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Thread: Transportation consulting firms

  1. #1
    Cyburbian ChevyChaseDC's avatar
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    Transportation consulting firms

    Are all transportation planning firms alike? Is there such a thing as a transportation consulting firm that has a progressive philosophy in the kinds of projects it takes on, assuming advocacy roles for their clients (who would presumably be mostly public sector entities engaging in good planning)? Or do most of them take on opportunities with an entrepreneurial zeal for growing their business whether it's a light rail corridor study for a local government or a traffic impact analysis for a big-box chain store? Please feel free to name names...

    [Note: I suppose this should be in the 'Career Advice' forum. Apologies -CCDC]
    Last edited by ChevyChaseDC; 07 Feb 2006 at 2:34 PM.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Big Difference

    I think there is a big difference between transportation planning firms. Some are indeed more "progressive" and some are simply money hungry. Of course, at the end of the day, they are all consultants and will do what a paying client wants What differentiates them is how much money they expect to make and how they react when a project goes over budget or is more complex than originally imagined.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    I enjoy Cyburbia since I see so much from the public side of the fence.

    I've only seen two, my current firm and a previous one. I would suggest looking for firms that do a balanced business between public and private clients. In my current firm, I do most of my work for private clients as part of land development projects. But the transportation department I am a part of does alot of work directly for municipalities and DOTs, either for planning, design, or operational projects. So there is pressure to keep to the straight and narrow so we are seen as subject-matter experts rather than a developer's tool. The good relationships with the agencies also benefit my private practice, in easier access to decision-makers, calm negotiations, etc.

    There are firms that do just public projects. I prefer the short quick projects so I naturally gravitate towards the private side. Private work is rarely what I define as "transportation planning" (master plans and the like), except the odd private university, corporation, or hopsital campus.

    I would also recommend looking at a larger firm, in my limited experience they would seem to take a longer view of their reputation and relationships. The small firms may not have the operating reserves to be able to decline uninspiring work while waiting for something special.

    {philosophical wandering}
    Of course, at the end of the day, they are all consultants and will do what a paying client wants
    Well, within the bounds of reason, public safety, ethics, and the interests of not pissing off any agencies. Client's needs come after that, anyone with a brain won't sacrifice their reputation for one project, from whatever client. I have turned down projects with known-sketchy developers, and told others to find new consultants when they proposed something crazy. With enough experience and body of work you can show them examples of previous crazy ideas, and the good outcomes if the developer changes his plan, or bad ones if he doesn't.

    It's interesting you use "assuming advocacy roles for their clients", that's pretty much where I see my role, helping developers do the best project on their land. Sometimes the help is correcting their architect's odd ideas about traffic and pedestrians, sometimes it is negotiating with the city. Hopefully when I get to them early enough I can try to shape their vision of the whole project. But in the end it is their land and they should be able to do what they want within the bounds of ethics and public safety. Where there is technical procedures to be done I follow them precisely and use my best engineering judgement on grey areas. Where there are value judgements on quality of life etc, I am more free to act as an advocate for the client. Just like a court of law, the development process has two or more sides, experts on both sides, and the rules to be followed and interpreted. Everybody goes out and has a beer afterwards.
    {/woolgathering}

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ChevyChaseDC
    Is there such a thing as a transportation consulting firm that has a progressive philosophy in the kinds of projects it takes on, assuming advocacy roles for their clients (who would presumably be mostly public sector entities engaging in good planning)?
    You know, I am not quite sure what you mean by that. I am hoping you could elaborate a tad.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    no, they are not all alike. Some are called Parsons, others are called Parsons-Brinkerhoff.. see the difference?
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  6. #6
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    I interviewed with a transportation planning firm in Boston that refuses to do TIAs for suburban sprawl development. They are very much focused on urban redevelopment projects and alternative modes of transportation. They have an office in Boston and New York.

    In general, I think many firms are too heavy on engineers and too light on planners and landscape architects. Firms like this will try to talk the talk, but often can't walk the walk.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian ChevyChaseDC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    You know, I am not quite sure what you mean by that. I am hoping you could elaborate a tad.
    What I mean is that I'm looking for a gig at a private consulting firm, but one that is selective in the kind of projects they take on - only those that mesh with a philosophy of regionalism, transportation choice, environmental sustainability, and urban investment and re-vitalization. I didn't enter this field to do traffic impact analyses for sprawling development... I

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ChevyChaseDC
    What I mean is that I'm looking for a gig at a private consulting firm, but one that is selective in the kind of projects they take on - only those that mesh with a philosophy of regionalism, transportation choice, environmental sustainability, and urban investment and re-vitalization. I didn't enter this field to do traffic impact analyses for sprawling development... I
    Not meaning to be difficult -- I am interested in this conversation because I have fantasies that your description will some day fit a business owned by me -- but I have a few difficulties with it:

    First, everyone's gotta eat. If no one will hire a firm to do that kind of work (or if there are few opportunities to do so), then firms may have no choice but to try to find enough work that pays and hope that some of it can be a vehicle for doing those types of projects. It reminds me of, oh, clothing stores where everyone comes in and oohs and aahs over the sparkly super-beautiful thing in the window and then they buy some conservative, practical version that can actually be worn in their day-to-day life.

