an ability to think analytically but also comprehensively (where path #4 is most helpful), are an effective communicator, and are passionate about planning and cities in general, that is a pretty good recipe for success.

  12. John February 17, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Thanks for posting this, Jarrett! I’m in my third year in a bachelor’s program and I intend to take path #4, and I’ll keep your advice about the interests of the faculty in mind.
    Are there any specific signs I should be aware of? Should I look for faculty who are transit professionals? If the university has some kind of planning organization seperate from the school of planning (UBC does this, they have their school of planning and an organization called Campus + Community Planning), is that a good sign and something that could be benefical to me?

  13. Cindy Dahlgren February 17, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    I fell into it backward — working in a community service agency, first in procurement buying vans for the senior transportation program, then managing the senior transportation program. A human services background is very helpful. After working in the field for a couple of years, went back to school for a master in public administration and my career took off from there. I am soon to retire after 30 years doing pretty much everything in public transportation EXCEPT driving buses and fixing them. Have done grants, planning, management, marketing, scheduling, capital projects (built 2 transit centers), customer service and you name it. Look for an entry position in a SMALL agency and you have a better chance of becoming a jane-of-all-trades. And don’t forget to join the transit association to network, network, network as well as steal good ideas.

  14. scott February 17, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    I came straight out of college with a degree in economics. I landed an assistant planner position with a small transit agency. It was a three year position developing a long range transit plan and transit element for the regional plan. From there is turned into senior planner and of much longer duration.
    Being at a small agency you see all aspects of transit. From ADA compliance, service delivery, operational managment, land use planning, multi-jurisdictional coordination, regional planning, grant managment and marketing…just to name a few of the endless areas of focus.
    15 years later I am still in the industry and dedicated to this profession. As a planner, it sometimes feels like the bottom rung of the ladder, but it is a niche market with lots of opportunities.
    My only suggestion is understanding good operational practices. You may be the greatest planner in the world, but you need to understand system design. Functionality is a critical component to good transit planning and there needs to be an understaning on how to accomplish that.

  15. John February 17, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    As someone who did an MS in transportation engineering because I wanted to get into transit planning (but mostly failed), I would advise making sure that first job you get out of school closely aligns with your interests. Work at a transit agency if possible. It’s easy to start doing something else, but the longer you’ve been doing that instead of what you want to be doing, it’s hard to switch and get a salary consistent with what you already earn.

  16. Paul K McGregor February 17, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    I tend to agree with your assessment on the various paths to becoming a transit planner. Path 1 is unfortunately from the old school and this doesn’t tend to happen much anymore. While I was a service planner in Dallas [DART], we did cross train operators as schedulers. Only one person participated at that time and I am not sure how many others participated after that. Another reason this isn’t happening as much is because one needs a rather sophisticated knowledge of computers, eg GIS, GPS, AVL, etc.
    I came from track 4. I did an internship with UMTA and decided that is what I wanted to do and decided a planning degree would be my ticket into it. I started out in general transportation planning, did some capital planning and long range planning and then stepped into the service and operations planning realm for the past 10 years or so. After getting laid off in 2003, it’s been a challenge to find stable work especially now when supervisory and managerment level positions are being eliminated. Any ideas on how to proceed would be appreciated.
    Yes, transportation and transit planning positions do tend to be very engineering oriented and it is hard for someone with just a planning degree to break into it. If I had it to do all over again, I would have thought seriously about getting an engineering degree too. I have also though about a BA degree with an emphasis in marketing or finance, but I didn’t really feel like it was worth pursuing. Not sure what kind of benefit I would get out of it.

  17. HPB February 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    I’ve worked in the business over 40 years. Some of the sharpest folks I’ve met in operations planning are the ones who took what is (used to be) a clerical job and kept their eyes open. The degree — any degree — meant they had some polish and knowledge and helped their advancement from there. In this sense, it’s too bad that APC’s are replacing traffic checkers.
    The very best were disciplined railfans as well.

  18. David February 17, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    I wasn’t expecting this many replies. This is all very good advice for someone who is just starting out. Thanks all.
    I should’ve clarified that I was going to go into Land Use/Urban Planning, more so than Transportation Planning per se because I assumed (David in Ottawa’s comment confirmed what I’ve observed in Canada at least) that Transportation Planning (in particular) required an engineering/mathematics background and I have more of an interest in social sciences where my background is.

  19. Rob February 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Jarrett – Hi, I’m a college senior, undergrad degree in economics. I’ve seen that some of the larger agencies have positions with titles like “Analyst”. Can you comment on these presumably white-collar positions and who they like to hire for them? Thanks.

  20. Jase February 17, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    Thanks Jarret
    I am likely to be looking for a job come March. This is helpful.
    If I succeed in finding a transport-related job, you might have to add a 5th path.

  21. Wes February 18, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    What about really specific forms of transport, like monorail or high speed? How do you learn to work with such technologies if they’re virtually nonexistent in your country?
    Also, how does the industry feel about foreign transport/urban planning degrees, are they discouraged? TIA.

  22. Jarrett at February 18, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Early introduction of new technologies in a country always involves international consultants with experience with the technology.  That's why the French, German, and Japanese national railways are all competing to help with high speed rail in the US, for example.  Attitudes toward foreign degrees will vary massively from one country to another; I don't think there's a general rule.  Employers I've worked with in Australia, Canada, and the US all seem open to foreign degrees and capable of assessing their relevance. 

  23. Nathan Williams February 18, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    Path #4 is how my personal favorite transit planner got there, but she remarks on how little of the urban planning material has been relevant at her transit-agency job. I suspect that has a lot to do with the agency being in a reactive, money-crunch mode, and with the lower-level service planners being locked away in their corner of the organization and not exposed to much else that goes on.

