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November 29, 2022Episode 46. It Takes a (Big) Village: How a community of transportation pros is making mobility better.
FEATURING: Beverly Kuhn, Jeff Paniati
The Institute of Transportation Engineers is wrapping up a pivotal year in its history. Jeff Paniati, the organization’s CEO, and Beverly Kuhn, its outgoing president, talk about lessons learned from the past 12 months and how the transportation profession is evolving — along with society.
About Our Guests
Senior Research Engineer
Beverly Kuhn is head of TTI's System Reliability Division. During more than 30 years at the Institute, Dr. Kuhn has developed diverse and extensive experience in the conduct and delivery of cutting-edge research for the transportation community. She specializes in transportation systems management and operations and technology transfer, and currently serves as vice president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (a Community of Transportation Professionals). She holds B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in civil engineering (CE) from Texas A&M University, as well as a Ph.D. in CE from Penn State University. She is a licensed Professional Engineer and a certified Project Management Professional.
Executive Director and CEO, ITE
Jeff Paniati is the executive director and CEO of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), an international membership association of nearly 17,000 transportation professionals who work to improve safety and mobility for all users. Prior to joining ITE, Mr. Paniati had a 32-year career with the Federal Highway Administration, where he held various leadership positions including serving as executive director from 2008–2015.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another, and what may happen along the way. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. America has a long history of transportation leadership, but as the industry’s leaders will tell you, that doesn’t mean we know everything, and it doesn’t mean we will always get things right. Transportation professionals worldwide are constantly working to make things better, to make mobility safer and more efficient for moving people and moving the things that people need. Few leaders know that better than our guests for this episode — Jeff Paniati, the CEO of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and Beverly Kuhn, senior research engineer at TTI, and for the past year, the international president of ITE. Beverly, Jeff, welcome to Thinking Transportation, and thank you so much for sharing some of your time with us.
Beverly Kuhn (guest) (01:25):
Jeff Paniati (guest) (01:25):
Thanks, Bernie. Great to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:28):
Some of our listeners are going to notice that you’ve been here before, Beverly, when we hosted you a little more than a year ago. That would’ve been shortly before you started your year as international president of ITE. It’s November now, so you’re nearing the finish line. What are your thoughts on the past year?
Beverly Kuhn (01:47):
It has been an amazing experience. I’ve been the first president post-pandemic who had the good fortune to travel the entire year and go to all of the district meetings. It’s just been a wonderful experience. It was a great opportunity to go out and visit all of the districts across the country to visit with our international representatives and to just see how every district approaches their membership, their direction, their vision a little differently. Each district does their meetings in a unique way. It’s just been a wonderful opportunity to meet everyone and to really see the excitement that our profession has about where we’re headed and how we are going to address all of the changes and the challenges that we’re facing. There was just a wonderful sense of excitement across the country and I just would not have traded this year for anything.
Bernie Fette (02:43):
Jeff, how would you describe where the organization is today?
Jeff Paniati (02:47):
Well, we’re, we’re growing, we’re evolving and we’re really stronger than ever, I think, coming out of COVID. Which going into COVID or when COVID started, there certainly was a lot of apprehension about what would it mean for an organization like ITE. But I think using some of the new tools we’ve been able to connect with members all across the country and all around the world. And we’ve not only survived COVID, but we’ve thrived. Beverly’s been an outstanding international president as she described, sort of coming out of that period and being able to reconnect with members in person. But she’s also used a whole variety of tools to connect with members wherever they are, which I think has been great and which is really the post-COVID environment that we’re in. You know, as a sign of kind of where we are today, this year we had, for the first time in ITE history, we had an all-female executive committee at ITE. Not only Beverly as our international president, but Alyssa Rodriguez as our past president and Rosa Coria as our international vice president. So I think it’s just one sign of the world we’re in today and the ITE we’re in today. As we continue to grow and we diversify and we move away from just being a community of transportation engineers to truly a community of transportation professionals,
Bernie Fette (04:10):
How does that distinction that you just mentioned about it being an all-female leadership team, what do you think that that says about the future of not just the organization but the future of the profession?
