Our most recent Engineer’s Corner visit is with not one, but two of LADOT’s newest and brightest transportation engineers. In addition to being awesome members of LADOT, Joan Hsu and Jeff Hsu are related. That’s right, they are siblings. We couldn’t wait to sit down with them to talk shop and family, because while we often think of LADOT as one giant family, it’s pretty exciting to have team members who are the real deal kin.
LADOT Bike Blog: Can you tell us about yourselves?
Joan: I graduated from UCI in 2014 with a Bachelor’s degree Civil Engineering, and I’m currently finishing up the graduate program at Cal Poly Pomona in Transportation Engineering. I have one class and one project left, so hopefully I’ll be done by next year.
Wow! So, are you currently working full-time?
Joan: Yes. When I was working part-time, I could take more classes, but now I’m taking one class at a time to slowly get through the master’s degree. It is hard to get home from work after a long day and then go to school for another two hours.
That is some serious dedication! What about you, Jeff?
Jeff: I went to Cal Poly Pomona for my undergrad, and I’m currently there for the Transportation Engineering Master’s program.
So, you are both in the same program?
Jeff: Yea, it’s funny that we both go to the same school and take the same classes, and we also work at the same place. Plus, we have similar friend groups, so we see a lot of each other.
Joan: We’re lucky that we get along so well! We’re only a year apart. A lot of people think we’re twins, actually.
It’s great to have such a strong sibling bond. When did you both start working at LADOT and in which division do you work now?
Joan: We both started working here in early March. I’m working in Signal Design.
Jeff: And I’m in District Operations with Central District.
When did you both become interested in becoming transportation engineers?
Jeff: Well, our dad is a civil engineer, and I sometimes don’t like to admit it, but he did influence our decision a little. We’ve always been good at math and science, and our dad encouraged us to pursue those subjects. When I first got to college, I wasn’t sure what type of civil engineering I wanted to study until I had a transportation engineering professor that made me really interested in the topic. I ended up doing my senior project on transportation engineering, actually. For my project, my team designed an interchange for the City of Lake Elsinore.
Joan: Yea, everything Jeff said about our dad is the same for me too. Our mom is in computer science, so in general, our family has always been focused on science and technology, and that was often our mindset growing up. You know, I think it’s silly that we expect 18 year olds to know what they want to do when they grow up at the time that they apply for college. It’s a really stressful time! I had school counselors that recommended I study engineering, based on my academic strengths. When I got into the civil engineering program at UCI, I took some time to explore the different options, like water maintenance, structures, and transportation. I ended up gearing myself toward sustainable transportation and safety, because I’ve always been oriented toward helping the earth and serving the public. I felt like transportation engineering aligned with my personal goals as well as my career goals. I’ve been working on active transportation projects in a lot of my classes.
It’s great that you’ve been able to find interesting careers that also match your passions. Alright, so you mentioned your dad. I’ve heard that he also works here in the building. Is that true?
Jeff: Yea, he works for CalTrans on the third floor. He’s a Structures Maintenance Engineer. They take care of all of the maintenance of bridges and do inspections on bridges in Southern California. He’s out in the field most of the time, so we don’t see him much. But when he is here, we all like to have lunch together.
That’s awesome that you can have some family time in the middle of the workday!
Joan: It’s only happened a few times, but hopefully we can do it more often.
Jeff: I actually used to intern in his same office before I got hired here. We used to carpool together.
He must be so proud of you both!
Jeff: He’s relieved! As soon we we got our job offers, he told us that now he can retire.
Joan: Yea, he’s so relieved and happy. Actually, he just announced to his office that he will be retiring this summer. We totally thought he was kidding, but he meant it! Jeff and I were looking forward to being in the same building as him, but we understand because he’s already worked for many, many years here.
And you’re both just in your first year. What does a typical day at work look like for you?
Joan: I get projects from district offices and work orders from all around the city. Our office is the only one that does signal design. Usually, my day consists of going out into the field to do field checks in the morning or checking details. It’s best to go out in the morning because it’s cooler and there’s less traffic. A lot of times people stop to ask me questions because of the vest I’m wearing and the tools I’m carrying.
What kinds of questions do they ask?
Joan: Well, usually they are questions about a specific block or area that I’m not familiar with, but I usually give them a phone number to call or make a phone call for them. One time, a person dropped their phone in the sewer, and they asked if I could get it for them. I called DWP, and they sent out a crew to get it. So, it had a happy ending, even though it did take four hours for them to get their phone back. After field checks I usually come back here to the office and transfer everything from the field onto the plan. Once I do my designs and edits, I send it out to draftsmen and my supervisor. Then, the plan goes back and forth throughout the editing process until submittal.
Jeff: In Operations, we take care of the requests from the public and the council offices regarding transportation tasks that need to get done, like when people want new stop signs or request traffic studies in their neighborhood or on their route to work. I work on a lot of mini projects, usually about a dozen at a time. Typically, the projects are related to curbs, pavement, and signals, but occasionally there are one or two big projects to tackle as well.
What challenges do you think will shape LA’s transportation future?
Joan: I’ve been giving this a lot of thought actually, with all of the bike projects that we are working on in Downtown LA. I think one challenge will be using our current infrastructure to create the community’s vision for the future. We’ve built all of this infrastructure for cars, and now we need to change it. As young engineers who will be at LADOT for a while, we will need to think about how our projects can be sustainable and flexible. We have to build things that have some wiggle room, so that when the culture or personality of the city changes, the infrastructure can change with it.
Jeff: It is interesting to see how all of these new programs, like People St, Vision Zero, and Mobility 2035 are changing the way we think about transportation. Multimodal movement and safety will be our priorities into the future.
Joan: Educating the public on how to use new resources that they have will be really important for the future, too. There’s a prevalent mindset that if we build it, they will come, but people get so used to things being a certain way that they may not think about how to integrate new infrastructure into their commute. For instance, people might drive into the bike lane because they don’t realize that’s a space for people on bikes. And at the same time, people who want to ride bikes might not know about gaps in the bikeways that have been connected. If people don’t know about that new connection, they might not transition to using their bikes out of fear that the gap is still unsafe. So yes, if they see it they will come, but we also need to educate them about new improvements or how to use them so they can be prepared.
With flexible design, safety, multimodality, and education challenges ahead, it sounds like LA’s engineers, planners, and advocates will have their work cut out for them. I’m hopeful knowing that you both will be part of that future. Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview!