By the time Andrea Hamre, 33, graduated from high school in 2001, she knew what she wanted to do with her life.
Hamre had spent the previous year in Thun, Switzerland, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. She left her Minneapolis world of big cars and big parking lots and entered one where skiing in the Alps and visits to cities such as Paris and Vienna were a mere fare card away.
“That was the first time I experienced expansive, high-quality, integrated public transportation,” Hamre says. “It was really eye-opening.”
Today, Hamre is in the final months of a Ph.D. program in transportation planning through Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in Alexandria, Va. — one of a number of urban planning graduate programs in the D.C. area with a focus on transportation. Home to the Department of Transportation as well as new regional transportation developments such as Metro’s Silver Line and the H Street Streetcar, Washington is an ideal location for these programs — doctoral degrees, master’s degrees and graduate certificates alike.
“Being a Ph.D. student in the national capital region is really unique,” Hamre says. “It opened up so many opportunities to take advantage of the presence of federal and large metropolitan agencies.”
George Mason University’s master’s in transportation policy, operations and logistics began 17 years ago as a professional degree targeted to Virginia Department of Transportation employees. Today, while the university still offers remote learning opportunities for both VDOT and the Montana Department of Transportation — which allows students to teleconference from class sites in their hometowns with the Arlington-based classes — the degree is now geared toward anyone interested in transportation planning.
One alumnus, Christopher Gomes, had become a licensed airplane pilot at age 17 and then earned an undergraduate degree in airline management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In 2011, after working with the Federal Aviation Administration for a few years, Gomes, 29, decided to spread his wings (if you will) and learn more about the transportation industry as a whole.
“A lot of people don’t think they would ever want to study [transportation], but it’s interesting,” he says. “You don’t think about your roads and your development. You really don’t take a step back and say, ‘Why is it like this?’ That’s what this program aims to address.”
In a studio course — in which the students work with a real client — Gomes and his classmates were asked to give Fairfax County recommendations on how to implement “pop-up” infrastructure: to put in place interactive informational displays, temporary shops and restaurants until an area is fully developed.
The county wanted to know “what we can do to encourage people to come out to the Metro stops in Tysons and keep them interested and wanting to travel, but knowing at the same time that in five years, 10 years, this area will look completely different,” Gomes says.
His class of roughly 20 students researched other areas that had implemented similar programs, investigated which of those practices could work in this market and interviewed commuters and businesspeople in the vicinity. At the end of the semester, the group presented its recommendations to Fairfax County and the Tysons Partnership.
From their proposal sprung one wildly popular pop-up: The Boro, a hot spot for food-truck picnicking and outdoor concerts, in a parking lot near the Greensboro Metro Station. The pop-up is giving commuters and locals a sense of community that will continue with a mixed-use development set to begin construction soon.
Another course, Social Dependence on the Automobile, offered an interesting counterpoint to the pop-ups project. “We’re over here trying to improve and promote the use of transit, when historically, humans prefer the freedom of driving,” Gomes says.
Ruby Shamayleh, 38, who landed a job in a civil engineering firm shortly after graduating from George Washington University’s sustainable urban planning program in 2013, wasn’t following a specific interest in transportation. But once she started work, she realized her training in climate change and urban planning had been “a game changer.”
“I was the only one [in the firm] trained in climate-change management, and when you’re talking about vulnerability in the transportation sector, you need to understand the basics of climate change,” Shamayleh says. Her job was to assess what structures — bridges, highways, tracks, etc. — could become vulnerable to future flooding and instruct clients such as Maryland’s State Highway Administration on how to strengthen them.
Sustainability is a theme that permeates transportation discussions. “Urban living is actually key to doing things like reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says John Carruthers, director of GW’s sustainable urban planning program, “because urban living facilitates people using mass transit systems, which help to minimize use of single cars.”
Understanding how the environment affects transportation and how transportation affects the planet and people alike motivates Virginia Tech doctoral student Hamre to continue to learn and teach others.
“We know that a lot of things about automobile dependence are unsustainable, certainly the environmental pollutions in terms of local, regional, global air pollution, water pollution and noise pollution,” she says. Automobile dependence also means people are sitting rather than walking or biking, which affects health care, she says. And driving isn’t an option for many people, such as children, seniors and those with disabilities.
“So I think that a multimodal society is one that is cleaner and healthier and more inclusive,” Hamre says. “That sounds like a good investment to me.”
Correction: This story previously misidentified the type of pilot license Christopher Gomes earned. It has been corrected.
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