On the ins and outs of transportation engineering and catching a plane to schoolBill Zhou graduated from UC Berkeley’s Master of Engineering program with a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering this past May. The catch? He lived in Los Angeles while pursuing a degree in Berkeley. Knowing he wanted to return to his previous LA employer after he graduated, Bill chose to stay in his LA apartment and commute to UC Berkeley by plane every day for class. He would wake up at 3:40am to catch a 6:00am flight to San Francisco, returning home at 9:30pm before packing his bags and preparing to do it all again the next day. Professor Dan Himelstein, who had Bill in three of his classes and embarked on a similar commute 25 years prior, said Bill always brought a positive approach to the classroom. “One of the qualities I think is key in the professional world is to make a concerted effort to view challenges as opportunities,” Himelstein said of Bill. “It will put you at a competitive advantage because most people simply can’t make that leap of faith.”
Bill’s commute proves he can make that leap.Now that he’s settled in one place and working as a transportation engineer for LSA, an environmental consulting firm, we had the chance to talk with Bill to learn more about where he’s been and where he’s going, whether that be by plane, bus, or in life. This is his story.
What about transportation initially interested you and why was it something that you ultimately chose to pursue?Growing up we had a lot of extensive transit networks around where I lived. My high school was around 12 miles away… so coming back, because it’s such a long distance, I would choose different trains or bus routes going home. That’s how I got interested in different modes of transportation, the entire transit network, and mobility across the entire city and that’s why I chose my major as a civil engineering major at UC Irvine for my undergrad with a specialization in transportation. I first worked as a part time intern at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation for a year, and then worked full time for two and a half years at an engineering consulting firm as a transportation engineer. I then went back to school to pursue my master of engineering degree at UC Berkeley.
How did you motivate yourself to commute by plane to school?Part of the reason is just I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. If I really want to do something, I’m gonna make it happen — I have pretty strong self discipline. That’s why, when the alarm rings, I know if I don’t wake up I’m probably going to oversleep and miss my class, so I would just jump out of bed and grab the bag I packed the night before and then just drive to the airport.
How did you respond to criticism of your commute?Originally, I was only using my first name because I was worried that people were going to dox me for environmental impact but the planes are flying with or without me.
Were there any transportation related projects you got to work on while in the Berkeley MEng program?For my public transit class, we basically designed a transit network for Chicago to minimize the travel time combined with rail and bus routes. We also did a project for the Muni bus where we set up a system to optimize the headways for the local route and express route to minimize the travel time for passengers. We have to consider things like how many buses the bus company can afford, what’s the travel demand, the pathway, the spacing between the residential areas, boarding and alighting demand, etc.
What does a transportation engineer do and what do you hope to accomplish?If we build a hospital, we need to see how the new traffic is going to be added to the existing circulation network and if there’s a way we can mitigate the traffic delays. I wish in the future I can actually work for transit planning so I can plan the different transit networks and encourage more people to use public transit. I also hope I could work in the aviation industry since I fell in love with aviation from my commute and my leisure flying. Connect with Bill. Edited by Veronica Roseborough.
Bill Zhou, MEng ’23 (CEE), gives “commuter student” a whole new meaning was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.