Updated: Dec 28, 2019
As a U.S. military brat growing up in the 1980s, Jeanie Ward-Waller was all too familiar with the recurring adventures and frustrations of moving every two years. Her parents, both U.S. Air Force physicians, provided medical and humanitarian services to enlisted personnel and local populations wherever they called home. Before she turned 16, Ward-Waller had lived on or near Air Force bases all over the U.S. and in Asia, from San Antonio, Texas to the Philippine Islands and back again.
Fortunately, her parents put a high priority on foreign travel, outdoor adventure and exposing their children to other cultures. As part of serving Uncle Sam, Ward-Waller’s family traveled extensively in Asia and the U.S., witnessing some of the world’s most dramatic natural wonders ... and some of its most poverty-stricken populations.
Those travel experiences instilled in her an enduring love for the outdoors. More importantly, they taught her the critical roles that clean air, clean water and access to safe, reliable transportation systems play in defining livable communities for people around the world.
Shaping Quality of Life
Today, she applies those lessons daily to her work as a sustainability program manager for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the chief developer, operator and maintainer of the state’s highway system.
From her office in downtown Sacramento, Ward-Waller helps shape and guide the agency’s plans to develop, build and maintain sustainable, multi-modal transportation systems in a state already feeling the effects of climate change.
“It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that transportation systems have on people’s quality of life,” she said. “They allow people to move around; to gain access to safe, healthy environments, and to create friendlier, more livable communities.”
Preference for Policy
As a kid, Ward-Waller was fascinated with puzzles and putting things together. Her early construction projects included a dollhouse and a bird house.
“I was very inclined toward math and physics in school, so engineering seemed like a natural fit for me,” she said. Turns out, she was only partially right. After earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Brown University, and a master’s degree in structural engineering from MIT, Ward-Waller realized that engineering work was far more repetitive and tedious than she had originally thought.
“I was much more interested in the front-end work of developing a building – where it should be built, how people will access it, what impact it might have on a community or the environment – than in managing the nitty-gritty details of engineering that structure,” she explained.
So before long, Ward-Waller gave up being a structural engineer in Boston to pursue a masters degree in engineering in sustainable development at the University of Cambridge England. In this new, decidedly non-traditional educational setting, she finally “got her feet wet” in the policy work she craved.
“I started thinking a lot about transportation and bicycle policy, and more broadly about engineers’ role in developing infrastructure that serves the functional, health and social needs of a community,” she said. Her thesis focused on what US cities could do to encourage more bicycling and less dependence on cars.
Bicycling for Safer Routes
To put an exclamation point on her Cambridge experience, Ward-Waller organized a team of cyclists – including her mom – to bicycle across the U.S. in the early spring of 2012. Their goal was to promote safer, more bicycle-friendly communities, and to raise money for two bicycling advocacy organizations. Over the course of twelve weeks, the team covered more than 5,000 miles raising money and awareness for bicycle safety in communities from Key West, Fla. to San Francisco.
Ward-Waller calls the cross country ride a life-changing journey of the heart. More importantly, it brought into focus her skills in fund raising and bicycle advocacy. Those skills led to leadership opportunities over the next five years with two major bicycling advocacy groups, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, and the California Bicycle Coalition.
Helping Change Happen
Today, Ward-Waller’s Caltrans team focuses on three key sustainability priorities:
Championing active transportation – i.e. making walking and bicycling safer and more convenient;
Advancing clean vehicles, fuels and materials; i.e. reducing the carbon footprint of Caltrans’ road work; and
Preparing for climate change and extreme weather – proactive planning and adaptation of state highways deemed most vulnerable to damage by severe weather.
Day-to-day, Ward-Waller focuses primarily on transportation policy. But her training and expertise as a building designer and structural engineer are never far from the surface.
“My engineering background gives me instant credibility in a field that’s very engineering dominated,” she said. “It also allows me to understand the constraints that engineers and other designers of infrastructure are dealing with as we work toward creative solutions.”
Creating Healthier Networks
Much of Ward-Waller’s policy work relates directly to climate change: getting people out of greenhouse gas-emitting cars into friendlier, more active forms of transportation. Her team supports a 2015 Caltrans strategic plan to triple bicycle trips, double walking trips, and double transit trips by 2020.
“Getting people to use bicycles as a regular form of transportation requires having a well-connected network of safe facilities, and comfortable, convenient facilities in every neighborhood,” she explains.
All in a Day’s Ride
Consistent with her passions for bicycling and sustainability, Ward-Waller practices what she preaches, commuting two miles daily by bicycle from her home to her office.
In a typical day, she meets with Caltrans colleagues as well as representatives of other agencies with stakes in sustainability, including the California Air Resources Board, the California Strategic Growth Council, and the state’s Department of Public Health.
And she makes it a point to ask the same simple yet powerful question during every meeting: “How are we improving the quality of life for people through our work?”
Committed to the Long Run
Indeed, Ward-Waller gives herself plenty of time to ponder this question through another one of her passions: ultra-marathon running. Over the past five years, she has run races in California and Utah ranging from 50 kilometers (30 miles) to 100 miles. Through running, Ward-Waller finds solace, mental clarity, and a healthy return to her roots.
“My endurance training takes me to really beautiful natural places, and allows me to disconnect,” she said. “It also helps me remember why my work is so important – to protect our climate and those beautiful places.”
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