By Jannet Walker-Ford, Aff.M.ASCE

I wish I’d known earlier in my career that technology is the backbone of transportation.

As a junior in high school, I babysat for an attorney whose house was filled with law books that I found fascinating. Seeing these books sparked my interest, and I decided to pursue a law degree. But while at Memphis State during the dot-com era, it became apparent that technology — instead of the law — offered vast career opportunities for a woman of color. So I changed my major and started on the path to a career in information technology.

A woman smiles at the camera.
Jannet Walker-Ford,  Aff.M.ASCE

I came to the transportation side of civil engineering accidentally. While attending a meeting of the Atlanta chapter of the National Black MBA Association, once I had entered the work world, an official from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority spoke about what transportation means to the economic vitality of a city, how important it is to individuals’ lives, and how important technology is to making it all work.

I was hooked, and when an opportunity to work for MARTA as a consultant became available, I seized the moment.

I later joined the agency as the director of information technology followed by roles as the chief information officer and vice president of technology (assistant general manager), and eventually became deputy general manager/deputy CEO.

For me, transportation connects technology to a larger purpose — weaving us together, getting people to jobs, to health care, to education, and more. It makes a city accessible and attractive for conferences, events, and employers.

And the role of tech in transit has only grown. MARTA’s next-generation fare payment system, Breeze, implemented in 2006, has reduced fare collection costs, increased revenue, and improved operations. The payment system has increased accessibility, particularly for students and the elderly. I am proud of the impact we made.

Today, engineers and other experts in the transportation industry design systems that inform transit riders about arrival times, the different transportation options that are available, and how much they will cost. We collect, interpret, and share data to warn motorists of accidents, advance automation, decrease congestion, and make better transportation infrastructure decisions.

My career has now brought me to WSP, where I work to grow the engineering consultant’s business in the national transit and rail markets. But my IT background keeps me passionate about encouraging science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related careers and mentoring the next generation of female leaders.

I encourage people of all backgrounds to explore this growing, innovative field, which today includes artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, zero-emission technologies, and more. Had my interest in IT led me to transportation sooner, I could have been an even stronger advocate for the industry.

Together, transportation engineers and leaders continue to improve people’s lives by championing equitable outcomes, safety improvements, increased access, and the economic benefits that only efficient mobility can deliver.

Jannet Walker-Ford, Aff.M.ASCE, is WSP’s national transit and rail market sector lead and a senior vice president.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Civil Engineering as “Wish I'd Known.”