A COTA Connection: Intersecting academia and practice through the MCRP Internship Program

As a city evolves, so does its map. Population densities affect urban and suburban proximities in ever-shifting commercial, residential and recreational sectors. Notable in the Columbus map is the migration of jobs to suburbs outside the city center, in areas such as Polaris and Easton, over the past decades.

Nine years after graduating from the Knowlton School MCRP program, Josh Sikich (MCRP ’07) returned to Columbus to provide leadership in Central Ohio Transit Authority’s (COTA) effort to create more efficient bus routes, implementing the first system-wide transformation in its 40-year history. Working from years of input from communities across the region and with a $9.4 million budget, Sikich led over 40 cross-departmental staff working together on this massive initiative. Commenting on the results that went into effect on May 1, 2017, Sikich stated: “The Transit System Redesign connects more people to more places and more jobs seven days a week.”

Serving as Transit System Redesign (TSR) Project Manager, however, was not Sikich’s first position at COTA. Because of his interest in transit systems in graduate school, Sikich chose COTA for his MCRP internship in 2006. His responsibilities included conducting research, analyzing GIS (geographic information system) files and assisting in creating new informational signs at bus stops. “It’s helpful to start as an intern and return as a leader,” commented Sikich on his familiarity with COTA, “I have a firm understanding of how to manage all staff levels to form a cohesive and effective team.”

Part of Sikich’s management included working with two Knowlton School MCRP interns, Jamie Roberts (MCRP ’17) and Andrew Neutzling. “The TSR shifts bus routes to different streets,” Sikich commented. “Andrew and Jamie helped the team gain an understanding of the new connections that passengers will make. Through GIS maps, Adobe software, and field work, they helped us to locate new bus stops and communicate new travel information to the public.”

“My previous coursework in GIS and Adobe programs helped me to navigate these challenges during my internship,” Roberts stated in reference to the wayfinding signs, maps and timetables that needed to be created. While design skills are valuable communication tools in the workplace, Neutzling added that the solutions and decisions considered by planners often occur in highly politicized environments. “Even simple decisions like placing bus stops can lead to heated conflict. I think it’s important for designers to learn negotiation skills, especially if they want to work in city planning,” stated Neutzling. “Good designs can do a lot of the talking for you, but ultimately they won’t speak for themselves.”

For over 30 years the MCRP Internship Program has placed interns with Central Ohio governmental, private and non-profit agencies, combining a graduate education with outreach and service to the community. For nineteen of those years, Planning Next has participated in the program, sponsoring interns who have worked on projects as wide-ranging as vision plans, strategic plans and urban design plans. “The interns at Planning NEXT work at their full potential; there are no designated ‘intern tasks,’” stated Jamie Greene (BSARCH ’84), Principal at Planning NEXT. “Rather, interns utilize their own unique skill sets and interests, from research, GIS mapping, to writing and editing, to assisting with public engagement.”

“MORCP prepares Knowlton School students in planning, economic development and sustainability across central Ohio through the MCRP Internship Program,” commented William Murdock (MCRP ’99), Executive Director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), Ohio’s largest regional planning council. “This is personal to me because I am an alumnus of the Knowlton School and I was also a graduate intern in local government. And I know the power of these internships to hone your skills, to help network across central Ohio – so you can learn how to do the job and then make this region a better place.”

“My internship experience was great,” reflected Roberts on her two-year internship experience at COTA. “I had increasing responsibilities and was given the opportunity to take the lead on projects; an experience that is proving to be very attractive to employers as I begin to interview for new jobs.” In gaining relevant field experiences through the MCRP Internship Program, Knowlton School students like Roberts are able to intersect their academic coursework with the realities of the planning practice.