Jeff Paniati (04:21):
Well, Beverly, maybe I’ll let you respond first in talking about the significance of that.
Beverly Kuhn (04:26):
Wow, that’s a great question. I think what it does is illustrate that our profession is evolving as our society is as well. So we are moving towards in expanding the diversity and inclusion of our membership and also to acknowledge that we serve our communities which are equally diverse and that we need to make sure that we address the needs of all of our citizens, all of our neighbors, and that all of those neighbors are a diverse community and that having a representative leadership that’s all female and is also diverse illustrates that we recognize that and we see the future of our profession in our communities that we all have a role, we all have voices that need to be heard and that that resonates with our association moving forward and that we can expect to see continued expansion of our membership and diversity of the leadership across all levels of the organization, not just the executive committee.
Bernie Fette (05:33):
And you talked a little about communities and about neighbors. Your organization has an international focus, but most of our listeners are based here in the United States. For those of us with a more American base, why should we care about transportation on an international scale? And I’m guessing that interest might begin with global supply chains, but it wouldn’t stop there, right?
Jeff Paniati (05:56):
I mean, mean the world we live in today, you know, is getting smaller and closer all the time. You mentioned supply chains. If you just look at how communication and travel is, is sort of revolutionized what the global economy is like and what the world is like today. I think we have to care about what transportation and what communities are like not only in Texas and not only in the United States, but truly around the world. And I think it’s important to recognize that while we have a long history of transportation leadership in the United States, we don’t always get it right and we don’t know it all. A perfect example I would give you is in the transportation safety area. Right now, the US is really lagging other countries. If you look at fatality numbers by virtually any measure, at one time we were truly the leader in safety in the world, in transportation, in highway safety in the world. And I don’t think there’s any way we can say that today. Our fatality rate has continued to grow even as other countries have dropped. And there is just one example of an opportunity for us to look at other countries and see what are they getting right that we’re not? And I’m talking about countries that look a lot like us — Canada, Australia, these are big countries, wide open spaces, not just European countries where we can often look at and say, well that’s just not us. My guess is there are places in Australia and Canada where even a Texan would feel the landscape is pretty comfortable and pretty familiar looking. And I think there’s things we can learn that we can bring back to the U.S.
Beverly Kuhn (07:36):
I think the other thing that’s important to recognize is, as Jeff mentioned, you know, we’ve been the leader in transportation for a long time. Our country is, especially in the western parts of the United States, including Texas, we’re very car-centric and there is a close connection to our car-centric development and the impact it has on the climate. And there’s a lot that we can learn from international communities about how they’re addressing climate change, transportation, addressing the supply chain issues and how it’s all interrelated. And that we could learn a lot from how communities are developing and evolving so that there are a variety of mobility options for travelers. And the individual personal vehicle is not the only option on the table for them. And how it not only enhances personal mobility but connections within the communities. It’s walkable, it’s bikeable, and it just gives a new perspective. And since there are a lot of people in the United States that don’t have the opportunity to travel overseas to see those communities firsthand, we can be the linkage to those communities so they can see that there are other ways to develop communities and to provide what our neighbors need, but in a safer and more environmentally friendly option that doesn’t impact negatively our economy and our way of life.
Bernie Fette (09:10):
You’ve both mentioned the word perspective a couple of times I noticed. And that relates to one of the things that I wanted to ask you about. One of the things that’s happened since we visited with you the last time, Beverly, is the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Some people would call that a milestone in transportation policy. I wonder what sort of challenges and opportunities does that legislation present for ITE and its members? And Jeff, I’m guessing you might have an additional perspective in particular because in addition to leading ITE prior to those last several years, you were executive director at the Federal Highway Administration.
