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February 28, 2023Episode 52. Engineering a Career Path: Sometimes, a 7th grade dream can actually come true.
FEATURING: Tim Lomax
Even after wrapping up a 46-year stretch at TTI, Tim Lomax still enjoys the adrenaline rush that comes from finding new traffic challenges, and fixing them.
About Our Guest
After 46 years with TTI, Research Fellow Tim Lomax recently retired from the Institute. Over his career, Tim developed, applied and evolved a methodology to assess areawide and corridor traffic congestion levels and congestion costs. With his fellow TTI researchers, he created the standard-setting national Urban Mobility Report, which examines trends in U.S. urban area mobility, documents the effects of transportation investments, and represents those findings to a wide range of audiences, including transportation professionals, public policy decision-makers, the media and the public. More recently, he pioneered mobility solutions for large-scale special events, notably easing football gameday traffic at Texas A&M University.
Hello and welcome back. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Workers in America spend an average of about four years working for one employer before switching jobs. And then there are those who measure their time at the same workplace in decades instead of years. Our guest for this episode, Tim Lomax, is one of those who’s been in it for the long haul, sticking with TTI for more than half his life. Plenty of time to collect stories and form impressions about how roadway travel has changed since postage stamps cost less than a quarter. That’s at least part of what we can expect to hear about today as Tim retires from TTI. Tim, thanks for joining us.
Tim Lomax (guest) (01:17):
Absolutely. Appreciate the opportunity.
Bernie Fette (01:19):
So how many years?
Tim Lomax (01:22):
This is my, uh, 46th year at TTI. 48 fall semesters.
Bernie Fette (01:29):
Tim Lomax (01:30):
Including my, uh, undergrad.
Bernie Fette (01:32):
Just for a point of reference, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 46 years is more than 10 times the average job tenure today.
Tim Lomax (01:43):
I have not been able to get a real job in all those years. And, so.
Bernie Fette (01:47):
Okay. Well then, I’m curious about whether or not your first job at TTI is what you would call a real job. Long before the glamor and fame.
Tim Lomax (01:57):
When I was a student worker making graphs on paper.
Bernie Fette (02:00):
Right on paper. And some people I think would be interested to know if it involved a slide rule.
Tim Lomax (02:05):
<laugh>, I, I use a straight edge a lot.
Bernie Fette (02:09):
Tim Lomax (02:10):
Yeah, no slide rules. We’d, we’d moved on to calculators since then.
Bernie Fette (02:14):
I see. Okay. Well that’s, that’s another good point of reference. Okay. But seriously, actually, tell us a little bit more about it. You said making calculations on paper. What was the nature of your very first job? At TTI,
Tim Lomax (02:27):
I was a student worker making graphs for reports and for analysis. I had graph paper of all different kinds. I had data sets that I was plotting and trying to find relationships, you know, straight lines through the data. I think I did a little bit of roadway design with a lot of supervision because I was not a roadway designer at that point. I remember a lot of calculations and a lot of, uh, boxing of tables. Something you can do automatically in Word now. We actually had to take a pen and draw a box around a, a table that had been typed on the paper.
Bernie Fette (03:06):
Well, joking aside, it says a lot about how far the industry has come, how far the research world has come, too. So did that first job tell you, wow, I’m gonna spend the rest of my career and more than half of my life working at this place? Or did that first job make you wonder? What was I thinking?
Tim Lomax (03:30):
My career path is not normal in any reasonable explanation of normal. I knew I wanted to be a transportation engineer when I, in the seventh grade, I wanted to work with buses and cars and freeways. My mother, uh, when I was young told me to go play on the freeway and that’s pretty much my career inspiration. I was intrigued by what we were doing at TTI, but I had assumed that I was gonna be moving on to a big city and doing something with a street or a highway or a transit system. And towards the end of my senior year, I was looking around for a job and TTI offered me a job to work full-time and go to school part-time, get a master’s degree and eventually a PhD. Kept thinking I was gonna leave and go to a big city, but somehow never accomplished that. But that’s sort of where the career started.
Bernie Fette (04:25):
Seventh grade. What was it that came to mind at that point in your youth that prompted you in that direction?
