By Kimberly Ueyama
David Kuehn’s course to a career in transportation is an unlikely one. Kuehn, who graduated from SPPD’s master of public administration program in 1996, notes how “Transportation planning found me more than I sought transportation planning.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, a professional career in this field seemed an improbable path to pursue. However, Kuehn’s inclination toward progressiveness – a quality conducive to the constantly changing transportation arena – provided him with the tools and the desire to strive for societal improvement.
USC played a pivotal role in Kuehn’s professional life. After spending several years working as a municipal planner, Kuehn said he “became frustrated that planning did not offer adequate tools to address social issues.”
This revelation triggered his enrollment at SPPD, where he was nominated for the Presidential Management Internship, a distinction now known as the Presidential Management Fellowship.
By taking full advantage of this opportunity, Kuehn was offered a position at the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), where he has served as the first manager of the Federal Highway Administration Exploratory Advanced Research Program since February 2008.
According to Kuehn, a steadfast commitment to social betterment entails “developing policies, assessing the potential benefits and impacts across different groups of people, and ensuring that public transportation agencies avoid highly disproportionately adverse impacts” — all tasks of the FHWA that Kuehn has adopted as his own.
“Historically, transportation assisted in moving produce to the market when we were an agrarian country and people to work when we were a nation of big factories and large corporate offices,” Kuehn said. “Today, transportation provides a broad access for education, services, recreation and tourism.”
Just as the impact of transportation has transformed with the expanding world, Kuehn’s position within the research aspect of this field involves constant adaptation in the midst of social changes and challenges.
An ever-growing population dependent on cars, airplanes and other means of transportation can adversely impact the natural environment, a consequence both Kuehn and the FWHA consider an important aspect of their commitment to societal improvement. Their research extends into the areas of air and water pollution, for instance, and envisions ways to curtail the effects it has both on health and the environment.
In his work, Kuehn analyzes a broad scope of critical aspects, from safety precautions to demographics. He identifies the high-risk regions with the greatest need for long-term improvement — a task that requires extensive research and development.
“My degree and training provided a foundation in problem-solving across a range of issues,” Kuehn said.
By advancing the mission of FHWA, a major agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Kuehn is “ensuring that America’s roads and highways continue to be secure and the most technologically up-to-date.”
The agency’s strategic goals include safety, mobility, global connectivity, environmental stewardship, national homeland security, and organizational excellence.
Kuehn has worked in Washington, D.C., for the past nine years. Because the FHWA is a national agency, his projects are spread throughout the United States and impact people across the country. FHWA research has helped to lower the cost and extend the life of infrastructure, as well as reduce road crashes, injuries, and deaths.
In addition, the FHWA oversees many important public needs. For example, Kuehn and his colleagues are charged with evaluating the construction and health of bridges that thousands of people rely on daily. This generally consists of a visual inspection of the structure that demands special expertise and attention to detail.
Their research has also led to the production of automated sensors that reduce repetitive, time-consuming tasks by continuously monitoring infrastructure conditions, some of which are not readily visible during inspection. Other safety projects include researching the most effective and efficient modes of communication to avoid vehicular crashes and accidents.
Kuehn also noted that although computing and communication help to further innovation, “the catalyst still is the human desire to problem solve and improve.”
Furthermore, the FHWA partners with other federal agencies, universities and international organizations. Kuehn said that the value of partnerships is evident and necessary in the area of transportation. The majority of his research is given to engineers, scientists and developers who use it to determine what enhancements to make and where they are most needed.
While improvements in an area’s transportation system can dramatically help its population, transportation alone cannot solve complex societal problems. Unemployment, for instance, is a problem that demands collaboration among the FHWA and all other agencies and groups affected by the issue.
“Transportation needs to work hand-in-hand with diverse and resilient development,” Kuehn said. “Transportation alone cannot mitigate employment moving from older central neighborhoods to new development on the urban edges or create employment in declining rural areas without other enticements.