Jeff Paniati (09:49):
Yeah, that’s right. And I would call it historic. The level of investment that is gonna go into the U.S. infrastructure over the next five years is just tremendous. And I think it will touch all communities, all levels in the system and presents really a tremendous opportunity for ITE members. And I think for transportation professionals and for the public across the country, we’re just seeing the beginnings of that investment start to move out. You know, and a lot of it will come out through what are called formula funds, so dollars that go directly from USDOT or FHWA by formula to state departments of transportation and through them to local governments. So in those dollars we’ve seen a lot of increase and opportunity, I think even with inflation to make significant impacts on the infrastructure needs in the U.S. But what’s also remarkable about this particular piece of legislation is the amount of funding that will be available through what are called discretionary programs, programs where the Secretary of Transportation at USDOT will be able to target those dollars in a variety of different programs and areas. There’s never been this level of discretionary funding available and there’s some really unique opportunities under that program. Things like the Safe Streets for All program where all the dollars under that program will be directed not through state departments of transportation, but directly to local communities, cities, counties, tribal lands, the areas where we see the biggest challenges often from a safety perspective and from creating those choices that Beverly was talking about earlier. And there’s just so many other areas. And another exciting one is the electric vehicle network that’s gonna be built out along the Interstate system and beyond, given some of the monies that will flow through this legislation. So, really transformational. I mean we could spend the rest of the day talking about it, but it is exciting for the industry and for ITE and for our members.
Bernie Fette (12:06):
Maybe exciting also for people in the research business, Beverly?
Beverly Kuhn (12:10):
I think so. I think we have an understanding or a pretty good idea of how safety improvements can benefit our communities and this is a ripe opportunity for us to tap into those investments strategically understand what are the positive benefits that come out of those investments, and help illustrate to other communities that you can get a huge benefit out of some of these modest investments, but can make a huge difference in your overall community when it comes to safety and walkability and quality of life for your communities. So I think it’s a great opportunity for us to tap into those resources and document some of the benefits so that others can benefit from them.
Bernie Fette (12:58):
Okay. Several mention of communities. So let’s, let’s stay there for a few minutes. We talked the last time a lot about the importance of connection and specifically we talked about the connections between transportation professionals and the communities that are served by the systems that those professionals help to create. I’m going to ask you both to give the profession a grade on that effort to establish and work within those connections with society. What grade — A through F — would you give to the profession that you represent right now and how might that compare with the grade you would’ve given it, say, I don’t know, 10 years ago, 20 years ago? Take your pick.
Jeff Paniati (13:41):
Hindsight is so 2020, you know. They certainly wouldn’t give us an A by any means. I think we’re doing better understanding that we really need to engage and listen to the members of the community about what they want from their transportation system to further the larger goals of the community. So from a community perspective, transportation is an enabler, it’s not an end. And I think those of us in the profession often get focused on the transportation as the end, right? The transportation is meant to provide quality of life within the community to support economic growth, to allow people to get to where they want to go on a daily basis and to jobs and to soccer games and to all the things that are, you know, fabric and part of life. Football games certainly in Texas. And so when we talk about engaging with the community, again, I think we’re doing better than we were. You know, one of the programs in the IIJA is a reconnecting communities program that is meant to begin to address some of the issues that occurred when the Interstate System in particular was built through urban areas and divided communities and largely went through um, black and lower-income communities and and devastated some of those and separated them.
Bernie Fette (15:11):
Yeah, we talked a little about that with Beverly the last time that she was on the program.
Jeff Paniati (15:15):
Okay. Yeah. The idea behind this program now and the dollars flowing through that program are to fix that. So when I say 2020, if I look back to that era, we did a lot of great things in building the Interstate System. We wouldn’t have the country we have today without it, but we made some mistakes too. We built those highways where we built them and how we built them and you know, hopefully going forward now we’re gonna, can’t really totally fix the mistake I guess. But hopefully we can do some things to try to address some of the impacts that they had and the, and the damage that was created.
