News | Spotlight on USC Alum Sanjana Mada

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Spotlight on USC Alum Sanjana Mada

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

by Tim Labounko, USC, B.S. Urban Studies and Planning

Can you start by introducing yourself?


My name is Sanjana Mada. I graduated from USC Sol Price School of Public Policy in 2018 with a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning, and I am a Transportation Planner at MORR Transportation Consulting Ltd. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada specializing in active transportation.  I have been there a year.  While I am now focused on transportation, my specialty going into USC was actually sustainable land use.



I noticed that you studied architecture in India. Could you share your journey and how you ended up studying transportation?


I started my post-secondary education in India studying architecture with a focus on sustainability. While pursuing my degree, I was also working at a great architecture firm that worked with carbon-neutral architecture using indigenous techniques. This inspired me when I wrote my thesis for my degree and piqued my interest in sustainability.


What helped me shift into transportation happened during the last year of my architecture degree. I entered, and my team ended up winning this competition focusing on special solutions to mass transportation projects conducted by a department in the Indian government. Our project focused on the BRT system that was right next to my college, and we were to design or envision what the major intersections would look like in 20 to 30 years. When I graduated from college, the department got back to me to work for them and help them visualize this project as far as I could take it. During my time there, a very forward-thinking police commissioner, Vi Manjula, inspired me to explore planning rather than architecture.


A combination of things eventually influenced me to move from Bangalore to Los Angeles. USC architecture professor Vinayak Bharne judged our project during the transportation competition and wrote me a recommendation letter to USC. I was really interested in planning and sustainability at the time, so I decided to make the big move. Los Angeles is notorious for its water crises, unlike Bangalore, which is actually known for its successful network of numerous water systems. I thought it would be interesting to go to Los Angeles and explore planning and sustainability in an environment that is very different from where I grew up.


What in particular got you interested in transportation?


The more I saw how transportation affected people’s everyday lives, the more interested I became.  If you want food, you want shelter, things have to move – goods and also people. And how you move, and how you experience transportation can vary so much depending on where you live. Never mind different countries, never mind different cities, different neighborhoods - people have different experiences in how they move in a city and how it affects them. We spend so much time in the streets, it's one of the most important environmental parameters we should think about.


In the spring of the first year of my master’s studies I found and accepted an internship at LADOT.  I was an intern there for almost a year, then a project assistant after graduation.  My experience as an intern rekindled my love for transportation, which influenced me to switch my track to transportation and return to LADOT with my degree in hand. I love the transportation connection and nexus of designing, engineering, and equity and sort of merging all three.


When I worked at LADOT, and later at Culver City – I was a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator there for a year - I got to see changes I suggested and then made firsthand. I could do a pilot or a recommendation in the change of the curve of a road, for example, and if approved, I could see the change I made in person. I found it really rewarding to work for a municipality; I was both proposing things and implementing these things as well. You can actually see changes happen when you are working in the city.


I noticed that you have worked in both the public and private sectors. Can you talk about that?


If you want to be successful in a profession, I would recommend doing both government and private, and that is what I am trying to do. My first two jobs were in the public sector, and now I am in the private sector.  I am trying to work in both areas so that I can have a more complete picture of what I want to do in the long run, and I’m still figuring it out.


In addition to my paid work, I’m also into advocacy. I’m one of the directors in Bike Winnipeg, and I really like seeing it from both public and private perspectives. You have the public sector, the private sector, and the people; it is really fascinating to see the tensions between all three.


You have also worked in several countries. What inspired you to do that?


What made me decide to move around was my curiosity, and my desire to experience different places.  Things move slower in India compared to the US and Canada where things move faster, and I wanted to experience both.  Another reason why I left India is I saw problems there and thought perhaps I could see how other countries handle things and bring back some new options for India which might work there. I do want to work back in India at some point. India is slower when it comes to certain development patterns, and I hope I have learned from what I have experienced and can help India to move forward.


How have USC and METRANS influenced you in your professional career?


METRANS helped brought the industry to campus and helped me meet great people. And USC gave me great professors and classes.  I really enjoyed working with my cohort and making lifelong friends who also are into the same things as I. My friends from USC were also interning at LADOT for example, and that was a great experience.


What was your favorite class at USC?


My favorite class was Professor Annette Kim’s “Race, Class, and Placemaking” in the SLAB (Spatial Analysis) lab. I loved how she taught the class because she didn’t tell you how you should think. We could talk things out, and if we didn’t agree it was fine. The point of the class was to talk and not to avoid talking. Annette Kim is an amazing professor, and her Ph.D. was in studying street culture. She introduced us to a lot of things; For instance, she introduced me to Kendrick Lamar. aThe final project was to make a documentary about someone, and I did this documentary on a Native American who did street art. He decorated this beautiful alley between Main and San Pedro in Downtown, not far from 6th street. Professor Kim didn’t even know about this, so she eventually went back and did some more research on it. The class really synthesized what I’ve been learning for the past two years.


What is a long-term career goal of yours?


I’m exploring auto transportation, and one of the things I want to understand is how to make Indian streets more organized while keeping their culture.


One of the most frustrating things in India is when “solutions” use Western guidelines without first making sure they actually would work in India. For instance, the standard American traffic light doesn’t work in India. The traffic system there is informal, so Indians just go even if it's a red light. Half a million dollars were spent by the World Bank to install traffic lights before the project was scrapped because it was completely ineffective.


I want to look at how we can have guidelines that are more specific to countries. I want to see how we can collect data that can capture that information. How can we collect the information we need for successful systems? I can see myself going into the Ph.D. route to understanding that more.


About the Author:

Tim Labounko is a second-year student majoring in Urban Studies and Planning at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and minoring in Spatial Studies and Computer Programming. He works as a researcher, writer, and website designer for METRANS student team.