U.S. transit is facing a crossroads, and Sharmila Mukherjee is one of the voices shaping the future of public transportation.
“Transit projects viscerally touch peoples’ lives and make them better,” Mukherjee said. “Very few services—other than perhaps medicine—have the same level of perceptible difference that transit brings to our lives. As we get more urbanized, good transit will impact even more lives.”
Mukherjee is a senior planning manager for WSP USA, serving as a planning and environment manager for transportation projects in the San Francisco Bay Area/Northern California region. She was the environmental lead for the core capacity environmental review for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and is now part of the project management team for BART’s Silicon Valley extension, providing program planning and station area planning.
Since 2016, she has served as an environmental reviewer for the California High-Speed Rail project. She was also the pursuit manager for the new on-call planning services contract with Sacramento Regional Transit, and will soon serve as its project manager. “This is an exciting opportunity, as our contract expands our planning reach beyond mega-transit projects and further balances our overall planning portfolio,” she said.
Growing competition from emerging non-public transportation options has become a concern for many public transportation agencies.
“Transportation network companies like Lyft and Uber, as well as an influx of smartphone-based technologies, are fast outpacing traditional transit, causing ridership to drop in metro areas,” she said. “In addition, transit funding is an issue and often an impediment to improving transit.”
Fortunately, most agencies recognize the need for change, and that “business as usual” is not enough.
“Some agencies are more risk averse, while others are hungry for innovation,” she said. “It is important to understand a client’s dispositions and then figure out how best to frame the benefits to them. For example, a transportation agency struggling to meet its operational needs would desire an operations-and-maintenance savings-based approach.
“Transit agencies have an opportunity to take charge of this watershed moment to transform themselves to be nimble and demand-responsive, while still being true to needs of the transit-dependent populations.”
Mukherjee said a flexible approach to innovation is also important for consulting partners like WSP.
“Just like those transit agencies, we also need to be nimble, and not expect any one group to lead in solving these problems,” she said. “Fortunately, with our skill sets in transit, planning, policy research, new mobility, connected and automated vehicle technologies, WSP is well-positioned to help transit agencies address their changing needs.”
Recently, Mukherjee completed Leadership APTA, a year-long professional development program sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association. One of her assignments was a research project where she was part of a team that studied driving innovation. While interviewing executives from several transportation agencies and private sector partners at the forefront of innovation, she discovered that they shared some traits.
“CEOs from cutting edge-focused agencies are often the champions of embracing a culture of innovation in the workplace, where employees are empowered to explore new ideas and take risks,” she said. “It can be difficult for them to create a non-traditional environment that is able to fund and explore innovation.”
One recurring theme identified throughout their research was “Fail Fast, Fix Fast,” where employees are encouraged to seek unconventional solutions to problems and implement design changes quickly to find the best results within the constraints of a public agency, where there is often little room for mistakes.
“This was a theme we heard a few times during our research, which speaks to an increased level of trust and atmosphere of tolerance in many of transit agencies we interviewed,” Mukherjee said. “That is definitely new.”
She noted that transit innovations often start small in these agencies, building momentum and confidence to eventually take off and generate new ridership or solve a facility constraint. It’s an approach in sharp contrast to “leaps” in technological change that are more likely to grab headlines, though not necessarily solve current problems.
“They are not trying to become Elon Musk,” Mukherjee said. “It’s about improving their processes, finding an algorithm that is working, customizing it to their situation, and then accepting a certain level of failure. The key is to fix it fast and improvise, allowing employees feel that it’s OK to fail, as long as there is a solution ahead and they can recover quickly.
“Fail fast, fix fast is a thoughtful approach to small-scale, prudent innovation,” she added.
Mukherjee earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at Jadavpur University in India, and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois. Since then, she has also earned certification in traffic planning and engineering at Northwestern University.
She credited two key influences that shaped her professional trajectory and growth. Following an internship with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), she was offered a full-time job, where her supervisor was Peter Foote and department manager Darwin Stuart. “Peter threw one challenging task after another at me, while Darwin assured me that my response to these challenges indicated that I was going to do very well in the high-paced environment of consulting,” she said. “I trace my interest and entry into transportation planning back to my CTA days.”
She recalled working on the Rosa Parks Transit Center shortly after joining the Detroit office of WSP in 2000. “That project had quite an impact on me,” Mukherjee said. " It was the first transit facility project where I was involved from the planning and design stage through construction and completion.” She served as deputy project manager, as well as agreement manager for the overall contract with Detroit Department of Transportation.
Mukherjee said the combination of outstanding coworkers and fascinating projects at WSP are the reasons she’s nearing her 18th year with the firm.
“While at WSP, I have learned how to challenge myself,” she said. “I was fortunate to have worked on a few milestone projects, including the environmental impact statement for Detroit’s QLINE light rail, which was touted to be a streamlining template for the National Environmental Policy Act.”
She has also been influenced and motivated by the firm’s history, noting she was inspired as an “international commuter” using the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel that connects the U.S. to Canada while traveling from home to the Detroit office. Built in 1930, it was the third submerged tunnel in the U.S.
“Every day for many years. I was reminded daily that I work for a firm that designed and built a tunnel that was considered an engineering wonder at the time,” Mukherjee said. “International boundaries seem like an artificial barrier when infrastructure is connecting people on both sides.”
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