Talia Jacobson, on the corner of Barbur Blvd. and Capitol Hwy in Portland, Oregon.

Written by
Photography by Matt Banderas '04

Where urban planning meets questions of equity and inclusion: there, Oregon Department of Transportation’s Talia Jacobson ’04 has found her calling.

It’s August in suburban San Jose, California. Talia Jacobson ’04 is trying her hardest to balance on her bike. She rides in wobbly circles around an empty parking lot, her mom and best friend looking on, all three trying not to laugh. But Jacobson isn’t in elementary school. She’s about to enter her junior year at Whitman College.

Fourteen years later, Jacobson is a major voice in active transportation in the state of Oregon. Her job: to help build a system that encourages biking, walking and alternative forms of transportation. And she’s doing it in a place that is no stranger to the idea: Portland, a well-known leader in the active transportation world.

But for Jacobson, it’s about much more than getting from one place to another.

“In some ways, I see all of my work in transportation as a way of serving that question of how you give people from all backgrounds equal access to opportunity.”

Jacobson strongly believes that people need a range of travel options to be able to meet their needs in their everyday life. It’s one of the reasons she enjoys working on projects that include travel beyond cars.

In planning these projects, she grapples with questions of access and equity. If someone relies solely on their car for transportation, what happens if they wake up one morning with a flat tire? What are their backup options? Biking? The bus? Carpooling? Will they have to miss that day of work? If they work in the service industry or at a blue-collar job, they are a lot more likely to be in jeopardy from missing a day than if they work in a white-collar job.

“You start to see these patterns where the people who have the smallest margin of error for the ability to get medical services, get education, get to work, are often the people with the fewest transportation resources and the fewest options,” she said.

That’s why Jacobson has dedicated herself to increasing that range of options throughout Oregon.

“I want to know that if someone in my community has that day when their car breaks down, or their babysitter calls in sick, or their aging parent has an emergency medical appointment, that that person is going to be able to find a way to travel to meet those needs and it’s going to be okay.”

An annoyance should not turn into a crisis.

A Traffic Light Moment

Just as Jacobson didn’t learn to ride a bike at the same age as many of her peers, neither did she take the traditional route to her career. In fact, she was the only one in her graduate school program without experience in urban planning.

“I sort of did this hairpin turn,” she said.

Jacobson graduated from Whitman with a degree in psychology with a focus on sexuality studies. Her plan: work for a year (“to prove to myself that I had the attention span to do something for more than a semester at a time,” she explained), then attend graduate school and work toward a doctorate.

“I was going to do this really cool, but fairly abstract, sex research for the rest of my life.”

Jacobson did what many graduates with psychology degrees do: she started working at a social service agency, spending her days at a residential treatment center for teenage girls in the Portland area. It was that unlikely place that set the stage for Jacobson’s career in transportation planning.

“Doing that work made it so clear to me that if you are looking at social equity issues and how to help the folks with the highest need and the fewest opportunities, it’s not just about creating a program that can serve them,” said Jacobson. “It’s about making sure there is a physical way for them to get access to those services.”

For example, Jacobson remembers a teenager who had a treatment review coming up. Patients are encouraged to bring a family member, but in this case, the teen’s guardian was a disabled, elderly adult living eight hours away from Portland in southern Oregon. The guardian had several other children in her care, no access to a vehicle and no ability to drive. So Jacobson set out to find the most efficient and affordable way to get her to Portland.

It was more complicated than she expected.

“I really started to think of access to transportation as access to opportunity.”

It was like a lightbulb went off for Jacobson. Or maybe a traffic light.

From that point, she started to think about a career in something she had never considered: urban planning.

She was admitted to graduate school at Portland State University along with classmates who had degrees in things like community development, geography and environmental studies.

“I was this weird outlier in social services. But because I knew research methods from the work I had done at Whitman, and because you could put me in front of almost any audience and I could have a conversation with them, it worked.”

It also meant that Jacobson entered the program really caring about equity and social justice issues and how those issues were influenced by transportation.

She was hired by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) before she even finished graduate school. As a student, she worked part-time as an assistant planner and accepted a job as a full-time planner once she completed her master’s in urban and regional planning.

Building Bridges

Talia JacobsonDuring her years at ODOT, Jacobson has worked on big, complex initiatives in the Portland metropolitan area—mega-projects that required serious logistics. One was replacing the Sellwood Bridge, the busiest two-lane bridge in Oregon and the only way to cross Portland’s Willamette River for miles in each direction. It was completed in spring, and the bridge reopened this May.

Another project that she had a hand in was the Columbia River Crossing, a joint project between Oregon and Washington to build a new bridge and improve the traffic flow on Interstate 5, one of the most congested stretches of freeway in the country. After eight years of planning, the project was blocked by opposition in the Washington State Senate.

She also worked on the Southwest Corridor Plan, a project aimed at getting tens of thousands of commuters who live in the suburbs on Portland’s west side in and out of downtown more quickly and safely, and with a wider range of travel options.

