“We are in the Napster phase of transportation. We don’t know who’s going to have Spotify.”
Gibran Hadj-Chikh joined Kittelson in August 2019 as a Senior Principal Planner in our new Chicago office. Here, he shares more about his career in transportation planning and emerging tech (or in his words, 22 years of translating and problem-solving), and why this is such an exciting time to be in the transportation field.
When did you know you were going to have a career in transportation?
I got into transportation in grad school, where I focused on urban/regional planning and had the opportunity to be a Florida DOT Transit Fellow. That’s when I began to understand how critical transportation is to everything we do.
What struck me as a student is when I heard that approximately 30% of Americans move every year. 1,000 years ago, if you ran into a challenge with your neighbor, you might have a lifelong feud with them and never cross the river again—but you would stay where you are. The American experiment is different: when something needs to change, we will consider moving on.
Our civilization depends on the circulation and flow of people, the exchange of ideas and cultures, and now the internet, which is essentially its own form of transportation. We need to have robust transportation networks so people don’t fall into isolation. Transportation gives people options and it helps them stay connected.
Give us the SparkNotes version of your career journey.
My career started in planning, but I’ve had an unfortunate habit in my career of having managers who notice I know how to use a computer and assuming I know what I’m doing. I was working on some of the first asset management systems used in transit—it wasn’t my forte, but it also wasn’t about the coding or software. It’s about the interface, and how we distill the key issues so that people can make choices. From there I was involved in early GIS systems—same thing, we had a client who wanted it, so I started building some of the first GIS solutions out there. This was really enlightening for me because I saw firsthand how the data you collect influences the outcomes we get.
My previous job also let me work overseas in Dubai and Qatar, where I was often asked to develop planning strategies for developments and transportation systems already under construction. It was invigorating to work at such an accelerated pace and see things I was throwing down in pencil being constructed, but it also made me appreciate the planning process, and how important it is to sort out the physical and operational interfaces affecting a new transportation system before you start moving dirt.
You never know where a career will take you. I’ve lived in 14 different cities over the course of mine. It was when I was serving as deputy manager for a Positive Train Control (PTC) project in Chicago when I was asked to become Director of Innovation for Parsons Corporation. That role was about looking at the trends we are seeing with new technologies, such as rideshare and autonomous vehicles, and figuring out our role as design and construction professionals based on the direct impact on the construction pipeline from new technologies. Another part of my role was looking at smart cities and how new technologies can work with legacy systems. It was very interesting work, and it emphasized to me the need to consider changes in tech strategies as early as possible in a project—preferably in the planning stage.
What drew you to Kittelson?
What drew me to Kittelson was the culture. What’s always impressed me about Kittelson is how the firm always wants to understand how we need to transform in response to the pressures we see on our clients. Our growth initiatives are aligned with where technology is going. It’s exciting for me to be a part of this movement.
What keeps you excited about what you do?
That it’s all up in the air right now. We are in the Napster phase of transportation. We don’t know who’s going to have Spotify. There are new things dropping onto the street all the time, and we’re still figuring out what will stick around.
This is the equivalent of the 1920s, when we saw things go from biplanes to monoplanes. In the 20s, few people dared to think they would see a jet in their lifetime, let alone a rocket. Well, look where we are now.
It’s a good time to get on board in the transportation profession. Nothing is set in stone. You don’t have to be a senior planner to be working on these things, you just need to come to the table prepared to learn.
What are your specializations within transportation planning?
The first thing is translation: being able to explain things, and get the relevant information to the relevant audience so they can make an informed decision. And this changes for each audience. If we’re talking about a transit project, we want to communicate the value of the project to the community and what will change in their experience. But the mayor, city council, and our client needs a different level of detail. And if that same info is part of a grant for federal funding, we need to make sure the information fits into their requirements and explain things in a way that answers their questions.
I believe that translation is important for emerging tech, too. How do we explain that what we’re doing is a logical progression of what’s already there? Recently, it’s been interesting to translate the impacts and opportunities of disruptive technologies like automated vehicles and mobility as a service (MaaS) strategies to public sector clients. There is so much information out there. I help them decipher what’s important for them and what’s not.
Problem solving is the other thing. I need to look at challenges from new perspectives and consider what other models we can reference. For example, my wife and mother both work in retail. Well, when you’re assembling a shelf in a store, you need to understand how to balance the items that cost more but turn over less quickly, and the smaller items that cost less but turn over more quickly. I was in a conversation with some of our staff recently in which I suggested curbside management and retail aren’t so different. Spaces in front of a restaurant are those smaller ticket, high turnover items, while a public transit stop might only be used for a few seconds every ten minutes, but you need to save the space for it. Looking at other models this way can help us arrive at new insights.
How has the transition to Kittelson been?
It’s been wonderful. I enjoy the culture, I enjoy the variety of people who are here, and I like the humility of the leadership. It makes me proud to show other folks our website and say, “Find our CEO. I dare you.” No one here makes it about themselves; it’s all about the work.
I also like the idea that over time here I will “lose my edge” to people who are younger than me and know a lot of things I don’t. This is what I’m seeing with the young talent at Kittelson. It’s energizing and a joy to work with a broad variety of people who are smart about so many things. It’s not fun to think you have to know it all.
Chicago is a good test bed. The transportation center has is a convergence of the Metra commuter rail operations, buses, rideshare, taxis, and 45,000 pedestrians crossing the bridges every morning. It’s a great place to think about what transportation is, and what it could be. I also like where Chicago is located in the country and the world. It’s a good central location to support the firm and travel anywhere on one flight. It’s also been a very good location for my family.
What do you see as the future of your work in the transportation industry?
My work is about trying to explain how we apply new methods to the fundamentals of transportation. Those fundamentals have not changed in 6,000 years, but many of the concepts are playing out on a broader stage now. I get to help tech companies understand the building blocks of transportation planning and engineering, and help transportation engineers understand the new things coming out that can assist their work. That is the role I want to continue to play. I’m a translator.
To start a conversation with Gibran, you can reach out to him at email@example.com.