Jason Schrieber, AICP — Urban Mobility Strategies
Jason Schrieber is senior principal at Stantec's Urban Places where he finds innovative solutions to complex mobility problems, focusing on a balance of private needs and public benefits. He has helped hundreds of cities, institutions, and developers broaden options for urban mobility, showing governments from Boston to Abu Dhabi how to manage parking in difficult shared environments. He’s helped clients develop demand-management programs that get people to choose transit, walking, and biking over cars.
As my clients today try to understand the dystopian effects of robot cars and flying taxicabs, I have to laugh when I recall that my planning career’s origins were just four years after presenting at a national high school symposium about the engineering theory behind making a car fly. Entering college with the belief that my path lay in bringing great new personal mobility technologies to the masses, how surprised would I be to know that 25 years later I am helping cities plan to limit the ill effects of flying cars, robotic taxis, drone-delivered freight, and the autonomous vehicle — these were the things I once believed I would design and sell.
Having sought my pilot’s license before my driver’s license, I was well on my way to an engineering career at Rensselaer Polytechnic. That was right until the reality of doing detailed design equations clashed with my rapidly broadening view of the world — typical of students in college. As I sought to understand the implications of actions in the world around me, I became less interested in technical studies and more concerned about my path and the path of others around me.
Leaving engineering school is still the most difficult career choice I’ve had to make, especially when planning was still not a known profession to me. I chanced upon planning just over a year later through an internship with Cambridge Systematics (which spawned a planning degree from UMass-Amherst and an excellent seven-year stretch in consulting, where I established analytic skills, innovative thinking, and super communications abilities). But the time beforehand spent exploring cities like New York and DC, various jobs, and many new studies were invaluable in forming perspectives I carry to this day.
My next-hardest career move was walking away from that super consulting job and paycheck to take a municipal planning position, but that continues to be the smartest career move I ever made — though I didn’t realize this at the time.
Lured by urban challenges at the pedestrian scale, I found that the City of Cambridge offered a plethora of real-world challenges not presented by consulting for federal and state agencies. Being a transportation planner for the "People's Republic" presents far more challenge than most places, but Cambridge possesses a city manager form of government that better protects professional opinions, so I had the good fortune of permitting and overseeing lots of development that is in place today and designing notable walking, biking, and transit improvements that continue to be replicated citywide.
Of course, Cambridge is lucky to be a leader in implementing solutions that get people out of their cars, and after seven more years I was so proficient at calculating safety benefits, reduced trip-making, and the effects of parking and demand management practices, that I had much more to offer in the private sector than I could imagine, making me once again attracted to consulting. While my greatest professional successes happened as a principal at Nelson\Nygaard, I’ve shared with multiple junior staff the value of working in the public sector and learning how both sides of the table think (and I’ve lost great employees along the way, following my own advice!).
Ten years later, I’ve moved on as a senior principal to a much bigger consultancy, helping Stantec’s Urban Places team reshape how large A&E firms approach urban mobility, and I could not be happier working with an extremely deep team of supportive colleagues who help developers, cities, universities, and agencies, large and small, on innovative and complex projects — paving the way for smart, resilient, safe, efficient, and equitable travel in communities all around the world.
As the mobility revolution takes hold, I’ve been fortunate to wind up in a position that can help make it more about enhancing everyone’s lives, not just those who can afford a (flying!) robot car.
I’m a bit of a dorky planner, thanks to my background in engineering school, and I can’t say enough about the value of having some hard design and analytical skills. One of the reasons I knew I might be better off outside of engineering was my success at writing and presenting, but technical skills are ultimately what makes my clients confident in my conclusions and recommendations.
Today, I can’t open a CAD file, geodatabase, or traffic microsimulation, but having spent even a little time along the way doing detailed drafting, mapping, intersection analysis, or travel model coding has paid dividends.
Few can talk with authority about implementable solutions if they can’t talk the technical talk at least a little. Keeping up on the latest changes — especially with the likes of e-scooters and automated shuttles suddenly plying the streets — is a constant challenge, but using past experience to guide my evaluations and applying simple decision-making frameworks can keep me above the static to realize the true problem at hand.
For instance, many clients are focused on the technological needs of new mobility options, when the decisions travelers apply every day are still focused on things like comfort, cost, and convenience — so we shouldn’t be measuring vehicle throughput or the rate of automation adoption when weather protection, parking cost. or a long walk at night matter more.
