Making a Difference
From proposing a new freeway to purchasing a new fleet of fuel-efficient city busses, each transportation project is a complex web made up of different groups of people with different interests. Each decision can have a significant impact on the environment and the community that the project serves. That’s why transportation planners like Tamara Cook must carry out a delicate balancing act of negotiating, communicating, and coordinating with the public and with companies or government agencies. The goal is to ensure that all projects meet the needs of transportation users and stay within budget, while still being environmentally friendly.
“Bringing lots of different people together with lots of different interests is not always easy, but in the end everyone can share their ideas and be part of the conversation,” Cook said. “Nine times out of ten you can come up with a win-win solution that everyone will be satisfied with.”
Cook is a principal transportation planner at the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG).
The council is a regional planning agency for 16 counties and more than 200 local governments, including the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. NCTOG also serves as the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) which coordinates transportation infrastructure planning for a 12-county metropolitan planning area. The MPO's role is to work with local governments, departments of transportation, transit agencies, bicycle and pedestrian interest groups, environmental resource agencies, and many other organizations to generate ideas, projects, and policies that will help improve the region’s transportation network.
Cook has an undergraduate degree in environmental science from Texas Christian University, and she also received two master’s degrees, one in environmental science and another in city and regional planning, from the University of Texas at Arlington. Environmental science is "a very broad field that covers many different aspects of science,” Cook said, including geology, physics, chemistry, and biology. This gave her a strong foundation in critical thinking, math, and science skills that she applies every day in her transportation planning job.
For the past 18 months, Cook has been managing a project called Planning for Livable Military Communities. The council is working with multiple communities located around a naval air station in Fort Worth to improve several factors that influence the quality of life there, including land use, economic development, and housing. The project will also improve transportation access by bringing bicycle, pedestrian, and public transportation options to the area. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.
The transportation field is constantly evolving because of changes in society and advances in technology, Cook said. The field will change significantly in the next 20 or 30 years as people’s travel habits change, along with their demands for different transportation options. Another major trend is the increasing amount of data now available to planners thanks to improvements in computing, satellite imagery, and GPS technology. For example, mapping and data analysis tools called graphic information systems (GIS) help transportation planners make better decisions by integrating a variety of data into maps.
“The amount of data that is potentially available is really mind boggling, and this could really change the playing field for the future of transportation in terms of how we make decisions,” Cook said. “Having these tools available to us really is exciting, and they’re only going to continue to improve over time.”
If you have an interest in science, government, or even just like to negotiate and work with groups of people, transportation planning is definitely a career worth exploring. For more information, you can start by visiting the North Central Texas Council of Governments website. Also, see the FHWA’s Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty page for more information.