To say each of these projects was important for the booming city would be an understatement.  In each case, Jacobson was in the middle of things, collaborating with other public agencies, administering contracts, managing parts of the projects and leading the planning efforts for these complex and politically sensitive projects.

She grappled with questions like: How does each end of that particular bridge tie back into the local transportation system? How does it affect the people who live and work close by? How does it affect local businesses or those who want to develop in the area? How do we get a bunch of different transportation modes through a constrained space in a way that satisfies the community?

With work on plenty of high-profile projects under her belt in the Portland area, Jacobson felt compelled to broaden her scope to the entire state.

“I found that I really wanted to understand the state politics that were shaping the things that happen in the Portland metro region.”

In November 2014, Jacobson got her chance when a new position opened up: ODOT’s active transportation policy lead. It was an 18-month rotational assignment that Jacobson saw as the perfect opportunity to try something new. The rotational program allows a state agency to fill a position quickly with an internal employee, while the employee gets a risk-free opportunity to try out a new job that might be a little outside their comfort zone.

From Bridges to Bicycles

In Jacobson’s new role, she helped find ways to improve how ODOT addresses walking, biking and sustainability, working on major statewide policy efforts and building relationships with outside partners and advocates.

One of these big projects was the Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, where she joined a team of ODOT staff and Oregon stakeholders to guide cities, counties and the state as they look at building new bike and pedestrian facilities. Oregon hadn’t updated its plan since 1995, and a lot has changed since then. The new plan was adopted in May.

“It will really set the direction for active transportation in Oregon in the coming years,” said Jacobson.

But it’s still complicated. With very different demographics in different parts of the state, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“We had to be very thoughtful about asking, ‘Are we adopting policy that only works in Portland, or are we adopting policy that will fit a variety of contexts so that you can really get the right solutions for the right place?’”

To help answer that question and as part of her new active transportation role, Jacobson found herself traveling to parts of the state she had never visited, meeting the people who worked in and commuted to those places. To fully understand the political conversations in each community, Jacobson spent time with local transportation commissions, biking and walking advocates and people who owned active transportation businesses.

Her background served her well in this role.

“You know, one of the great things about working with teenagers for a few years is that there is really no public meeting that is going to scare you after running treatment groups for teenage girls who don’t want to be there four days a week.”

What did she find in her travels? Jacobson saw people in Oregon’s rural areas, the communities not always associated with biking, getting excited about the potential for bike tourism—a great, low-impact way to get people out to some of the most beautiful parts of the state.

“People are starting to see bike tourism as a crucial economic opportunity for their communities that may have historically relied on agriculture or timber or on factory work in a way that may not be sustainable in the future.”

In fact, a 2014 study found that cyclists who rode Oregon’s 12 official Scenic Bikeways spent more than $12 million on food, lodging and supplies. It’s no wonder communities across the state want to get in on the action.

Since then, three more Scenic Bikeways have been adopted. Every few years the state accepts proposals for new routes. A delegation narrows down the best candidates and then hits the pavement to check out the routes themselves. Last summer, Jacobson was invited to ride along and talk to proponents, public agencies and community groups about what makes them so great.

“Seeing these smaller communities that stand to gain a lot from being able to draw people all year round to come and ride was one of the coolest things I got to do.”

Oregon has some of the most heavily used biking and walking routes in the entire country. Demand is increasing and it will only continue over time. That’s one of the reasons ODOT has been beefing up its resources when it comes to active transportation. About five years ago, the agency created their Active Transportation Section, a move that shows how much their thinking has moved beyond just highways and cars.

In addition to Jacobson’s rotational assignment and several other positions at ODOT which look at the big picture for the entire state, the organization is also hiring active transportation liaisons in regional offices around the state.

Getting those local people in place helps ODOT build partnerships in the communities it serves, making it easier to get familiar with each area’s unique active transportation needs and work with other government agencies to meet those needs.

Jacobson said that when visiting communities throughout the state, it’s not uncommon to hear things like, “We’re not Portland. Don’t try and do this like we’re Portland.”

“That’s not necessarily a way of voicing opposition to the kind of transportation benefits that Portland gets,” she says. “It’s just to point out these are really different communities and a lot of times it’s easy for folks who work in the Portland metro area to have this really Portland-centric view. But we have the whole rest of the state. A lot of it is rural and dispersed, and there are other metro areas and cities [that] have their own flavor entirely.”

Talia Jacobson - Tilikum Crossing bridge

Equity in Transit

Despite the variety of transportation projects that Jacobson has undertaken in her career, it’s obvious that some of the work she is most proud of is on diversity, inclusion, cultural competency and addressing equity in transportation planning.

In fact, this has been a passion of hers for years.

Jacobson was an activist for sexual and gender minority rights starting in high school, leading her school’s gay-straight alliance and lobbying at the California state capitol. During her time at Whitman, she helped reshape the annual DragFest event, facilitated panels on gender diversity, brought documentaries on the subject to campus and participated in performances.