Tim Lomax (04:33):
I lived in Houston. Houston was, uh, dramatically expanding at that point and I was intrigued by how people moved around. I was pretty good at math, so engineering was kinda something I thought I would enjoy. I didn’t really like talking to people and I knew that engineers didn’t really have to talk to people. They had to do calculations and do designs. So seemed like a, seemed like a good career path for me.
Bernie Fette (05:00):
And we can see how that particular aspiration worked out in subsequent years that we’ll talk about a little bit later. But if we fast forward to what most people associate you with, measuring traffic congestion, the Urban Mobility Report, I’m guessing you had some options on what you would want to work on. So I guess my question is why focus on that topic over others that might merit attention?
Tim Lomax (05:28):
Well, the Texas Department of Transportation came to us. They said we’d like to be able to talk to the public about the effect of this, but we don’t really have a very good measure that works for us as engineers, but also works for communication of the general population. Most of the performance measures we used back then had very technical sounding names and numbers and it was hard to relate them to anything. And so they asked us to take a look at that challenge and come up with something that they could use to talk to the public. I had access to some very limited data sets, but we came up with something that we thought would work. It sort of used the startup bad congestion as a trigger. And we had experience with Houston. Houston in 1970 was a pretty good operating roadway system. By 1980, it was one of the worst places in the country, so we knew somewhere it went from good to bad. And so we started looking at a whole bunch of data and figured out, you know, maybe mid decade was about when that was. So we went back and looked at the performance measures to see what the levels were and used those as a way to calibrate kind of the start of bad congestion (air quotes, if you will). And that became the start of this Urban Mobility Report series. We looked at the Texas cities and then we, in another contract expanded to cities in the south and the west and we kept getting questions about how do we compare with Chicago and New York and and other places that were outside those sort of suburban type designs. And eventually expanded it nationally. We kept changing the methodology and the data sets to match the available information, but that’s kinda where it started this question of what are we getting for what we’re paying?
Bernie Fette (07:25):
For somebody who got into engineering in part so he wouldn’t have to talk to people, you’ve talked to quite a few people over the years about this work in a variety of situations and venues. You’ve been on countless TV news broadcasts, newspaper articles, testified before Congress, before the Texas House and the Texas Senate, not to mention speeches to goodness knows how many industry groups — all about this work or something related to your work with mobility measurement. What do you think that all of that attention says about the subject that you were talking about?
Tim Lomax (08:04):
Obviously people care about their travel times to work. Obviously congestion existed before we started measuring it in our reports. I think the approach that we developed on the data side and that you and others on the communication side helped us put the information out. I think that is a relatively unique combination in the research world or uh, even transportation in general. I think we have together, I don’t know that pioneered is the right word, but certainly pushed the state of the practice to a place where it’s more recognized now that it’s good to do the work, but you also have to make it understandable. I think you and others, uh, but really principally you deserve a ton of credit for helping an engineer be able to talk to all those people that you just listed. Technically, I always had my mother as my target audience. If I could explain it to my mom, I felt like that’s kind of who our measures should be. I know the first couple of years of doing the mobility report, I would answer the phone call, answer the questions, and whenever the reporter said, is there anything else I should ask you? Or is there anything else you want to tell me? I would say no and hang up the phone just as fast as possible because that limited my chances of messing up <laugh>. And that was my only goal was to not mess up. You and your coaching helped me become more comfortable and understand that this is also my interview. It’s not just the person who’s interviewing me and I’ve got some information that they want and they want to convey to their readers or listeners. And it’s important that I make sure that they understand what I know to the best of my ability. And I think that’s been a huge part of what we’ve been able to do. Yes, it’s good technical information. I would put us up against anybody, but the way we communicated is also at the top of the field.
Bernie Fette (10:14):
And as you noticed, you became bilingual in the process. You learned how to speak English and engineer, right?
Tim Lomax (10:22):
<laugh>, I think the English just still needs some work, but yeah,
Bernie Fette (10:28):
A lot of the people that we’re talking about that you’ve spoken to, whether they were reporters or people in the industry, a lot of people have placed a really high value on the Urban Mobility Report. It’s regarded as a gold standard of sorts. It’s been called a definitive measure of what it measures by a lot of respected research groups and agencies around the country. But you have not been without critics along the way. And several years ago when those critics emerged and were attacking the research that you and your colleagues were doing, do you recall, what was your first reaction to the criticism and what did you take away from the experience going forward in subsequent years after that?
