Rachel Lesniak loves bicycles and buses and the kind meticulous work it takes to integrate them as seamlessly as possible into a city’s transportation system.
“It’s a very geeky thing to love,” she says. “But I love it.”
Of course, if you’re a transportation planner and you truly care about making the transit system work for everyone, not just car owners … well, geeky is good. During her tenure in the program, Lesniak complemented her coursework in transportation planning with real on-the-job training at Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, using her skills in data analysis and visualization (data viz) on some of the region’s most high-profile transportation projects, including BaltimoreLink, the redesign of that city’s transportation system.
Upon graduation, Lesniak joined the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) as Senior Operations Research Analyst and Strategic Initiatives. At WMATA, Lesniak leads the data science practice for her group with a focus on developing best practices for developing data standards and training for projects related to bus priority.
Her background is not in planning. She was an English major at George Washington University as well as an accomplished harpist who once considered a music career. But she is also a passionate bike rider, and she remembers how difficult it was getting around her home in the western suburbs of Illinois, where bicycles seemed to be an afterthought.
So a year after graduating summa cum laude from George Washington, she felt ready to try something new and took the conceptual leap of applying to Georgetown’s graduate program in Urban & Regional Planning. She found that having a humanities background and an affinity for writing was not a detriment, but a plus.
“The program gave me a way to pivot and prove I could learn the information [on the job] even if at first I wasn’t an expert planner,” Lesniak said.
Lesniak received a scholarship from the DC chapter of WTS International, a nonprofit that supports women in transportation careers, and was named to the Hoya Professional 30, an award celebrating the integration of academic and professional pursuits.
Hers was a roundabout route to a career that straightened out nicely in the end.
Or, as Lesniak put it: “I have a tunnel vision for transportation.”