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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!