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WTS Interview for Spotlight Initiative

Interviewee: Penny Eickemeyer, Associate Director for Research at the University Transportation Research Center
Interviewer: Anna Stokes, WTS Scholarship Recipient, Project Manager at the Northeast Corridor Commission

Penny Eickemeyer, now the associate director for research at the University Transportation Research Center, has had a long and varied career in transportation planning. She began her professional life serving in the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, working with the East Tennessee Community Design Center (ETCDC), a nonprofit organization which provides professional design and planning assistance to community groups. Her work with ETCDC helped guide her into a career in urban planning which led her to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design where she obtained her master’s degree in urban and regional planning with a specialization in housing and community development in 1980.

Although her passion for community planning and government was always embedded in her career goals, Ms. Eickemeyer’s interest in transportation came about a bit later. After graduating from Harvard, Ms. Eickemeyer moved to New York City where she began work for the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. This position not only gave her insight into the workings of New York City’s government, but also made her a daily subway commuter riding between her job and her home in Forest Hills, Queens. A few years later, following a move to Westchester, she found herself trading in her subway rides for trips on the Metro-North Railroad, further instilling a passion for trains and transportation.

Eventually, as Ms. Eickemeyer was looking for new professional opportunities, she  found a position at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Planning Department. Not only had her interest in transportation grown as a regular train commuter, but she also had begun to find herself excited about transportation because of its multi-faceted relationship to community development, the economy and job growth, suburban development, as well as other aspects of urban planning. She was drawn to the MTA particularly because of its role in connecting the many parts of the region. Additionally, she believed there was a high level of professional opportunity available within the MTA for a person with her expertise.

In her new role, she assisted with the administration of agency-wide federally-funded planning projects. Through this position, she met Metro-North Railroad (MNR) staff and joined the MNR planning department in 1987, only four years after the organization’s founding. There, Ms. Eickemeyer focused on supporting the planning and development of the Railroad’s next five-year capital plan, a rewarding opportunity since it offered her the chance to learn the particulars of rail in a fast-paced and customer-focused environment. After some time, Ms. Eickemeyer moved from Capital Planning to Market Research where she focused on survey research to inform policy initiatives and identify potential service and amenity improvements.

In 1994 following the birth of her second child, Ms. Eickemeyer decided to take a break from the workforce to focus on her family. During this time, she kept in touch with her former colleagues in many ways. For instance, while she was serving as a volunteer at her son’s elementary school career day, she utilized her professional network to arrange for giveaways for the children, the most popular of which was a cardboard engineer’s hat. Still interested in planning and transportation, she continually kept tabs on service and capital planning efforts. One time while riding the MNR a couple of years after having left her job, two former coworkers even approached to catch up and ask her a work-related question about a specific capital budget she had worked on.

Ms. Eickemeyer spent a little over 13 years acting as a fulltime caregiver for her children, but in 2007 when her children were a bit older, she decided that it was time to return to her career in transportation. She accepted a more research-focused role at the University Transportation Research Center (UTRC) for US Department of Transportation Region 2 located at the City University of New York’s Institute for Transportation Systems.

Her transition back into the workforce took some time for Ms. Eickemeyer and her family to adjust to. However, this is something that she had predicted and planned for during her time looking for the right job. It was important to Ms. Eickemeyer that if she return to the workplace that she be able to contribute at her full potential. Therefore, after her second interview with the UTRC she sent an e-mail to her soon-to-be colleagues explaining her situation and her desire to have time to do her best at work and at home. Her future colleagues were very understanding and offered her flexibility in her daily start time and a four-day per week schedule.

In addition to balancing her work and home responsibilities, Ms. Eickemeyer also found that there were a few other challenges returning to work after a long absence. Most prominently, there had been many technological innovations which had changed the workplace significantly. For instance, when Ms. Eickemeyer had left Metro-North, office communication primarily circulated via a physical inbox, by someone stopping by your cubicle, or by phone. When she returned, e-mail had become the new go-to.

Shortly after Ms. Eickemeyer had started, UTRC offered her the chance to serve as the project manager for a project sponsored by NYSDOT titled, Consideration of Potential Intermodal Sites for Long Island, a planning study to evaluate the  need for intermodal sites on Long Island and the determination of the most desirable location(s). As she began managing tasks, issues, meetings, client requests, and conflicts at a fast pace, she found that her project management skills returned to her almost instantly. This boosted her confidence in the workplace, and showed her that while technology had changed, the skills she had honed over the years before taking time off were still valuable.

What advice might she give to a woman contemplating taking time off of work to care for their families? Ms. Eickemeyer recommended that she maintain high-quality relationships with former colleagues; suggesting they go to lunch once in a while and stay interested in current projects. Additionally, Ms. Eickemeyer suggests staying involved in professional organizations like WTS.

In her current role as the UTRC’s associate director of research, Ms. Eickemeyer serves as a project manager on many of the center’s endeavors. As a member of a small and multi-disciplinary team, she can focus on various efforts from running events and seminars to learning about new and emerging transportation issues.

When asked what she appreciates about working in research as opposed to her previous positions in city government, Ms. Eickemeyer remarked that she enjoys the way in which her current work has exposed her to a variety of important issues. She believes that transportation is exciting in large part because of the way it is highly connected to other planning issues; by focusing on research she gets to explore transportation’s relationship to land use, resiliency, and more. Ms. Eickemeyer also has enjoyed the interrelationships between government and research. The topics which she explores in her current position are all important issues about which many governmental agencies are interested.

One of the exciting topics which Ms. Eickemeyer has had occasion to explore recently is that of urban freight movement. She believes that this is a vital, but often overlooked part of urban mobility. Urban freight networks utilize the same transportation systems as people-centered transportation networks which can cause a clash of needs and put stress on a city and those who live and work there, sometimes causing unsafe conditions and congestion. Ms. Eickemeyer believes that the importance of this topic will only increase as online shopping continues to grow and causes more and more demand for instant deliveries.

In fact, urban freight is so important that Ms. Eickemeyer’s team partnered with an international cohort of universities in an application for a Volvo Research and Educational Foundation Center of Excellence grant focused on urban freight in 2013. The team was awarded the multi-year grant which has allowed exciting collaboration with other cities and education from international transportation experts around the world. This has offered Ms. Eickemeyer the opportunity to travel to a conference in South Korea where she learned about successful and innovative strategies used around the globe to cope with these issues which she believes will benefit NYC and other U.S. cities.

Other research topics which Ms. Eickemeyer looks forward to exploring in her role at UTRC are that of micromobility, first/last mile access, and connected and autonomous vehicles. She also is very much interested in continuing to learn about rail issues, such as how to increase demand for intercity rail. Additionally, as a resident of a small, suburban town in Westchester County and a participant in the town’s environmental committee, she is always interested in exploring topics related to decreasing single occupancy vehicle trips in areas where density is low and there is no primary destination point.

Ms. Eickemeyer remains fascinated by transportation and the way that it touches all facets of urban planning. What advice would she offer women just starting out in their careers in the field of transportation? She emphasized the importance of being ambitious and assertive as well as the value of taking advantage of conferences and opportunities to network with other people in the field. Overall, she would tell them to be confident and to believe in themselves and their ideas.

 

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