In graduate school, Jacobson researched and wrote papers about equity implications of congestion pricing and studied how different organizations were addressing equity issues. So when ODOT decided to offer intercultural competency training to its employees and started looking for trainers, Jacobson jumped at the opportunity.

She was selected as one of the first cohort of intercultural competency trainers and has been an integral part of the program ever since.

“When I signed up for training, I was a little concerned that it was just going to be something that made the agency just look good on paper,” she said. But the training program has become more robust over the years, now encompassing three days of training offered to all of ODOT’s more than 4,500 employees.

“Getting everybody to set aside 24 hours of their work just to study intercultural competency? That’s not phoning it in, that’s a pretty big commitment!”

Research shows that teams made up of people from a variety of cultural perspectives are more effective at solving problems, because they don’t all think about things the same way. As ODOT strives to boost diversity within the agency, mirroring diversity across the state, they also want to make sure employees from a wide range of backgrounds can thrive.

“A big piece of that is making sure that, as best we can, the folks who work with the agency now have an understanding of and comfort with bridging cultural differences,” said Jacobson.

Intercultural competency training focuses on dealing with cultural difference in the workplace on a person-to-person level so that each employee feels a sense of individual responsibility for adapting to differences. Jacobson has taken the intercultural competency training outside her office as well. “The more training I did, it really got me thinking of intercultural competency in the way we were doing public outreach.”

Jacobson started devoting time to researching access to federally funded services. She studied how federal regulations can help ensure that some communities aren’t being negatively impacted or denied access to benefits in a way that is disproportionate to the benefits that other communities receive.

She’s worked on developing a mapping approach for ODOT employees that allows them to easily assess demographics and find out where underserved populations live as they work on a transportation plan, so that they know from the inception of the project who they need to reach. Jacobson says these are important things to think about in the planning process.

An example: a big, multi-agency planning effort that she was part of included open houses across the state intended to solicit public input. In one town, that open house was scheduled to take place in city hall. It seemed logical enough. But that city hall happened to share a building with the police department.

Jacobson soon realized she needed to take into consideration groups like undocumented immigrants, for whom hosting an open house in a building with police might be a huge deterrent. Likewise, communities of color have also had historically strained relationships with police, and might see the risk of potential police contact as outweighing the benefit of having their voices heard in the planning process.

Jacobson’s focus on equity is far-reaching, encompassing everything from small details to the bigger pieces about agency process and how to serve underrepresented communities better.

I see all of my work in transportation as a way of serving that question of how you give people from all backgrounds equal access to opportunity.

She helped ODOT develop a work plan around diversity and inclusion, is the leader of her region’s Diversity Action Team and sits on ODOTs statewide council of diversity and inclusion.

“It was really cool to start working on equity and inclusion issues, because it’s an area I’m passionate about,” Jacobson said. “To find out that I had gotten to a workplace that was really receptive to that and was going to value that strength of belief and let me build some expertise in those areas was huge.”

So where did this passion come from?

Jacobson points to her upbringing. Three of her four grandparents were born outside of the United States. Her parents also attended college during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests, and were shaped by both.

“Growing up with Jewish family members who had gotten out of Europe before World War I and then lived through the McCarthy era, I really had a sense of how national sentiments over time move for or against different groups and greatly affect the opportunity that different groups have.”

Jacobson, who has a younger brother on the autism spectrum and witnessed how disability can affect opportunities one has in life, also grew up in a particularly diverse part of California, where she was surrounded by people who didn’t always look or think like her.

“I saw how some people benefited from the institutions and systems in place and some people really suffered,” she said. “I had lived most of my life in pretty fortunate circumstances, and one of the things that I could do to make myself worthwhile to the world was to try to work in a way that would positively influence the opportunities other people have.”

Jacobson says it is work that can never stop. It’s her personal belief that she will never reach a point where she has done enough. “What you wrestle with in your life is going to change, but to support people with different backgrounds, the only way is to constantly keep doing that work.”

Now back to where it all began: that California parking lot where Jacobson learned to ride a bike at age 20. Among her colleagues, there’s definitely an entertainment factor when it comes to Jacobson’s stories about being a novice adult rider. But in the end, she says it’s actually been a big benefit. Community members attending ODOT meetings have certain preconceptions about who they’ll be meeting. Now, instead of a bureaucrat in a tie at the end of their career who is going to say no to everything, they get someone who’s been out of college for only a dozen years or so, walking in with a bike helmet under her arm and a clear sense of empathy.

“It really shifts people’s expectations,” said Jacobson.

She points out that she’s not the cyclist who races cyclocross on the weekends or embarks on hundred-mile bike-packing trips for fun. She’s the one who has just mastered the art of safely biking down to the grocery store, loading up 30 pounds of groceries on her bike and getting home without falling over and breaking the eggs.

“I think it helps me be able to connect with people around the idea that transportation options are a good thing. Not all options are going to work for any one of us, so how do we work together to make sure we’ve got the right mix?”