Another skill is more inherent: curiosity. I enjoy dissecting complex problems and finding meaningful relationships that matter to travelers. This shows up in my designs, which focus on the experiential quality of travel rather than solely applying a set of rules. Being able to look at urban mobility problems at the personal level regularly leads to some of the most innovative solutions.
Good communication is ultimately the most important skill a planner possesses.
Everyone initially fears talking to a crowd, but quickly focusing the conversation on points that matter to the audience breaks the ice and exemplifies the whole point of our profession — to serve our communities.
Right or wrong, few will be upset if you’ve researched your topic and endeavor to understand the issues that matter to the audience.
I’ve had years of experience talking about the thorny topic of downtown parking with irate residents, frustrated merchants, dubious landowners, and skeptical developers. People are often passionate about parking, and I frequently joke that the right to a free parking space is written in the Bill of Rights.
My success quelling fears and motivating change relies on merging real data or technical guidance with a practical application that people can associate with.
I truly believe that parking is both the greatest urban mobility challenge and our greatest opportunity to make communities more livable, safe, and sustainable. For at least 20 years I have been fighting the scourge left by sprawl-inducing, automobile-supportive policies created over 50 years ago, which we continue to pick apart only slowly today.
Between the interstate highway act and the promulgation of parking requirements in zoning, America embarked on an ill-fated experiment that solidified racial and economic isolation, stressed our finances and our environment, and devastated the hearts of nearly every community. Downtown was the place to go out for enjoyment and engage with the front doors of businesses and residences, but today most are dominated by parking lots or garages that house driving machines, not people.
Our desire for convenient front door access morphed into a battle for a parking space, losing our association with the sidewalk, its people, and its role as our most pervasive public space.
Rather than focusing on traditional metrics that still insist on a minimum number of nearby parking spaces to allow anything to happen, I focus on the trade-offs our parking regulations have made, tying what people want in their communities to space otherwise occupied by empty cars. Instead of designing to accommodate vehicles, I’m designing systems that move more people conveniently without the car. When confronted with the perception that parking matters, I use data to show how unused it is and how many more businesses are served when it is minimized.
The mobility revolution is finally showing us what our curbs can become: terminals for engaging with productive land uses. One curb space can serve no less than 30 people an hour when it serves buses, taxis, shared rides, micro-transit, bikes, and e-scooters. Our future lies in once again maximizing the value and productivity of the front doors of our communities and relegating the scourge to the back lot.
We all begin our careers in the weeds learning skills and building experience. Beginning with my favorite professor, Dr. John Mullen — a practitioner among academics — I’ve learned that nothing can make up for experience.
In planning, there are far too many subtleties and competing needs for anyone but a genius to comprehend in short order. Some learn quickly and some take a long time, but experience is essential to lasting success. Many of the valuable skill sets associated with design or analysis take time to develop, but it takes much more time to understand how best to address a concerned citizen, a savvy councilor, or a motivated activist.
To create a complete and thoughtful final product in planning means carefully considering the perspectives of many diverse players.
Too often we must plan quickly or for a limited budget, but it is essential to capture a broad understanding to make a product that builds consensus.
Few plans get implemented quickly without consensus. Consensus is easy to reach on some proven solutions that are well-known or well-supported, such as improving safety near a school or making a traffic signal work better. Most planning problems are far more challenging and, too often, planners do not appreciate the challenge of something that seems routine.
Formulaic approaches result in routine solutions that do not recognize the uniqueness of each community. Seeking to understand a wider variety of perspectives and concerns creates more thoughtful — and complex — solutions, yet these are the solutions that inspire more stakeholders and drive more people to participate, which in turn reaches a broader consensus.
Often the greatest successes are born from revealing the biggest problems and tackling them, rather than painting a pretty picture.
I’ve implemented multiple road designs and parking strategies after years of failed plans and inaction by tackling the hardest problems first. Often the solution is simple yet feared. My role is to put answers in understandable terms which people can relate to in their daily lives, avoiding the allure of pretty, yet impractical designs and solutions.
Many people are willing to accept trade-offs for faster travel and easier parking. How do you build consensus for a human-centered transportation system?
This is an excellent question because it captures the irony of the human condition. We aspire to be better than we are — to create beautiful places and sustainable futures for our children — yet we prefer the path that is easiest, most comfortable or the cheapest.
Humans are not naturally long-range planners. I am an advocate of transit and human-powered transportation, but there is no doubt I use the car at night and on the weekend because it remains the most convenient way to travel. While I know that it is the costliest option, even I am not immune, thanks to my annualized budgeting of my high insurance and maintenance costs and only periodic tank refills.
