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Transportation generation

Program prepares students for change

Fall/Winter 2013 | By Amanda Lucas

As vehicles in America evolved from Ford’s durable Model T to its powerful F-150, so too did the transportation profession. A field once dominated by civil engineers has broadened, inviting experts from all disciplines to join a conversation around new ideals in transportation.  

The Transportation Management and Policy program at UW-Madison, founded in 2002 in the Nelson Institute, is helping to shape some of the brightest minds at the table. The program trains graduate students to design and manage socially and environmentally responsible transportation systems.  

According to Teresa Adams, the program’s founder and chair and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and environmental studies, America’s early transportation system provided greater mobility and access to resources, but at a cost: Its quick growth neglected the dynamics of communities and the environmental impacts of an automobile-centered system.  

The advent of the automobile grew the economy and increased the productivity of the nation, thrusting it onto the global stage as an economic power. Rapid growth in personal mobility also created a country without boundaries.  

bike car and plane

But after more than a century spent building this infrastructure, the national highway system is now largely complete. Transportation agencies have moved to the task of elongating the life of the system while improving people’s quality of life.  

“The more modern approach to transportation in the last several decades has been to really understand its role in communities and its impact on quality of life, not just on the economic security of the nation,” says Adams.  

Along with this transition of priorities, professional skill sets have also had to change. A broad range of expertise is required for social and environmental assessments.  

UW-Madison is one of a select few campuses that offers a graduate certificate specific to transportation management. The certificate, which is open to graduate students in any field, is designed to prepare students for professional work by bringing together a variety of disciplines. The Transportation Management and Policy program has a remarkable track record of placing its graduates in professional positions.  

Greg Waidley, the program coordinator and a research manager in the College of Engineering, says the interdisciplinary nature of the certificate is vital to its success in preparing students so well for their careers.

“We bring together varied backgrounds with an interest in transportation, so students start to get a broader understanding of transportation issues,” Waidley says. “In the process, the most important thing is they learn how to speak the language of the different disciplines.“  

The program encourages students to push the boundaries of their expertise and to try to visualize problems in new ways. Engineers may begin to consider the issue-based concerns that environmentalists face, while environmentalists begin to understand the technicalities of engineering.  

According to Waidley, certificate holders graduate from the program able to communicate across disciplines – a critical attribute as future professionals. A classroom filled with students from different disciplines closely mirrors the dynamics of a professional workplace, he explains.  

Over the past ten years, about 40 students have graduated from the program, each of them moving on to a unique field in the transportation sector. From the federal government to regional agencies to private industry, students enter the workforce well-equipped with broad backgrounds and education.  

Two core courses within the program are particular favorites among both faculty and students for their relation to real-world needs. These classes – a colloquium and practicum – demonstrate to students what work is like in the transportation sector, and give them an opportunity to practice for themselves.  

“These courses are always different,” Adams says. “They evolve with what’s relevant in the world.”  

The colloquium course acts as a focused speaker series, drawing students’ attention to the issues and responsibilities of different areas within the transportation sector and the interconnectedness of freight transportation. In the practicum, however, students assume the role of a consultant and work to solve an actual problem for a client in the industry.  

“The students not only develop an understanding of the backgrounds that go into transportation, but they’re also developing an interest in freight issues and how that that impacts so many different parts of our society and our economy,” Waidley says. "They’re starting to get a broader understanding of how the whole system works.”  

TMP colloquium: Students play decision maker on high-speed rail

A victory, a tragedy or something in between? 

When Wisconsin governor-elect Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal funding for high-speed rail in 2010, emotions were high on all sides of the issue. The decision and surrounding debate provided the perfect springboard for the Transportation Management and Policy (TMP) graduate colloquium at uW-Madison. 

Centered around a timely, topical issue, the one-credit course allows students of various disciplines to display the knowledge and real-world skills they’ve gained through the TMP curriculum. Students imagine themselves as decision-makers within the transportation sector, addressing challenges typical of the field. 

In the spring 2013 semester, students split into two groups to research Governor Walker’s decision and present their findings to faculty, staff and students in a town hall format. 

Students representing Walker’s view calculated a cost of $7.5 million per year for system maintenance and operation. With the train averaging 60 miles per hour, the students argued that the line between Madison and Milwaukee would only slightly, if at all, cut travel time and cost for commuters. And outdated local public transit in city centers would further deter passengers from utilizing the train, as they could not easily travel upon reaching their destinations, students said. 

Students also used the proposed train route to steer the debate toward negative environmental consequences: cutting across a portion of the state with particularly fertile and rare soil, the plan could eliminate valuable natural resources and fragment farmland. 

Those students tasked with presenting arguments opposed to Walker’s decision said the train would keep the state economically competitive by including citizens in a regional transportation system connecting Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis. The students then turned to the job market, arguing that the rail construction would bring to Wisconsin anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 jobs over a five-year period. By sharing the railway with freight transportation, a high-speed rail would also increase sales and industries in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, these students argued. 

Finally, students highlighted the importance of rail travel for younger populations who statistically drive much less than older generations, seeking out alternative, environmentally friendly forms of transportation. 

To see video of the students’ presentations and read their full reports, visit: 


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