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Jing Zhang’s Journey into Bike Advocacy

Jing Zhang is a pianist, transportation planner, League Cycling Instructor, and full-stack web developer. After emigrating from China in 2008, Jing began a journey into bike advocacy that continues to this day. Recently, he was selected to be on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity. We asked the multi-year National Bike Summit attendee to reflect on the moments along the way. 

One Thursday afternoon in early July, my phone buzzed with a call. On the other end was Irene Marion, Director of the United States Department of Transportation’s Departmental Office of Civil Rights. Irene’s voice carried the news that Secretary Buttigieg had chosen me to be part of the department’s Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity. At that moment, thoughts raced – from the prospect of meeting Mayor Pete in person to bringing my daughter Annie to visit the National Mall and dining on Jiaozi at my cherished restaurant on Wisconsin Ave in DC.

Out of over 240 applicants, I was one of the fortunate 24 chosen for the committee. All I did was submit a statement and my resume. I’m still figuring out why I got picked — perhaps a mix of factors played a role, but who knows. Maybe the “why” doesn’t matter much; what matters is that I’m set to take on the responsibility and dive into the excitement ahead.

September will see the orientations and official launch of the committee. Before that unfolds, I’d like to share some snippets of my journey so far. Though they are small, these moments are the building blocks of my growth as both a planner and an individual.

From Music to Planning. It was a spring day in 2009 when I found myself seated on a sofa, gazing at a tree through the window of the Mountainlair lounge at West Virginia University. At that moment, I made a decision – to step away from my doctoral program in piano performance and walk into something more tangible. My path led me to planning. The reason is simple: I had a penchant for sketching maps of imaginary places that existed only in my mind. In planning, I could make the imagined reality. 

From Clemson to NYC DOT. As a grad student in city and regional planning at Clemson, I volunteered in the International Making Cities Livable conference held in Charleston, SC, where I met Randy Wade from NYC DOT. Subsequently, I interned at Randy’s Pedestrian Project Group in the summer. Memorable were the hands-on surveys to enhance pedestrian safety at intersections in Queens and Bronx, and the hour-long subway journey from Flushing to Downtown Manhattan. 

Morgantown. Following my graduation from Clemson, my wife Tingting found a position teaching Chinese at a summer camp in Morgantown, WV. With spare time on my hands, I drove around the town carrying my portfolio, in search of volunteer opportunities. A visit to the county planning office led me to Patty Booth, the county planner. I presented my portfolio. A few days later, Bill Austin, the director of Morgantown Metropolitan Planning Organization, called me, offering me a project which I can participate in. To this day, Bill remains my supervisor, and Patty’s desk is just six feet away from mine.

Morgantown Bicycle Board. The Morgantown Bicycle Board has some amazing people. Frank Gmeindl introduced me to the basics of cycling and later LCI seminars. The board also has Chip Wamsley, the owner of Wamsley Cycles and Gunnar Shogren, a former masters-level World Champion in cyclocross. My bicycle planning education (in the U.S.) kicked off from there. 

National Bike Summit. In the 2016 National Bike Summit, I did a presentation on improving bicycle on-street facilities through highway paving projects. More interestingly, as a representative of WV Connecting Communities, I participated in the summit’s Lobby Day.

Alongside Caron Whitaker, now Deputy Executive Director of the League, I visited West Virginia Senator Capito’s and Senator Manchin’s office. I still remember Caron telling me the importance of post-congressional visit follow-ups. The summit not only granted me experience of advocacy but also the know-how of navigating the congress buildings and locating the eatery. 

Jing Zhang and Caron Whitaker sharing a ride on Capitol Hill

LCI Seminars. I failed my first LCI seminar in Lancaster, PA, because I made a dangerous in-lane left turn during my road test. Fortunately, my journey to becoming an LCI didn’t end there. My second seminar was in Greensboro, NC, taught by Jim Nicholson, and I passed it. Though time has passed, the counterintuitive lesson of hazard evasion remains vivid—taking a lean towards the opposing direction before executing a sharp turn to the direction you want to go. 

In recent years, my volunteer activities are mostly with the American Planning Association, where I am chairing the American Planning Association (APA) International Division, co-chairing APA Japan-United States Collaboration Interest Group, and am a webmaster for the APA Asian and Pacific Island Interest Group. 

Looking back on these experiences, it is interesting to trace the dots. As I look ahead, attempting to foresee the path might require a dash of faith, a belief in the unseen threads that will bind the future into a coherent picture.

Jing Zhang is a pianist, transportation planner, and full-stack web developer. 

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