Environmental Solutions to NYC’s Transportation Problem

Alyssa Pichardo from Regional Plan Association talks about the work that goes into transportation planning for a greener future

By: Megi Hajderlli

In an interview with Alyssa Pichardo we discussed her work at Regional Plan Association and how the transportation sector impacts the environment. She also shares with us the mentoring she does at Transportation YOU to encourage young girls to enter STEM fields. 

Alyssa Pichardo is the Senior Transportation Planner at Regional Plan Association

Megi Hajderlli: To begin, can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?

Alyssa Pichardo: Yes! My name is Alyssa Pichardo and I am a transportation planner. I entered into the urban planning profession back in 2011-2012. At the time, I did not know if it was going to be a career path for me yet.

My career initially began during my undergrad at Washington State at Evergreen College where I received my bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science. With this background in environmental science and chemistry, I started working with the Barry Commoner Center and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where I conducted research on the street-level air quality in NYC. It was doing this research that I realized I wanted to enter the urban planning profession.

MH: So what was it about doing research on air quality that made you realize you wanted to enter the urban planning profession?

AP: When I was working on the research project, I had to look at many different factors that could possibly affect the air quality of NYC. While doing that, it started to become clear that the transportation sector was playing a big role in affecting our air. I saw that things such as carbon emission were contributing to massive public health issues. This was something that I cared a lot about as an environmental scientist.  

So this research sparked my interest in transportation and I started to pay attention to things such as the effects of biking, walking and transit. My newfound interests lead me to pursue my master’s degree in Urban Planning, Transportation Planning and Geographic Information Systems from Hunter College. I ended up working as a consultant at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting for about four years. The work I did there was focused on sustainable planning and reducing auto usage. After that I started my current job as a transportation planner at Regional Plan Association.

My research is about connecting people better by transit, walking and biking within the region.

MH:  Can you tell us a little about Regional Plan Association and what they do?

AP: Regional Plan Association (RPA) is a non-profit organization that got its start in the 1920s. A group of civic and business leaders realized that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut shared an economic future because of the interconnection of the communities of the tri-state area surrounding the NYC area.

Every 25 years, RPA develops a generational plan to approach a long range vision for NY, NJ & CT. In fact, we’re the only organization that this for the tri-state area because people aren’t thinking about the shared issues of climate change, resilience and adaptation across state boundaries.

MH: You said you were a transportation planner at RPA. What does RPA do in the transportation field?

AP: In transportation, we work to ensure that transportation systems can serve the greater region. We attempt to find solutions to questions such as: How can rail access be improved so that there are less crowded trains? How can we reduce emissions and improve air quality? How can we encourage people to start riding bikes?

I also work in a number of other sectors in the transportation realm that I didn’t anticipate when I first started this career path. For example, when working on issues of inner city travel, I’ll look at what are the most environmental ways to get between cities or if airports are moving forward is the most environmental way. My research is about connecting people better by transit, walking and biking within the region.

MH: As of right now, what are the main area of focus for RPA?

AP: As I said early, RPA creates a new plan for the region roughly every 25 years. Right now we are working on our fourth regional plan! This means we are all working hard to develop a long range vision for the region.

In order to make certain that we arrive to the best plan, we work in partnership with community members from several grasstops organizations, such as Make the Road NY. We also talk to stakeholders in the surrounding communities, such as city agencies both in and out of NYC. In doing so, we make certain that as many viewpoints are working to establish the best regional plan.

Pichardo on a panel discussion during the Creating Sustainable Cities event (Photo: Luis Collazo)

MH: How does RPA, and its partnerships, develop the regional plan?

AP: Well, we look at a diverse spectrum of issues. One thing we look at is: How can we unsure that our rail system, which connects all of NJ into NY, is able to withstand rising sea levels? In response, we conducted research and found that there have been very little preparations for rising sea levels in the region. We have a lot of aging infrastructure that is breaking down and collapsing under. This means that we have to prepare for this issue and set a plan to solve it in the regional plan. 

Another example of an issue we look at is how space can handle a growing population. We look at subways and airports and try to determine how to build them better. We need to build to spaces that are more centralized.

MH: Can you give an example of a solution that RPA was able to come up with because of it’s research and regional plan?