Bernie Fette (15:53):
And learn from your experience, which you’ve talked before about learning and Beverly has talked before about the learning that she and others in your profession hope to instill in the people who are just coming into the profession now.
Beverly Kuhn (16:07):
And one thing I would like to add that probably is a positive that came out of the pandemic is that our local communities had to rethink how they went about public engagement. It had to become something other than a face-to-face meeting with storyboards at a time that was convenient for not everybody in the community. That being said, I think what it also introduced to our colleagues is that you have to have that broad brush and that broad look at community engagement and the different voices that are gonna be impacted by our transportation projects. And not to come at it from a position of, to put it bluntly, arrogance that we’re the engineers. We’re the professionals. We know what’s best for the community. And as Jeff said, we need to listen more than we need to speak. I think the pandemic helped sort of reframe that conversation when it comes to getting in front of the public and finding out what really resonates with them.
Beverly Kuhn (17:09):
And it also brought to light different challenges that people had, mobility and quality of life. And it gave us an opportunity to sort of reexamine where we’re headed with transportation. And I really like what Jeff said, it’s an enabler. It’s not the end product. It, it enables all of us to live our lives and we don’t want it to have a negative impact moving forward. And I think the next generation of professionals coming into our industry are more cognizant of that than previous generations. They really have a different view of what transportation is and what it can be. And I think it’s very exciting for them. It’s a great time for them to see there’s a different way to do transportation and there’s a lot of excitement and energy and creative ideas that can make what we’re doing better moving forward.
Jeff Paniati (18:12):
Bernie, I might just mention ahead, you know, initiative that it just kicked off on November 1st was an effort to bring more transportation planners into our organization. So today, you know, we have nearly 17,000 members and about a thousand of those are transportation planners, either by education or by practice. I think the work that they do and you know, when we’re talking about engaging with communities, we recognize that, you know, often the transportation planner is the individual who is at the first stage trying to think about the transportation needs and where we’re going with transportation in that community. And, and the engineer often comes along and has to implement the project and that we feel like our profession will be better served and ITE will be better served if we can bring planners and engineers closer together under our umbrella of ITE and that community of transportation professionals we’re looking to build. So we are just rolling out a, a new initiative to bring more transportation planners into ITE and to create more resources and more conversations around the linkage between planning and engineering and how the two can work hand in hand to better serve our communities.
Bernie Fette (19:29):
And you mentioned that that would better serve both the organization and its members and if both of those groups are better served, then theoretically society would be better served as well, right?
Jeff Paniati (19:40):
Absolutely. Like I said, that’s the end goal to you know, bring transportation to communities in the way that they want it, in the way that it can best support their community goals. And as the broad community of transportation professionals, the more we can all be working together. It’s not just planners and engineers, it’s policy makers, it’s technologists, it’s academics, it’s, you know, the whole community is how we get to great communities and to good solutions for those communities. And so the more we can bring all of those players together, I think the better we can meet the needs of the public that we all serve.
Bernie Fette (20:19):
So what I think I’ve heard you both say is that there are some areas where you’re proud of the performance that you’ve had and some areas where you can see some room for improvement.
Jeff Paniati (20:28):
Beverly Kuhn (20:28):
Bernie Fette (20:28):
Okay. So let me go back to the earlier question. What grade would you give yourselves?
Jeff Paniati (20:35):
Bernie Fette (20:37):
A-minus from Jeff? What about you Beverly?
Jeff Paniati (20:38):
Beverly Kuhn (20:40):
I would say probably a B.
Bernie Fette (20:41):
Then let me ask, we’ve been talking about the society. Do you think that society would grade you on the same level or do you think they’d be a little more harsh or do you think they’d be a little more generous just based on the perspective that you both have observing public opinion?
Jeff Paniati (20:59):
I think they’d be harsher. You know, I think it’s just human nature. What people identify are the things that aren’t working or don’t work as well as they would like. Not all the things that they sort of take for granted and you know, the ability to drive hundreds of miles unimpeded or travel safely on transit across the city or whatever, I think people sort of come to expect that, but when they hit that congestion or the headways on the transit system aren’t at the level that they would like or there’s a pothole or the lane is closed for construction and it creates a queue and a backup, those are the things I’m afraid the public remembers and that is, you know, how they would grade us.