Tim Lomax (11:15):
Our first reaction was, what are their questions? What are their problems? Cuz I think that’s really where we start almost everything. We get a research project or a phone call or a question from somebody. It’s always first you try to understand what the issue is that they’re bringing up. And then you sort of, okay, well let’s parse that out, or let’s figure out what the details of the questions are and then let’s go back and look at what we’re doing and uh, see if the criticisms that they’re leveling see what of that we need to take back and rework or explain better or change or you know, whatever. It was particularly interesting because we had some of the same questions they did. We had been asking some of the same questions about the data, about the comparison standards we were using, and we had been changing our methods and our measures to adapt to that. So as we got into the criticism and sort of trying to figure out what we could take from it, some of it was, yes, you’re right, and I can prove that you’re right because we’ve already changed that. And so the criticism was kind of a few reports ago in general. And the ones we were working on at that point, we, we had adjusted some of our thinking. Some other thinking was more along the lines of the folks who were criticizing the report wanted us to be solutionists. They wanted us to push a particular strategy or a particular solution. And I think we had done enough research both through the literature and just talking to people watching how policies and programs evolve to know that to attack a congestion problem, you really need a whole bunch of different strategies starting off with, accept that there is gonna be some level of congestion. We’re not gonna get rid of the traffic congestion. But working through the research that we had done, it was pretty clear that a broad set of strategies was usually important. And applying them wherever they are publicly accepted and fundable is the best strategy.
Bernie Fette (13:40):
In recent years I know we have talked a little and actually joked a little about how far the work with the Urban Mobility Report has has come over the years. And in terms of trying to communicate those findings, we’ve joked about how we started off with overnight packages with Federal Express overnight packages and how we doubled our productivity from one year to the next by adding a second fax machine. <laugh>, obviously we started this before the Internet.
Tim Lomax (14:08):
A great leap forward.
Bernie Fette (14:10):
Yeah, great leap forward prior to the Internet age. But on the technical side with, if you could please speak in lay terms as much as you can, how has the Urban Mobility Report and its related research, whatever orbits around it, how has that advanced the most over the years to become the more precise and relied upon measure that it has?
Tim Lomax (14:36):
Early on we were using traffic counts and roadway capacities in a, as a fairly standard, this was a fairly standard approach, still is a well accepted industry norm. In the mid-nineties, we got a contract from the National Highway Research Program to look at how you quantify congestion and went through a bunch of different measures and data sets and came up with, you know, really what we ought to be measuring what people care about is travel time. And at that point, we didn’t really have the data that we needed to do that, but it was pretty clear that that was the right measure. And so our guidance was take the measures that we have and turn them into a travel time estimate or an extra travel time estimate, which we call travel delay. So speaking about congestion in terms of how much time is it gonna take you to get somewhere, or how much extra time are you gonna spend in traffic, or how much does that time vary from day to day, I think was a watershed moment in our work. We started to transition our information into that format, even though again, we didn’t have the data. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that we finally had the kinds of data sets that we have now. We were starting to get information from cell phones and cars and instrumented freeways, instrumented streets that could tell you actual travel times. And that’s really where we’ve tried to make the data advances in the last several years, is we have a bunch of really smart people (not me) who know how to use the data in ways that can help us tell the stories that we want to tell that are relevant to people. How much extra time do I spend on the road? What does it cost me? How much is that time gonna vary from day to day? How much time do truckers need to allow to, you know, make their shipment on time? Things like that.
Bernie Fette (17:01):
The next thing I think that naturally follows is if given the improvements that you guys were able to implement over the years with the new data sets and the new questions that arose from sponsoring agencies, where do your colleagues, as you depart, have the greatest room for improving this field of research?
