ESG, People Spotlight, Sustainable Legacies, Transportation

Our People Spotlight series gives you an inside look at our technical experts around the world. This week, we are highlighting a vice president and transit and rail planning leader from our Transportation business line in the U.S. East and LATAM regions and providing an insight into her inspiration and work.

Based in our Manchester, New Hampshire office, Jill is the national coordinator of rural and human services transportation planning studies. She is also the transit and rail planning lead for New England. She specializes in transportation studies for rural, tribal and small urban communities. These studies are aimed at creating the equitable and sustainable transportation system needed to connect people to opportunities. Jill is a team builder who regularly collaborates with transportation planners and designers across the country, identifying best practices and lessons learned, covering all transportation modes and focusing coordination for the betterment of communities.

Tell us about what inspired you to join the industry.

I started college as an engineering major, but after realizing I don’t think like an engineer, I switched to geography with an interest in planning and the transportation field. After finishing my master’s program, I saw a job advertisement for the role of a transit planner, and being from a small town myself, it struck a chord — I understood how valuable buses and trains are to communities that may lack access to reliable and efficient public transportation.

After learning a bit more about transit planning through the interview process, I thought to myself, “now this is how I think.” As a planner, I’m making sure every voice is heard. I’m addressing public concerns and tackling challenges in advance of design and implementation. 22 years later, I’m still thinking about ways to help expand mobility for people.

What is your favorite AECOM project that you’ve worked on and why?

My favorite is an expansive project we completed for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), in which we developed five-year transit system plans for 13 separate rural transit agencies across the state.

We worked with a range of communities — small cities, suburban areas and bedroom communities outside Minneapolis–Saint Paul — but for the most part we helped rural towns. In many cases the transit agencies were run by a single person — the same individual was driving the bus, taking calls to request service, and administering all the reporting. We were able to help these agencies take a step back and revise their services to better address their communities’ transportation needs.

Now, a couple of years later, we’re helping one of the communities we supported with a five-year transit system plan to site and build a transit facility that will enable the community to expand its service. Being able to help implement this final recommendation from our plan is extremely rewarding. With the implementation of these plans and recommendations, more people now have access to transportation services in this region and that’s exciting.

In other parts of the country, we have developed public transit-human services transportation plans that consider the needs of individuals with disabilities, older adults and people with low incomes. Outcomes include more frequent service between the most common destinations, continuation of routes that were slated for cancellation by other operators, replacement of aging buses and upgrades to software to make it easier for individuals to schedule their requests for transportation services.

Tell us a story of how your work positively impacted the community.

As part of the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program, we’re helping increase safe bicycling and walking to and from schools for primary and middle school students. Our Travel Demand Management (TDM) team administers SRTS programs on behalf of many states across the country, providing outreach to stakeholders and educating the public. Our TDM team develops and implements strategies for SRTS that influence travel behavior change so people can get where they need to go with less cost and less impact on the environment, including ridesharing, bicycling and transit. In Massachusetts, our SRTS work combines TDM and education with infrastructure design under one umbrella.

During my tenure leading the Massachusetts DOT (MassDOT) SRTS infrastructure program, we’ve helped 21 schools develop conceptual designs for safety and access improvement projects. Our engineers, planners and designers met with community members and town engineers to see the dangers and obstacles students face firsthand where there aren’t seamless connections for walkers and bikers.

Examples of our solutions include adding infrastructure like sidewalks, crosswalks and bus stops for public transit. We’ve also worked with communities to reduce the number of personal vehicles driving near schools and reroute parent drop-offs to improve safety for walkers and bikers.

Where the right-of-way was wide enough, we’ve routed sidewalks and multi-use paths to go behind bus stops rather than in front of bus stops, so they’re not conflicting with adults trying to board a bus. We’re using an equity lens to evaluate, select and implement SRTS projects throughout the Commonwealth. With many projects in the final stages of design and construction, we’re seeing positive community impacts at the “street level.”

Share a piece of career advice.

Raise your hand and say “yes!” Early in my career, I signed up to survey 6,000 bus stops in six months. It wound up being one of those formative work experiences. At age 23, I learned how to manage a team on the job and figured out how to complete the work efficiently. It being the early 90s, our toolkit included rolling measure wheels, PDAs, cameras and protractors instead of cell phones. This assignment was a springboard to other assignments, and my career has continued to evolve in this way — by saying “yes.”

If you raise your hand, you’ll be given opportunities to meet all kinds of interesting people, understand their needs and help solve their challenges or reduce their burdens in some way. This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in solving every type of challenge. Focus on understanding the needs of communities and clients and then tap into the resources we have at AECOM to provide solutions.

Originally published May 17, 2023

Author: Jill Cahoon