Bernie Fette (21:49):
Yeah and I think that again, this is another part of the conversation that we had a little over a year ago. When most things are going well, it’s easier to notice when they don’t.
Beverly Kuhn (21:59):
Absolutely. And it all comes down to reliability. Travelers want a reliable system, whatever it is, whether it’s sidewalks, or their freeways, their surface streets, the intersections, the signals, the transit and they won’t remember the 29 days where it went smoothly. They’ll remember the one day where they were stuck in traffic for three hours. Yeah. Because there was a work zone they weren’t aware of or the bus broke down and they had to take an alternate route. So I think those are the things we try to minimize — the disruption, and we don’t always get it right sometimes. There’s so many things that are outside of our control. So it comes down to making sure that they know we’re doing as much as we can and doing the best job that we can. And some of it comes down to public awareness. I think the general public doesn’t necessarily understand everything that we do and all the pieces that have to fall into place for things to run smoothly. And we just are used to going about doing our jobs and not necessarily communicating with the public about all the good things we do. And so, you know, some of it comes down to just public awareness and helping them, kind of going back to the conversation we just had about public engagement, bringing them into the conversation so that we’re all part of the solution and we’re not out there trying to do everything ourselves, that the public has expectations and let’s do what we can to help meet those expectations.
Bernie Fette (23:31):
Okay. Let’s talk just a minute or two about what you’d like to see going forward. How would you like to see the next five years unfold for the profession and for our transportation existence?
Jeff Paniati (23:43):
I think first we have to, to do an exceptional job with what we’ve been given, which is what we talked about earlier, which is IIJA and BIL. You know, I mentioned it was a historic amount of resources, some really unique programs. I think history will judge us hard if we don’t come through this five-year period having made a significant difference in the quality of transportation all across the country. Doesn’t mean we’re gonna solve every problem, every issue. So don’t get me wrong, it’s still not enough money to address all of the things that need to be done, but it’s a lot. And I think most importantly, we need to make sure that we’re doing all we can to see that those funds are put to work quickly and in the right places and achieve the right outcomes from those investments.
Beverly Kuhn (24:36):
And I would like to see how we can leverage those resources to not only address the elephant in the room, which is the transportation safety problem we are facing in this country, which is horrific, but start to move the needle on thinking about mobility that’s not just car-centric. So even smaller communities can leverage those resources to rethink how they provide mobility to their citizens. Acknowledging that not everybody wants to own a vehicle or can own a vehicle. And how do we make sure that that doesn’t negatively impact their ability to have a quality of life that they would like and which they deserve. So I think mm-hmm <affirmative>, we don’t need to always think that’s only possible in the big city that that can be a reality in smaller communities as well. I mean, Bernie, we live in a college town or I live in the college town. You live in Austin, which is a different kind of college town. Right. Right. But I think that, I mean, personal mobility is a challenge in College Station. If you’re not a college student, if you don’t own own a vehicle. Transit is limited for the non-university community. And so it’s a struggle and how do we start to fill that gap so that it doesn’t become such a challenge for people to try to get to work and to the, the grocery store and the doctor and all those trips that they need to take if they don’t own a vehicle. It’s very difficult.
Bernie Fette (26:09):
Right. And a lot of what you’re talking about involves answering a, a great many questions and I think Jeff, what you had said earlier, we don’t know it all I think were your words, which is an important and a bit of a humble admission.