If transit received the subsidy that driving does, we’d all be regular riders, but in America the high automobile-related cost impacts on land value, rents, the environment, emergency services, oil subsidies, etc. are well-embedded in the prices of everything we buy, while transit subsidies are a regular political battle. Smart planning is not a universal strength.
Fortunately, we are having success — beginning with congested commutes — at turning the tide by revealing these cost trade-offs and inefficiencies about the way we’ve been doing business. Thanks in part to the mobility revolution, we have much easier access to travel information across many new convenient modes, and policies in some states are helping reveal the daily cost of driving to help create incentives for alternatives.
It’s easy to reach consensus on a smarter and more cost-effective commute in theory, but smart apps and programs are actually affecting behavior more than the classic demand management programs and transit subsidies I’ve advocated for years.
We remain slaves to the automobile, and our policymakers are nowhere near ready to undo an institution that is central to our economy. However, market economics are slowly creating effective consensus about shifting away from the automobile on their own.
Chaos reigns supreme at this point in my career.
There are so many opportunities for mobility planners, and the work is relentless — especially in a firm with a global reach and engineering and design bench depth. One minute it might be talking with a client seeking to move more employees on transit, and the next I’m developing an off-street parking bartering system to improve utilization and free up capital for downtown improvements.
I’m off to client meetings to optimize a development then to evening meetings to build community support for a zoning change. In between, I’m alternately directing the layout of a report and spending time marking up plans or editing formulas on a spreadsheet.
One thing I’ve always pressed for is a balance between work and personal life.
While this is often hard to achieve in planning, I know that I’m not delivering my best when I’m overwhelmed, so building a team that you can rely on and relies on you is essential to smart planning.
This is almost impossible in most overburdened and underfunded municipal environments and often underappreciated in consulting, but a basic truth in planning — especially with such a rapidly developing mobility environment — is that we are all learning and adapting every day. This means that even the newest junior staffer may have the best new thought or input for a project or plan.
Experienced professionals may determine the best path most reliably, but they are dead in the water without new think, fresh perspectives, and an eager team. I truly love my job because of the great wealth of colleagues — young and old — bringing new ideas, perspectives, knowledge, and energy to my world every day.
First off, if you’ve found planning, you’re already ahead of the game.
It took me years to even realize it was a profession, as it does for the majority of planners. However, once engaged, remember that you’re very lucky if more than 10 percent of the plans you develop in your lifetime ever get implemented.
There are a ton of great ideas on shelves, rewritten or entirely rejected for a wide variety of reasons ranging from politics to financing to physical realities. If you’re not ready to eat humble pie, you should find another profession. Many planning rock stars persevere only by ignoring their plans that were never implemented.
Certainly, part of the fun of planning is trying to convince others that your ideas are great, and that is a lifelong challenge that you’ll slowly get better at with experience.
Small victories are memorable and rewarding — large successes can be career changers.
To be an effective planner in these rapidly changing times means understanding a wide variety of approaches, learning a broad set of skills, having an unrelenting desire to be better, and honing your communications and negotiations skills.
Nobody’s plan is perfect, but with a solid foundation, convincing arguments, and a passionate pitch, you will be better equipped to overcome the distractions of politics. More and more, clients are seeking efficient and implementable results, so developing skills to ensure better technical backup, more realistic estimates, and greater accuracy on the first take are necessary to process the growing workload of a growing population and economy.
Above all, applying a broader perspective to your work is essential to be successful. Many implemented plans of the past are being ripped out and redone because they failed to adequately consider impacts on mobility, the environment, socioeconomics, equitable access, resiliency, and long-term maintenance.
Learning more skills at school, trying different public and private sector jobs — even as an intern — and preparing your own “Github” portfolio of smart, convincing, well-supported and visually pleasing plans is a sure-fire way to excite potential employers — and give you the confidence to do it better the next time, because learning from our own successes and failures is what makes us better planners.
University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning
First planning job
Associate with Cambridge Systematics, Inc.
My kids and their safety
The scourge of climate change
The absurdity of auto-oriented design destroying the sense of place
The wisdom found in all walks of life
Dr. John Mullen, PhD, FAICP, Emeritus Professor of Regional Planning, UMass–Amherst
John Reed of Cambridge
Jeff Tumlin, Principal, Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, Inc.
Janet Marie Smith, LA Dodgers
Never saying the word “um”
Outside of Work
Taking pictures of the good and bad things I see
Read the news from at least three sources daily
Go on vacation to new places every year
Walking through and enjoying my city and the ones I visit