AP: One solution that RPA has purposed is the Triboro Route, about 20 years ago. The Triboro is a freight rail that’s not used as heavily as it could be. What’s special about it is that it links the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and potentially into Staten Island using an already existing rail. 

RPA purposes that we should utilize this rail and upgrade it, add trains and develop some stations throughout these boroughs. We also need to look into ways to adapt our existing infrastructure to support the growing outer boroughs. So we propose to extend the route over to St. George and some other existing corridors that aren’t being used in the Bronx as well.

MH: I want to change the topic a little. I understand that you are part of Advancing Women in Transportation. Can you tell me about that?

AP: Advancing Women in Transportation (WTS) is a professional organization founded in the 1980s of women in the transportation sectors. It involves all fields from engineers to planners, like myself, to practitioners in operations and transit systems.

About seven years ago Ray LaHood, a transportation secretary at USDOT, partnered with WTS becuase he was concerned about the lack of young women pursuing STEM careers. This partnership recognized that organizations such as USDOT, RPA, NYCDOT, State DOT, MTA and the Port Attorneys were, and still are, struggling with the baby boomer generation leaving the workforce and the new generation not having the skills to fill in their roles.

In order to ensure that there is enough young talent to step into these roles and to push these agencies to think more broadly about environmental issues and how technology can offer new ways to solve problems for transportation, WTS created a program called Transportation YOU. 

Never assume that the solution you propose is the last solution; continue to work towards figuring out a better way forward and be as integrative as possible.

MH: What is the Transportation YOU program and what does it do for the environment?

AP: Transportation YOU is an mentor-ship program that encourages young girls to pursue STEM careers. The organization has multiple local chapters and I, along with some very talented women, co-chair the NY program partner school. 

The program is setup so that we can take the high school girls on tour to see the behind the scenes of spaces such as JFK airport or Grand Central Terminal. This gives them a first-hand understanding of how these places are built. We also do professional development workshops with them and expose them to our work environments. This allows them to have a day where they shadow us at work and see what a day in the life of their mentor is.

Our current group is about 20 students; all sophomores and juniors. We’ve been doing this program with many groups in it’s current format for about six years now with our partner school City Polytechnic High School. We take the time to get to know the students and them us through small group mentoring. 

MH: Have the students show interest in the transportation field because of the program?

AP: Sure, the girls are very diverse in their career interests. Some are looking to pursue the careers in civil engineering and others in architecture.

One of the things that always comes up with regards to the environment and sustainability is that they experienced Sandy ]Hurricane] first hand as young New Yorkers. Because of that, they ask a lot of questions about STEM careeers in the environment. We took them on a tour of the World Trade Center shortly after it had been cleaned up and the students asked: “What are you going to do to build this back better?”

Through their coursework, they are looking into earth sciences such as geology and chemistry. These students learn from early on about engineering and the environment before they even get to City Tech. As a result, they are very passionate about the field.  

Pichardo with Gabriel Foreman at the Creating Sustainable Cities event (Photo: Luis Collazo)

MH: Do you have any advice for young people looking to get into this field?

AP: I would say that the one thing that I wished I had done more was connect into internship opportunities much younger. If you’re in high school try to get into any opportunity, even if it’s just shadowing someone. I know it’s hard to try to get an internship with in high school, part at least try. 

In college, absolutely get an internship while you’re an undergraduate student. Explore everything from non-profits to private companies to researching in academia to public agencies. By diversifying your experience, you’ll find out what works best for you, where you get to unleash your creative scientific mind. 

One more thing, at the beginning don’t put pressure on yourself to have specific clear goals. Instead, make something that’s actionable for you to work with. Be flexible, build your skills and absolutely learn how to network.

MH: Any last words?

AP: Earlier, I mentioned that I worked with the Barry Commoner Center when I was doing research on air quality in NYC. Barry Commoner was the first generation of environmental activists among scientists and the best quote that I heard from him was: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” 

The quote is one of Barry Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology from the Closing Circle and the content of the quote is to never assume that what you’re going to engineer and design won’t have any impacts. Never assume that the solution you propose is the last solution; continue to work towards figuring out a better way forward and be as integrative as possible.

MH: Thank you!

AP: You’re welcome. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *