An Interview with Federico Tallis: Transportation Planning in the Digital Age

Federico’s use of technology is helping transit agencies make informed decisions on project prioritization, safety, and funding.

August 11, 2021

Image 1: Federico Tallis sitting in a chair wearing a green sweater.

Federico Tallis in VHB’s Metro DC office is more than just a transportation planner—he’s an author, a teacher, and his latest distinction: a data scientist. Federico has adapted his skillsets to include data analysis and visualization since joining VHB three years ago, while discovering a common theme among transit agency clients: their ridership data was sometimes so cumbersome, it became challenging to make quick connections for future decision-making. After seeing this over and over, Federico focused his coding ability on creating user-friendly web-based applications and data visualizations that provide our clients with the ability to understand large and complex data sets quickly. This technology-enabled approach to transportation planning has prompted planning and design solutions for our transit agency clients that promote safety, connectivity, and multi-modal systems.

Federico was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and grew up in Los Angeles, California, often returning to Argentina to visit his grandparents and extended family. The contrast between these two cities is what sparked Federico’s interest in transportation planning. We talked with Federico to learn more about his story, how he’s visualizing data to advance transportation planning, and what agencies can do if they are interested in learning more.

VHB: You mentioned a significant contrast between Buenos Aires and Los Angeles—so much so that it shaped your career path. Can you expand on this?

Federico: Growing up in Los Angeles, I relied heavily on the bus system as my primary mode of transportation. I remember it taking one and a half hours to get home from school every day and the frustrating experiences related to unreliable schedules and long headways. I felt that this limited my ability to move and do simple things like hang out with friends because there was no convenient way for me to see them. Buenos Aires is the opposite: it’s a denser city, highly walkable, and has many more transit options. From my grandparents' house, I had easy access to bus lines that served practically the entire city and I never had to wait for the bus for more than two minutes. The stark difference between the two cities helped shape me as a transportation planner and my work at VHB. My current role allows me to live out my personal mission of reducing dependence on automobiles by working to create transportation systems that provide options, convenience, and connectivity.

VHB: Thanks for sharing the inspiration behind why you became a transportation planner. Since joining VHB, your role has evolved to incorporate data science and visualization. Tell us more about what you are doing with data.

Federico: At the beginning of each project, we typically have large data sets that we work with that contain detailed information about transit, such as schedules, ridership, and on-time performance. These datasets are difficult to work with because they contain many different dimensions. For example, bus trip time and day, stops in a particular order, vehicles constantly moving, different geographic coordinates, and different routes interacting with different points in the network. Traditionally, for transportation planners to make sense of this data, we have simplified it into manageable spreadsheets and static maps. The process can be time consuming, but more importantly, the simplification of this data leads to many important takeaways getting lost. I remember lamenting with a colleague about this process and we expressed our desire to create a faster, easier way to interpret this data to require less time and resources. By being part of an innovative company that encourages proactively creating solutions that are data informed and technology enabled, we created a way to automate this process, and things snowballed from there. Now we can automate many data-heavy analyses, streamline the development of graphics, and quickly produce customizable web-based tools that create layers of interactive data—allowing users to explore the various spatial dimensions of information with just a click of a button.

: Screenshot of the technology tool DataTripper that shows a map of bus stops across the city of Atlanta.
An example of a customizable web-based tool that includes layers of interactive data—routes, stops, and pre-COVID and COVID ridership data.

VHB: Can you share an example of how this web-based technology has helped VHB clients?

Federico: One of our technology-enabled tools, called DataTripper, was first created while working for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA). They wanted to develop an understanding of how a 110-acre medical center redevelopment project was going to impact the future demand for Metrobus routes, which led to an evaluation of bus service alternatives. By using DataTripper, the team could forecast the impact that the redevelopment would have on existing Metrobus routes and determine where additional service was required to provide sufficient passenger capacity and coverage.

: A customizable web-based tool that shows layers of interactive data.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) uses DataTripper to guide the agency on where to focus bus stop improvements.

VHB: What other VHB clients have benefited from data visualization?

Federico: We’ve been able to utilize DataTripper across the East Coast with transit agencies that wanted to better understand ridership patterns, develop recommendations for service improvements, and determine where to focus bus stop improvements. We’ve also helped institutions, real estate developers, and local government agencies make data informed decisions through analysis and visualizations. One example includes a wayfinding study conducted for a county in Virginia that was created to evaluate their pedestrian network and identify the safest and most comfortable routes for getting from point A to point B. For real estate developers, we created a web-based application to streamline transit impact studies to determine how new development would impact future transit services. We’ve also worked with various institutions that are much like small cities because they operate their own transportation networks. With growth and expansion across campuses, whether education or healthcare, they are looking to evaluate various transit options for campus access, versus just constructing more parking.

Web-based data exploration tool visually representing layers of data.
Web-based data exploration tool visually representing layers of data, including date and time of trip, purpose, trip status, and mobility.

VHB: Where do you see this heading? Is this a trend?

Federico: From a firmwide perspective, VHB is already leveraging data, along with the effective use of technology, to achieve higher value results. We offer technology-enabled consulting to support clients at every stage of implementation, from early start-up mode to those with a more mature operation aiming to refine or improve aspects of the system. This future-focused approach combines core service knowledge, data insights, and the application of technology to deliver innovative solutions for clients’ key planning and design challenges in the built environment and helps to create sustainable, resilient, equitable communities.

Digital animation of a map showing how far you can travel on transit leaving at various times.
An example of data visualization that quickly provides information on how far you can travel on transit in 30 minutes leaving at various times of the day.

For transportation planners, I think that coding is going to be a critical skillset moving forward. We exist to guide our communities through the planning and development of transportation networks, facilities, and services that influence economic development, public health, and quality of life. To better understand transportation systems and how they impact our communities, we must understand data to make thoughtful decisions on routes, operations, and safety. We have to understand the data, use it to tell a story, and inform future decisions. I think it’s something we will see more and more higher education institutions incorporate into their curriculums. It’s already starting to happen at John Hopkins University, where I am teaching a workshop for graduate students called, “R for Data Science.”

Interested in learning more about the realm of possibility with data visualization and analysis, or seeing a live demo of the technology? Contact Federico Tallis.