    Second, if there aren't regional entities to do projects for, then regionalism is hard to plan for. If most places only have authority over a city or county or similar unit, then how can you do a regional plan? I participated in some regional Smart Growth workshops and I am very drawn to the idea of doing things on a regional scale. But when I look at job openings (as one example), most of them are at cities, counties and similar sized units of authority. I see few regional entities of any type -- and it seems to me it is not just because a region would incoporate many cities and several counties.

    I probably have some other nit-picky questions -- NOT intended at all to bust your chops but, insead, in hopes of getting a meatier discussion going?

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ChevyChaseDC
    What I mean is that I'm looking for a gig at a private consulting firm, but one that is selective in the kind of projects they take on - only those that mesh with a philosophy of regionalism, transportation choice, environmental sustainability, and urban investment and re-vitalization. I didn't enter this field to do traffic impact analyses for sprawling development... I
    Options:
    1. Put out your own shingle (hard).
    2. Pound the bricks to find a firm that meet your goals (probably somewhere, but where?)
    3. Combine the two by joining an existing firm and building your own niche inside it. Some firms have very strong entreprenurial structures, where you can join up and do what you want, as long as you make money. This takes care of the overhead and support services that can be such a drag. I don't know what level you are looking at, but if you have some good experience and contacts this could be very viable. It would help to have a market identified and some basic business numbers prepared, to take you from the "crank" category to the "serious business opportunity worth studying". One such national firm I am familiar with is Kimley-Horn, and I suspect there are many local examples. As an example KHA apparently has one group that does just water park design, a niche grown off a standard utilities practice.

    Cast your net wide, be prepared to move, be prepared to do some scut work if needed while working towards the goal, but there's something out there if you want it bad enough.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian ChevyChaseDC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone

    First, everyone's gotta eat.
    I understand. I'd like to think that some firms have such sterling reputations and a large enough rolodex that they are able to be selective. I don't doubt that many, if not most, are not quite so selective.

    Second, if there aren't regional entities to do projects for, then regionalism is hard to plan for.
    I don't nessarily think that regionalism has to be predicated by only doing work for entities of regional scope. Rather, I think that even small municipalities are capable of planning for their role in the larger region, rather than perceiving themselves as competing for survival against neighboring counties, municipalities, or the central city. I don't think it's a zero sum game. An example of a lack of regional thinking would be zoning for millions of square feet of commercial space in an ongoing ratables chase ("we want Wal-Mart!") in a small, semirural township on the fringe of suburbia...


    I probably have some other nit-picky questions -- NOT intended at all to bust your chops but, insead, in hopes of getting a meatier discussion going?
    By all means, ask away.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ChevyChaseDC
    I don't nessarily think that regionalism has to be predicated by only doing work for entities of regional scope. Rather, I think that even small municipalities are capable of planning for their role in the larger region, rather than perceiving themselves as competing for survival against neighboring counties, municipalities, or the central city. I don't think it's a zero sum game. An example of a lack of regional thinking would be zoning for millions of square feet of commercial space in an ongoing ratables chase ("we want Wal-Mart!") in a small, semirural township on the fringe of suburbia...
    Good, I agree. Then let me suggest that something along the lines of what Random Traffic Guy said (below) is potentially part of the solution: First, assume that wherever you go, you must bring those values with you and do what you can to promote them. Then look for a firm where your ideas can flourish. Some firms will poison such ideas and some will be thrilled to let you grow such a position/attitude/viewpoint. So "where" is important but it isn't everything.
    Quote Originally posted by Random Traffic Guy
    3. Combine the two by joining an existing firm and building your own niche inside it. Some firms have very strong entreprenurial structures, where you can join up and do what you want, as long as you make money. This takes care of the overhead and support services that can be such a drag. I don't know what level you are looking at, but if you have some good experience and contacts this could be very viable. It would help to have a market identified and some basic business numbers prepared, to take you from the "crank" category to the "serious business opportunity worth studying". One such national firm I am familiar with is Kimley-Horn, and I suspect there are many local examples. As an example KHA apparently has one group that does just water park design, a niche grown off a standard utilities practice.
    EDIT:

    This is probably not specifically transportation related but is something I happen to have bookmarked and tripped across it just now while doing something else: http://www.designcoalition.org/

  12. #12
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    I think it varies between companies and even between offices of the same company. In my company, different offices do different types of work. My office doesn't do TIAs however other offices do. It depends on what type of work is available and who works there.

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