Jeff Paniati (26:23):
Yeah, I mean I, I, I think you know, that’s the reality. We know a lot in the United States and we’ve learned a lot over the years. I, Texas A&M and Texas A&M Transportation Institute have been one of the leading sources of knowledge I think for us in the transportation profession. But as we both said earlier, there are other countries and other experts and other sources of knowledge that we need to make sure we’re tapping into as well. Another area that I think in the next five years we really have to sort out is the area of technology, connected and automated vehicles, and what role are they really gonna play. You know what I’ve heard quote something along the lines of, automated vehicles have been five years away for the last 10 years. Yeah. Um, and they’re still five years away. And I think what we’ve learned over the last 10 years or so, how hard it is to get to a truly driverless vehicle. And yet there’s still a lot of hope that connected automated vehicles can really help us drive down the crash rates and fatalities and that they might be able to address some of our congestion issues and that they could offer mobility services to elderly and disabled and others who can’t drive or have a difficulty in getting to healthcare appointments or getting to places they need to go. There’s so much potential and promise and yet we’re not quite there yet. And I’m, I’m hopeful in this next five years we really will see some of that promise realized and understand better maybe where the technology’s gonna help us and where it just is not gonna be able to.
Bernie Fette (28:05):
We’ve really covered a lot and I appreciate how we’ve been able to do that. But what have I not asked you both about that you would’ve wanted me to ask you about? This is your opening for any closing thoughts that you might have before we wrap up.
Jeff Paniati (28:19):
Well, I would say it’s a, it’s an exciting time to be in the transportation profession. There’s so much opportunity. We’ve talked about the resources, but there’s so much need as well. And there’s great opportunity for young people who are just maybe in elementary school or middle school or high school and thinking about what they wanna do with their lives or those that are at university. You know, one of the things I don’t know that I mentioned earlier is we have 150 student chapters of ITE across the U.S. And around the world. And they’re a great place to bring that next generation forward and the folks hopefully that are gonna be able to solve some of these vexing problems that we have. So I think it’s an exciting time and we need to do everything we can to encourage young people to consider transportation as a career. When we were talking earlier about our all-female executive committee, I hope that it can send a message to young girls and young women, cuz we need more young girls and young women to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math in the STEM profession. We don’t have enough people in the pipeline period. And as much progress as we’ve made over the years, we’re still underrepresented in young women in STEM careers. So I hope those are opportunities and I hope it can be part of, and it is trying to certainly be part of fostering more young people coming into our profession and into the transportation workforce.
Beverly Kuhn (29:59):
And I would add to that, that when people think about ITE, they think about engineers that we’re all a bunch of engineers and that the only people in the transportation industry are engineers, but it’s patently not true. I mean we all work with data scientists and data analysts and human factors experts, and yes there are engineers and environmentalists. It’s a broad group of people that make our transportation system work. And so we need to be out there sharing that message with the young people, as Jeff said, starting out in elementary school to talk about all the exciting things and the possibilities there are in our profession. And you don’t have to go get an engineering degree to do it. That STEM is a broad area. There’s lots of opportunities. You know, I could probably guarantee you whatever area of STEM field you’re interested in, there’s a place for you in our transportation industry and that we can be a home for you and you can feel like you’re making a difference in your life and in your communities and in your neighborhoods. Cuz I think the next generation really wants to make a difference and we can show them a way where they can affect everybody’s lives by being part of the transportation profession.
Bernie Fette (31:19):
We’ve been visiting with Beverly Kuhn, senior research engineer, and soon to be immediate past president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and Jeff Paniati, chief executive officer of ITE. Jeff, Beverly — thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your ambitions with us. Thank you. We appreciate it.
Beverly Kuhn (31:43):
You’re welcome. It was a pleasure.
Jeff Paniati (31:45):
Thank you, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (31:47):
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about our daily existence, even as shifts in other corners of society were already underway. One thing that hasn’t changed at all, though, is how much we depend on our transportation experience for most everything we buy and everything we do. Transportation professionals, and the association to which they belong, remain committed to making that experience as safe, efficient, and economical as possible. Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll listen again next time when we visit with Melissa Finley and hear about wrong-way driving and the newest ways to combat a crash trend that’s somewhat rare, but almost always deadly. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University system. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.