With more than 15 years of experience in the transportation technology and infrastructure sectors, Andy Palanisamy is a seasoned professional with a deep understanding of issues facing the future of transportation/mobility sector. Outside of his day job as senior transportation project manager and principal – communications/outreach at Leidos, Andy also manages the website TransportGooru, a one-stop shop for transportation industry news, events, and other happenings. Andy has a passion for energy and climate issues as they relate to transportation and mobility. We wanted to chat with him and learn more about his work.
Tell us about your background and how you came to develop TransportGooru?
I was born in India and lived there until I was 22. I went to school to study civil engineering, and became interested in building systems where people can ride and travel safely. For a lot of us growing up in the 80s and 90s in India, the primary method of transportation was public transit. We didn’t have a lot of cars back then. It was very different coming to the U.S. in 1997. All of a sudden, I walked into a system where public transportation was scarce and personal vehicles were the dominant mode of transportation.
When I got to grad school, I always wanted to write about transportation issues. I had a perspective from working and living in a developing country, and also working as principal communications and senior transportation management specialist supporting the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). I rolled that perspective and my government work together and started TransportGooru. There’s a steady drumbeat that laid up to where I am today. None of this is done from a monetary perspective, it’s all community-oriented and it has remained that way since 2009. I think that’s why people are interested.
How do you ensure all of the information you write, aggregate, and organize is reaching your target audience?
I try to focus on one area and the applications of technology to solve problems. Being an engineer, I am naturally drawn to these things. My day job also gives me a lot of technology exposure. I’ve become more vocal, particularly on the subjects of walkability and building sustainable communities.
In July 2015, I decided to go back to policy school. It’s a new item I can add to my repertoire and one that has deeper implications on the way we develop and deploy advanced and far more complex technologies such as connected and automated vehicles. These days, in addition to transportation technology developments, I write about energy, climate change, and urban transport changes. I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades but tie them into issues of mobility and building cities of the future. Keeping track of all these things has become easier with the advent of technology. I’m always tied to some kind of mobile device. It makes it easy for me to look at something really quick and share it with the community. The more you share, the more people follow. You become that one-stop shop for information they think is useful.
What are some issues that aren’t being discussed enough?
There’s a lack of dialogue on carbon pricing, which is an important issue. Carbon pricing will have an impact on the way we live and how we finance our infrastructure projects. It can have a ripple effect across the whole industry. We’re also working on emerging technologies, like automation. These things ought to be discussed more publicly, but they’re all very politicized. We’re missing the ability to translate these topics so we can get the public more involved and educated. They’ll be at the receiving end of these technologies.
What’s something in the world of intelligent transport systems that you’re excited about?
Cities, counties, and states are looking at data to make their decisions, which is very good. We have a new window into things we haven’t had before. Travel patterns in the city, for example. In the past, you had to conduct a survey to see how people traveled (i.e., origin-destination surveys). It was very painful and cost-intensive to get all that information. Nowadays, it’s so instantaneous. You can understand a city’s mobility patterns by seeing how the cell phones move around a city. You can zoom in and zoom out to identify such travel behavior at micro and macro levels with very little effort. All of these things are opening up opportunities for decision makers to understand how to best use their resources to give us better services.
Where do you see TransportGooru in the next five years?
TransportGooru is a brand – it’ll exist in one form or the other. As an individual, I have no idea what I’ll be doing in five years. My heart and soul is at the intersection of transportation, sustainability, energy, and climate change. In five years, I’ll hopefully find a job that allows me to do something in a part of the world where they need that kind of expertise, particularly in the developing world. For the time being, TransportGooru will continue on. Moving forward, I would like to see more participation in the dialogue and expand that opportunity to other domains like energy and climate change, so more people can bring up their ideas on how that relates to transportation and where it’s going to go.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone hoping to break into the tech transport field?
Expect to face some push back, at least in some corners of the industry. The infrastructure side of the transportation industry (bridges, roads, etc) is still sort of stodgy and remains trapped in the old ways of doing business. It doesn’t move at the same pace as the tech or automotive industry, where disruptive thinking is at the core of doing business. At times it can be downright frustrating when you propose a new idea and others don’t buy into it, but that trend is starting to change quite a bit. Now the industry has matured rapidly to the point where it provides some opportunity for experimentation, so be bold and come in with your ideas. Also keep reminding yourself that usually people are not bothered to look at or realize how critical the transportation infrastructure is to a society’s well being. That changes quickly when something goes wrong – a bridge collapse or train failure, for example – and throws normal life out of gear (pun intended). So prepare yourself to be a well-rounded professional who can not only do problem-solving with technical solutions but also deftly navigate the political issues around the problems.
On a related note, explore career options beyond the traditional pathways. Today, the transportation and mobility business has emerged as one of the hottest investment destinations for private capital and experimentation. From Uber to Hyperloop, we are now experiencing a mobility revolution of sorts and that has made the transportation industry as the most exciting and happening domain in a long time.
Transportation is changing the way we move and live and it’s a great time to be a part of this business. It’s like a wave: bring your surfboard and an open attitude for the wide sea in front of you. It could be a shark or it might be a fantastic wave you get to ride.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.