SCJ Transportation Planner Gathers Experts in D.C., Asking Tough Questions about the Future

The week before America’s transfer of presidential power, a group of transportation experts from around the country met in Washington, D.C. for a discussion titled, “Embracing Uncertainty: What We Don’t Know About the Future Matters.”

The standing-room-only session, planned months before election results were in, was part of the 96th annual Transportation Research Board conference held January 8-12. SCJ Transportation Planning Manager Thera Black presided.

“What happens when the future is different than planned?” the conference program prompted. “What signs should we look for?”

Though the theme was broad and timelier than expected, the focus remained sharp. “Four of America’s foremost thinkers on the changing nature of transportation challenge us to think differently about the future of travel, why it matters, and ways to embrace that uncertainty in our planning processes,” the program read.

“Is 20-year planning feasible?” Thera asked, noting current law requires that kind of thinking. “Change is happening more quickly than that. So, using resources to produce plans with variables we know we can’t predict can be wasteful.”

Thera has decades of experience not just as a planner, but specifically with the national Transportation Research Board, having been asked to speak as early as the 1990s.

“That first year at TRB blew my mind,” she said. “I had no idea the caliber of people who came together to work on these issues that were so close to my heart. I’ve been very active with the organization since 2003.”

Her work with the organization includes research, speaking, leading committees and creating subcommittees. “I am constantly amazed that I get to help shape policy at a national level,” she said.

This year, she presided over two sessions. One on veteran’s mobility and this one on scenario planning and the future of transportation.

“The panel was remarkable,” she said. “I was almost star-struck.”

Those speaking with her (from left) included Andy Salzberg, Uber’s Transportation and Mobility Policy Manager and Global Mobility Policy lead; Chris Gertes, USDOT Chief Innovation Officer, on leave from Stanford; Johanna Zmud, Senior Researcher at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) working on autonomous vehicle deployment and impacts on travel behavior; and Greg Larsen, Chief of the Office of Traffic Operations Research for CalTrans.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Thera said, “and that’s what we gathered to discuss: how to plan ahead when you just don’t know. I am always humbled to have these talks with the top-tier folks in the industry.”

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