Tim Lomax (17:22):
We are getting more information about sort of door-to-door or driveway-to-driveway trips now than we had in the past. A lot of our information came to us almost as pieces of road. So you get speeds along a street or a freeway and you put all those together and that tells you something about the trips along that freeway. Really what you’d like to have are information about how people and freight actually use that network. Where they get on, where they get off, uh, actual travel path that they take. A lot of this is being collected either on your phone or in your connected car. It gets anonymized and then sent to us in a data set. That is a way for us to understand what those travel paths are. I think that’s gonna give us much better insight into the actual travel times that people are facing and over time how those destinations might change. You know, during Covid, people stopped going into the office as much and there were more trips to a lot of other destinations, takeout food stores, parks, things like that. The information that we can get from the travel between the trip ends will be invaluable, not only in helping us understand the congestion problem, but also understanding how we can help agencies change the transportation network to better serve people. And those desired trips.
Bernie Fette (19:05):
Special event traffic.
Tim Lomax (19:06):
Bernie Fette (19:07):
You went from working primarily on freeway and arterial street congestion to the congestion that happens around a football stadium with a hundred thousand people in it. I know that that was another one of what I guess you might call milestones along the career path. Can you give us a quick recollection of how that came together?
Tim Lomax (19:29):
Texas A&M was hosting Alabama in a football game in 2013. This was the year after Johnny Manziel had won the Heisman. We had beaten Alabama in Alabama. They came to our place for a 2:30 game. Both teams were in the top five, it’s gonna be a huge event. So some of my colleagues and I got together and we said, you know, this is kind of a unique opportunity. We’re gonna be able to watch some really, probably pretty significant traffic. Maybe we should learn something from this. And so I rode a bicycle around on the game day and we got a bunch of good observations and some good ideas and put them together. And then we had a great team of TTI people who helped put together a plan. But then as I started trying to figure out what was going on, it was very clear that there were a lot of passionate, dedicated people on campus and in the community who could help us not only understand what that plan ought to look like, but also how to make it happen. So we got a lot of support from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, the downtown Bryan merchants, obviously all the transportation agencies. But you know, there’s uh, literally hundreds of people on campus that make a game day happen. And not just the event staff, but support staff, custodial services, all the transportation people that drive buses or stand at intersections. And I’ve, I feel really lucky to have gotten to know those people and played a small role in helping make game days better.
Bernie Fette (20:59):
And I think the experience from what I’ve heard, relates directly to the importance that you were raising earlier about knowing how to package information for a particular audience. Because goodness knows you had quite a few different audiences whenever you’re dealing with an event like that.
Tim Lomax (21:15):
Yeah, it’s a cool challenge to take the kind of pointy-headed ivory tower calculations and planning and put it into action and then be somewhere you can watch what’s happening and when your brilliant idea doesn’t work spectacularly, within 30 seconds or 45 seconds, you can change that brilliant idea to some other idea and, uh.
Bernie Fette (21:40):
Tim Lomax (21:42):
Uh, you know, we’re gonna put brilliant in air quotes, how about that?
Bernie Fette (21:45):
Yeah. Stretch that definition there.
Tim Lomax (21:47):
But, but being able to be involved and be trusted enough that people would either do what I said or say, you know, Lomax, that’s really stupid. We tried that and that doesn’t work. So you say, okay, well then let’s think for a couple seconds. Okay, how about we do this? Okay, well yeah, that sounds like it might work. Okay, well let’s do that. Who do we need to call? Who do we need to talk to? What devices do we need? You know, and, and sort of working through that second-to-second, minute-to-minute change. Again, I think the last 10 years of my career, I’ve just been in it for the adrenaline rush that I get. And that’s certainly a way to get the adrenaline flowing.
Bernie Fette (22:25):
Circling back for just a couple of minutes to that first job that we talked about. You were in graduate school, so you had a number of faculty members, perhaps other transportation experts who were in your orbit, I imagine whether you asked for their advice or whether they just gave it to you before you asked. I wonder what was the best advice that those early advisors gave you 46 years ago?
