Alumni Stories

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Joseph L. Schofer

Class of 1959

Active in the Transportation Research Board (TRB) for more than 30 years and a committee chair for several current and past TRB policy studies, Joseph L. Schofer is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University,
director of the university’s Infrastructure Technology Institute (ITI), and associate dean for faculty affairs at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
He shares his expertise in infrastructure with the public as host of the monthly Internet podcast, “The Infrastructure Show,” and currently is preparing to deliver two lectures on the Panama Canal for a Northwestern alumni group. “At the core of my work is an interest in information for decision support—what information do decision makers want
and need? What can they understand and use?” Schofer notes. One of the best ways to answer these questions, he has found,
is to observe and interact with the decision makers themselves. In 2006, Schofer and several colleagues conducted interviews
with a variety of transportation leaders to examine data—the importance of data to decision makers and how they use the
data. The results of this research are described in the often-cited TRB Transportation Research Circular E-C109, Transportation Information Assets and Impacts: An Assessment of Needs. A strong source of accurate data assets is essential to the policy-making process, Schofer affirms. “Among the things I’ve learned is that some policy makers find it easier to base choices
on stories—anecdotes—than on data,” he observes. “But to be valid, anecdotes must be supported by data, rather than masquerading
as data. The task for students, researchers, and transportation professionals is to provide balanced advice based on solid data, quality analyses, and accessible products.”

Schofer completed his undergraduate studies in civil engineering at Yale University, and received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Northwestern. He started as associate professor at Northwestern in 1970, and became a full
professor in 1973. He was director of research at the university’s Transportation Center from 1979 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2003 and was chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental
Engineering from 1997 to 2002. In 2007, he became director of ITI, which concentrates on developing infrastructure materials and methods for monitoring structural health.
As a professor, Schofer focuses on transportation planning, policy analysis, and evaluation. He advises recent graduates
and young professionals to broaden their world view: “Look out the front window. Why are we doing this? What is the value?
How can we show what’s important to a policy maker who may have little technical training, many preconceptions, and not much time?”
To do this, Schofer notes, it is vital to pay attention to high quality news reports and thoughtful analyses of issues in the
transportation field—and beyond. “Almost everything that goes on around us presents opportunities to learn something useful
for our work, because transportation is
tightly intertwined with our society,
economy, and environment,” he points

Schofer’s long involvement with TRB
began with service on the Community
Values Committee. He became chair of
the committee and continued in that role
when it merged with two others in 1970
to become the Transportation Systems
Design Committee. Among other TRB
Technical Activities assignments, Schofer
has served on the National Transportation
Data Requirements and Programs Committee, the Data and Information Systems Section, and the Committee for the Workshop
on Using National Household Travel Survey Data for Transportation Decision Making.
A TRB policy study drew Schofer into the field of travel data. The study reviewed Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS) flagship surveys and produced TRB Special Report 277, Measuring Personal Travel and Goods Movement. This involvement opened the doors for Schofer to explore the various facets of data in use: their value, availability, and quality. He currently chairs two policy study committees—Equity Implications of
Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms and Strategies for Improved Passenger and Freight Travel Data—an experience he likens to “the intellectual and organizational equivalent of running two marathons at once.”
“The value comes not only from immersion in the subject, but also from working with the scholars from transportation and other fields, agency leaders, consultants, and policy makers,”

Schofer reflects. He adds that service with TRB has three dimensions of value: “the opportunity to obtain and share information
in a collaborative setting, the chance to interact with diverse groups of experts in various fields, and the experience of working with staff members. Almost everything that goes on around us presents opportunities to
learn something useful for our work, because transportation is so tightly intertwined with our society, economy, and environment.”

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Happy Holidays!