As final preparations are completed for the 103rd TRB Annual Meeting, Tom Stone talks to the winners of its 2024 awards and finds out more about what makes the gathering so important
Washington DC is the city on the minds of transportation professionals in the US at the start of 2024, because it is here that the TRB (Transportation Research Board) holds its Annual Meeting, with the next edition scheduled for January 7-11, at the Walter E Washington Convention Center.
The event has a large show floor, where exhibitors from the public and private sector can come together to do business. But where the TRB really excels is in its focus on academic research via its conference program.
On January 10, in recognition of excellence in research, the TRB will present three of its luminaries – Nathaniel P Ford, Imad L Al-Qadi and John M Mason, Jr. – with awards. And two days before that on January 8, Susan Handy will deliver the Thomas B Deen lecture.
The Annual Meeting has a special place in the hearts of attendees, and award-winner Al-Qadi, founding director of the Illinois Center for Transportation, is no exception. He is a prolific contributor of papers to the event, which he has been attending for 28 years.
“I have been attending the TRB since 1986, without interruption even during the Covid years on Zoom,” Al-Qadi tells TTi. “That should tell you something about it. It is the place where all the academics, engineers, consultants and agencies get together. It’s where you can learn about the current state of knowledge and the current state of practice, in all transportation fields. It is the place to go for transportation.”
Another of this year’s award winners John M Mason, former chancellor and dean of Penn State Harrisburg, has an even longer association with TRB, first visiting in the early 1970s as an undergraduate when the organization was still called the Highway Research Board. “As a student I just wandered round and said, ‘Boy! This is really interesting stuff,” Mason tells TTi.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1980, after finishing a doctorate at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), that Mason as encouraged by TTI’s director to take part in a technical committee. “Little did I know that since that day in 1980, until today, I would always been involved in some technical activity at TRB,” says Mason.
“This award is something I’m very thankful and very appreciative of,” continues Mason. “Over the years you see other people’s names, and you never think that you’d be part of that. I’m just pleased to be of service to the academy.” The National Academy of Sciences is the TRB’s umbrella organization.
The third award winner is Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s (JTA)’s CEO Nathaniel P Ford, who will be the recipient of an honor recognizing humanitarian leadership, named after Sharon Banks. “I’ve had the privilege of working in the transportation industry alongside influential leaders like Sharon Banks, who I first met during my time at BART when she was the general manager at AC Transit,” Ford tells TTi. “As I progressed from a middle manager in New York to a senior position at MARTA, and eventually to a CEO role, the lessons I learned from observing leaders like Banks were invaluable.
“I’m driven by a passion for what transportation can do to improve people’s lives. Receiving this award is not just a personal honor, but a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the JTA team as we work to provide the citizens of Jacksonville with thoughtful, innovative, and holistic mobility solutions.”
The fourth person recognized at the January event gets a guest speaking slot – UC Davis’s distinguished professor Dr Susan Handy will take the stage on the meeting’s second day. “I am honored and humbled to have been selected to present the Thomas B Deen Distinguished Lectureship,” says Handy. “The TRB Annual Meeting as well as other TRB conferences and activities have been an important part of my own development as a researcher over the years. I look forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts about the transportation profession and the role of research in shaping professional thinking with the TRB community.”
One guiding principle of TRB, that all the award winners mention, is the way in which the event fosters new thinking from the next generation of transportation professionals, inspiring them by giving a platform for their research.
“I definitely think that TRB has evolved really well, over time,” says Al-Qadi. “There is always a lot of involvement of young professionals as well as students. And accordingly, you always find innovative ideas being discussed and shared at the TRB Annual Meeting. It’s cutting edge, while at the same time keeping an eye on the implementation and the practical part. TRB has been and will continue to be the home of the transportation community.”
“TRB has been and will continue to be the home of the transportation community”
distinguished chair in engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Grainger and founding director of the Illinois Center for Transportation
Ford agrees: “TRB offers diverse groups of young researchers and practitioners from around the globe a forum to share both knowledge and experiences with those talented future leaders in transportation.”
“At most organizations networking comes out top,” says Manson. “You might say, for 40 years I got to meet people. And at TRB I think that’s very true. But there’s another element – and that’s the mentoring of the people. I didn’t first get involved by just showing up. Someone took an interest, they mentored me and encouraged me to volunteer and said, ‘Don’t be afraid to get in the middle of it’. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of former students colleagues and celebrating the relationship we’ve had for decades, that’s going to be very exciting.”