Increasing the diversity of the travel analysis field.

Zephyr Fellowship for Emerging Travel Analysis Leaders

Suzanne Childress
Jun 13, 2019 · 5 min read

Recently I attended the Transportation Planning Applications Conference (AppCon) in Portland to learn the latest in transportation data analytical techniques and network with other innovative planners. The lack of diversity of the conference attendees was downright embarrassing. How can we possibly be doing inclusive transportation planning when the field has such poor representation of the population as a whole?

I discussed the lack of diversity with several colleagues and the view was unanimous that we need to collectively do something to improve the situation. The Zephyr Foundation seemed to be a fantastic conduit to work on this problem.

Hence the Zephyr Fellowship for Emerging Travel Analysis Leaders was started. The goal of the fellowship is to foster the success of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in travel analysis field.

The necessity and benefits of diverse teams

Puget Sound Regional Council, where I work, puts equity as one of its top goals for long-range planning and works hard to include diverse voices in community feedback and engagement. However, as Tamika Butler mentioned several times in her powerful speech “Planning While Black” at 2016’s Designing Cities Conference (if you haven’t watched this, please take some time to do so right now) – the people doing the planning work need to be connected to the variety of lived experiences in the region in order to be the most effective. We can’t do enough work to include people of diverse background in our public outreach; but the most effective way to include them in the process is to include them in our profession.

Research has shown that greater diversity of backgrounds will increase the team’s level of innovation and productivity as well. But, we don’t want to force any one person to ‘be the’ diversity and shoulder the weight of entire population segments. Rather, we need a culture of diversity that regularly includes many people from many backgrounds as a matter of course.

I have an open position on our data team and have been hoping to attract applicants who would add to our team’s diversity. Wandering the halls at AppCon last week left me wondering how I would be able to attract them to apply for my position if so few were even at AppCon? How can we increase the number of people from diverse backgrounds in the travel analysis community and how can we make sure that those people are welcomed to an industry where there might not be a lot of people that like them?

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A fellowship as a start

If you are like me, you often shrug your shoulders and wonder “but what can *I* do?” This time rather than walk away from the problem (a privilege unto itself) I reflected back on the reasons why I was at AppCon and why I was up at the podium sharing what I had done.

I didn’t get there by solely doing the hard work, pure luck, my wit, or inherent talent…I was there in part because of the many programs and individuals that got me to a successful place in my career. I attended internship programs for women and minorities in both engineering and transportation. I had remarkable bosses and mentors who helped me grow into the work I now love. In short, I had personalized attention, and I had community within the greater professional community to turn to with the real questions (or rants).

So rather than wonder at the next conference where all the people from different backgrounds are, I decided to pay what I benefited from forward and start the Zephyr Fellowship for Emerging Travel Analysis Leaders which will create a community (based on cohorts) as well as provide personalized assistance with both the technical- and soft-skills necessary to be effective in our field…and for our field to be effective. This fellowship fits squarely in Zephyr’s EDUCATE goal as well as its commitment to diversity of opinions and backgrounds as a founding principle.

Draft Vision for the Zephyr Fellowship

We are still developing the details of the fellowship, but these are our initial sketches of the program and we wanted to get them out there so that we could get as much feedback as possible.

The Zephyr Fellowship is a two-year program of technical- and soft- skill-building consisting of in-person activities as well as ongoing activities in the background. Activities would include:

  • Public speaking training and practice for technical and non-technical audiences
  • Technical basics toolbox bootcamp
  • Meeting and technical project management bootcamp
  • Analysis strategy bootcamp
  • Visual communication bootcamp
  • Conference attendance and papers/presentations

Fellows would be paired with one-to-two volunteer mentors from the industry.


Each cohorts would have six-to-nine participants based on funding availability. Ideal candidates would:

  • Increase the diversity of backgrounds in the current workforce
  • Be newish to the industry (0–5 years)
  • Motivated to increase their impact on the world
  • Motivated to increase the positive impact of the travel analysis industry
  • Currently pursuing studies or employed by the travel analysis industry or an adjacent field (i.e. planning, data science, etc).

Applicants can either self-nominate or be nominated by others. Finalists will be asked to submit work produce examples, a couple letters of recommendation, and a short video interview. Applications would be reviewed by an ad-hoc committee appointed by the Zephyr Foundation board.

How do we fund it?

We are currently exploring grant and sponsorships and would love your suggestions for identifying some matching opportunities.

Adjacent programs

There are a number of other programs that we have looked to for inspiration (and may even copy some of their curriculum with their permission). These are the ones we are aware of and will be reaching out to, but would love to know about others that we should be looking to as well!

What can I do?

If you are inspired by this work as I am, I’d love for you to join our small working group that is meeting weekly on this topic and working approximately an hour a week on it outside of the meeting.

Even if you don’t have time to join the working group, we’d love to hear your feedback on this draft proposal (both affirmative and/or constructive) and ideas for financial or in-kind partnerships (i.e. your firm/agency/institution?) that will be necessary in order to get this thing off the ground.

With your help, I know that we can begin to improve the lack of diversity in our field. Are you ready to pitch in?


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