  24. Steve February 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    I definitely took Path #2, but with plenty of work experience. I worked as surveyor in high school, interned at a state DOT in college, and completed my Masters part-time while working as a consultant full-time. The work experience really does help keep you grounded, while still keeping the theory and ideals from schooling in mind.

  25. spokker February 18, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    Everybody I’ve asked tells me not to go into urban planning. They say that it’s over-saturated and that you won’t make any money and you will be unhappy.
    But that’s what I’ve heard about every profession that I’ve ever inquired about. The two most common things said are, “Don’t get into this if you want to make money” and, “There aren’t enough jobs.”
    I imagine the former is expressed because everybody thinks they aren’t paid enough and the latter because of the recession.
    I’ve decided to do what I want and in the end there will always be Obama’s socialist programs and debt forgiveness programs 😉

  26. Corey Burger February 18, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    I am near the start of the path #4. I am currently finishing my geography degree and will move to an urban planning masters after. But you are right that you cannot divorce land use from transportation, as they form feedback loops, either good or bad, depending on your viewpoint.

  27. David Erlitz February 19, 2010 at 4:37 am #

    I am probably one of the few who took Path 1. I was a train conductor for the New York City Transit for 10 years and had a friend who introduced me to my current boss about an analysts job in Operations Planning. I basically plan out the track construction that goes on throughout our system. I didn’t know much if anything about the work I am doing now but becuase of my knowledge of the system I got the job and I was able to pick up the work very quickly. I did not have a full 4 year degree and my associates degree was in Business Administration. My qualifications was that I knew the railroad as we call it, the rules, signals etc. My area of work is very specific and is not taught in any shcool course but it does help to have some education backround in planning of any type. Yes I worked my way up through the ranks to Superintendednt. I have been what we call a service planner for almost 12 years now and have no desire to do anything else. I am hoping that when I retire from NYCT that I might be able to find a job in some other city as interesting as this one has been. I have been very interested in the proposed rail system in Honolulu Hawaii and have been following its progress over the years. I wish all of you who are following path’s 2 thru 4 a lot of luck out there.

  28. G February 20, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    Regarding David’s line of questioning above, I’m curious if anyone could comment specifically on routes into urban or transit planning/design that involve undergraduate and graduate backgrounds in the social sciences (e.g. human geography, urban studies, sociology).
    I’m sure these would be less common and probably more circuitous ways in considering we’re mostly talking about fairly applied/technical or management positions (relative to, say, academia or institutions), but then again there’s a lot of overlap in knowledge, goals, and probably even career interest despite the fact that soc. scientists would presumably lack the technical engineering skills that trained planners have.

  29. Jarrett at February 22, 2010 at 2:29 am #

    G.  That doesn't sound hard at all, relatively speaking.  Look at consulting firms that do a fair bit of sociologial and/or urban geography research.  Booz and Cambridge Systematics come to mind.  There's quite a lot of interest in those dimensions of transit planning and policy. 

  30. CroMagnon February 22, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    I’m a local dilettante, and not a professional by any means. Planning is not a science. It is a multi-disciplinary field. It includes, but not limited to the studies of engineering, architecture, economics, history and philosophy of human settlement, transit history, mathematics, and geography.
    Unfortunately, by my anecdote, too many engineers are just engineers without much background in anything else, for whatever reason.
    I truly believe those heavily involved in the decision making for large transportation projects without any engineering experience should have some strong background in economics, math, geography and LOCAL history. Without these bodies of knowledge, the risk is too great of boondoggle and failure.

  31. Alon Levy February 22, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    Jarrett, you may have talked about this before, but how did you personally become a transit planner? I’m interested in learning about the more unusual ways one becomes a planner, and your background is certainly unusual.

  32. Jarrett March 1, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    Alon. My path was so unusual that all I can say is: ‘Don’t do it this way!’ I spent my teens and thirties obsessing about transit but I spent my twenties obsessing about the arts, doing a PhD in an arts/literature/humanities field at Stanford. It’s why I’m obsessed with words, and tend to notice how the language we use uses us.

  33. Josh November 27, 2012 at 1:18 am #

    (Bumping this post)
    I’m also interested in becoming a transit planner. By this, I mean the design of bus and rail networks, scheduling of buses, planning of bus interchanges, and so forth. My background’s in urban planning, having spent several years looking at urban form and the built environment, as well as a postgraduate in transportation.
    Over here in Singapore, the roles are held by the transport authority and the public transport operators, depending on what role you go with. Of course, there are also roles for consultants, but they don’t seem active in the local scene. And the urban planning authority appears to play some role in affecting public transit planning as well.

  34. EN57 November 27, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    Josh, from my point of view I’d say: – if possible, try to get some service planning (or head office) experience with an operator first before moving on to an authority. With an operator, there is so much you will learn about managing transit on a day to day basis (ie practical knowledge rather than idealistic theories) and get more insight into customer behaviour and what works in your city, far beyond what any consultant will ever be able to tell you (or you’ll read on this blog!)
    Within an operating company you will have constant feedback from customers, schedulers, supervisors, finance teams, drivers, depot staff, traffic managers, local road authorities – as well as getting to ride lots of vehicles and understanding the dynamics of dwell times, running times, layovers, traffic congestion, union/industrial issues, efficiency and costs. While planning new services, you’ll also be expected to come up with ways to make operations more efficient. Your urban planning experience will help plan even better bus services.
    If you decide to later move on to an authority, you’ll be stepping back from the ‘coal face’ and have to shift to a slower, more strategic, longer term view – but you would have had excellent practical grounding in implementing and managing real life services and have a real feel for transport in your city. This experience will put you in a very good position to advise decision makers on appropriate future courses of action (as well as be better able to judge the soundness and relevance of Jarrett’s advice here in relation to transit in your own home city…)