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Member Profile: Sunny Zheng

Sunny graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, during which time he spent two summers at the MTA, one at LIRR and one at NYCT Operations Planning. In 2018, he joined the NYCT Data Research & Development unit, where he was part of the team that built the Bus Performance Dashboard, and is now at LIRR focused on improving the customer experience through new technologies.

Sunny graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2017, during which time he spent two summers at the MTA, one at LIRR and one at NYCT Operations Planning. In 2018, he joined the NYCT Data Research & Development unit, where he was part of the team that built the Bus Performance Dashboard, and is now at LIRR focused on improving the customer experience through new technologies as a Process Improvement Specialist in the President’s Office.

What do you enjoy most about YPT?

TransportationCamp and YPT allows those in the field to connect with like-minded people in the industry and learn from each other in a casual, non-judgmental atmosphere. Transportation is a relatively small sector compared to some of the other career paths that young adults can choose, and it’s littered with traps due to the politicized nature of the business. With the audience predominately students and those with a few years of experience in the field, YPT serves as a place to discuss your latest career advancement, back-of-envelope analysis, or wild design with people who have their own stories to share.

What’s your preffered transport mode and why?

No mode exists in a vacuum. Light rail, if built right with dedicated rights of way downtown and TSP outside (think Seattle Central Link), probably provides the best combination of efficiency, capacity, and performance for all but the densest of locales.

What are you working on that you’re most passionate or proud about (transit-related)?

In the current environment, providing customer access to crowding information is on the minds of every transit agency around the world. At the LIRR, we have been fortunate in that my team has started on this initiative a couple years ago, and it was only a matter of speeding up the process to get it into the public’s hands as soon as possible. This month, we launched a totally-rewritten TrainTime mobile app as well as new signage at Jamaica station which represent a major leap forward in customer communications for the MTA. Now, users can see car-by-car loading information and where trains will stop, so they can best position themselves to avoid crowded conditions. This project means a lot to me, as I worked on the current version in my first internship six years ago, fixing bugs and adding new features to the then-nascent application. Never had I expected that I would be the one to decommission it and launch the next generation.

What is the biggest transit-related problem that you’d like to help solve?

As the nation’s fixed guideway assets remain largely static, each generation confronts the challenge of trying to squeeze yet another drop out of capacity out of it. Whether this is done merely by scheduling more trips or through technological innovations, the math is clear – for each service hour added, a maintenance hour is removed. With more service and the passage of time also comes increased wear and tear on the physical plant, thus requiring more maintenance. Track access is the issue that I believe will dominate our industry over the next few decades.

Do you have any tips (career advice) for YPT’ers interested in your career path?

  • Network wisely. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with at a networking event – try to seek out a few people who do something that you would enjoy playing a part in. A few good contacts is better than dozens of people you barely remember the next day.
  • Find a role model, preferably one who was once in a similar position as the one you are in.
  • Data and planning do not exist in a vacuum. Go out and observe what conditions are like on the ground, both during normal conditions and perturbed situations. Make sure the data you get matches your observations. Think twice before taking broad statements at face value.
  • If you see a place where your expertise could be used, even outside your group, don’t be afraid to make some suggestions (but don’t make it too formal). The worst you can be told is no. If your ideas are deemed worthy of consideration, this can open doors quickly.
  • Understand the data pipeline at least one step upstream, one step downstream, and all steps between the levels you are using.
  • Always keep the customer in mind, even if you are doing something that is unpalatable. Look at each situation from three angles: “God” (planning), the employee (operational feasibility) and the customer (passenger experience)
  • Think carefully about edge cases and what is *possible*, not just what is routinely done. It’s totally fine to make a conscious decision that those situations are rare enough, but don’t get caught flat-footed when the folks on the ground decide to make full use of what they have.
  • Finally, remember that no matter how many levels removed you are from the Operating Department, you are playing a part in the daily miracle that is the delivery of a safe, reliable service for millions of New Yorkers.

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