Tim Lomax (22:53):
I think the best advice I had came from my parents who basically taught me to ask questions, you know, some version of question everything, and keep asking questions to find out information. It probably drove them crazy, but I think having an encouragement of the learning process was kind of the start on my research career. And then the folks that I studied under and worked with were very supportive of that and gave me the guidance as well as the support and the sense that I should pursue information and pursue job opportunities or projects that I was interested in because that was gonna be what I would be the best at or, or be the most dedicated to. And I’ve really tried to live that out. I tell people that I think I have the best job on the planet because if I can get people to pay me to do what I wanna do, I get to do what I wanna do. I can’t imagine a better job than that. And I think if you’re, you have a college degree, you have some passionate interest in a topic and you can get to the position that I’m in, you should continue to do that. You should sort of hold yourself to that kind of standard. If you’re not doing something you enjoy and look forward to coming to work, then you know, you should either talk to your boss and see if there isn’t something, some other job or some other version of what you’re doing that would be more interesting or find another job. You know, life’s way too short to do stuff that you don’t really want to do if you have those options, I feel lucky to have had the options, but I think it’s also been, uh, a lot of encouragement to pursue what I’m interested in.
Bernie Fette (24:52):
So fair to say that you give other students today, the very same advice that you were given four and a half decades ago?
Tim Lomax (25:00):
Seems to have worked out well for me. So <laugh> keep doing it.
Bernie Fette (25:04):
Relatively timeless. Let’s wrap up with a question that you were actually referring to earlier about when that reporter asks you. “Well, is there anything else that I should be asking you?” Well, before you follow that initial instinct that you had years ago, <laugh> hang up and turn off this particular interview. I’ll just ask you, is there anything else that I should have asked you, any parting thoughts that you would like to share?
Tim Lomax (25:31):
I have been incredibly lucky to be at, uh, TTI and working with people like you and Chris and Dave Schrank, Shawn Turner, Bill Eisele, have, have made the last several years of my career really enjoyable. They’ve allowed me to kind of continue to do what I want to do. I’m very excited that Deb Albert has taken over the kind of local work and the special event transportation stuff that I have been doing. But I’ve worked with so many great people at TTI and the sponsors, the folks that have asked us interesting questions and trusted our judgment. Again, I can’t imagine a better job. I think if there’s one piece of advice that I’ve given people is to be active in looking for solutions, and that sort of goes for research reports, but also if you’re standing in a street directing traffic and the traffic isn’t going the way you think it ought to go, change it. You know, be aggressive with our knowledge, with our deployment of our information. Make sure that you package the information in a way the audience can understand it, but be persistent and consistent about making that case, because I think there’s a lot of transportation people that have information that the public is really interested in. We just gotta make sure that we put it in a form where they can consider it and, you know, make, uh, informed choices. I think that’s really the best outcome of our research is that we inform the choices that people make.
Bernie Fette (27:07):
Tim Lomax (27:09):
I’m still looking for opportunities to get involved in the special event transportation, transportation operations. I enjoy the adrenaline of fixing traffic in a very real sense, both the planning and the, uh, day-to-day operation of a football game or a basketball game or a auto race or whatever. I really enjoy that, but I’m also gonna spend a lot more time with my grandkids. The last several years we’ve been able to spend more time with them and probably, uh, go watch a lot more baseball, soccer games and gymnastics and volleyball games.
Bernie Fette (27:49):
We’ve been visiting with Tim Lomax and reflecting on his 46 years of service in transportation research and leadership at TTI. Tim, thanks for sharing your memories and your insights with us, and congratulations on a stellar career, particularly that part about getting comfortable talking to people when that was one of the things that you had as a career goal to avoid all these years. So congratulations again on a, on a really outstanding career.
Tim Lomax (28:19):
Thank you very much, and I, I really do appreciate you personally, your help in getting me to the point where I can, as the, the joke goes about, the introverted engineer talks to his shoes. The extroverted engineer talks to your shoes. That’s where I feel like I’m at. I can talk to people’s shoes now.
Bernie Fette (28:37):
We are happy to be of service. Thank you again.
Tim Lomax (28:40):
Thank you very much.
Bernie Fette (28:43):
Lots of us in younger years may have had visions of what we wanted to be when we grew up. But a much smaller number actually realized those aspirations. Of course, it does help to have a little direction from your family, like when your mother tells you to go out and play on a freeway. Sometimes, that kind of guidance can inspire a 46-year career, along with an example for countless young professionals to follow. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode. And please join us next time for a conversation with Dug Begley. Dug is the transportation writer for the Houston Chronicle, asking questions and telling stories daily at a time when both transportation and the newspaper industry are navigating historic changes. 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.