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Alumni Spotlight: Ross Savedge (’99)

July 7, 2017 / Catherine Nicholas / Blog

Ross at the “finish line” from the 5km sea swim at the World Masters Games, with Rangitoto, Auckland’s newest volcano, in the background.

Ross Savedge graduated from Governor’s School in 1999.  He remembers the school as “competitive and full of the widest variety of interesting, intelligent students one could ask for.  Teachers and school administration trusted the students, and in return, we liked and trusted them. Everyone was treated with respect.  And everyone was friendly and interesting.”  He also has warm memories of the TJ building itself—“the wooden floors, high ceilings and tall, beautiful windows at TJ, as well as the slate stairs, even though they were so worn that they sloped and you would slide down them in the rain.”  (Reader, I fell on them.—Ed.)

After graduating from GSGIS, Ross attended Georgetown University, where he majored in Russian and minored in Business.  He lived in Russia during his junior year, spending a semester in St. Petersburg followed by a semester in Moscow.  He then moved to Portland, OR for six months, where he realized that he wanted his lifelong fascination with cities and public transportation to become a career in public transit planning.

In 2007, he enrolled at CUNY Hunter College in the Master of Urban Planning program.  In his first semester, his Transit Planning professor issued a challenge.  “He handed us line drawings of the bus networks of 25 US cities without any geographic features, and we were to guess which cities each map represented. I was the first student the professor had to get them all right–my prize was an MTA necktie with buses on it. It is probably the nerdiest thing I have ever owned and definitely a prized possession.”  During a transit planning internship, Ross led a massive survey effort in New Jersey and worked on a project in California as well, leading to a job offer shortly after from the consultancy.

Ross currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand with his partner, Cameron, whom he married in New York this past May.  The move was somewhat spontaneous.  They were expecting to move to Cape Town, South Africa, but when election-year politics stalled the project in question, Ross accepted a different job in New Zealand.  They day they left for Auckland was also the day his close friend Johnetta Pressley, also a member of the GSGIS Class of 1999 and the Georgetown Class of 2003, passed away.  “I found out when we were changing planes in San Francisco on the way to Auckland and was absolutely devastated–to the point where I almost turned around and went home,” Ross remembers.  “I didn’t turn around, and instead was determined to make a life for Cameron and myself in New Zealand.”

Auckland, with its population of 1.5 million, at first seemed “very small and very slow” compared to New York, where he spent the prior decade.  The summer after he moved, his parents visited, and the group embarked on a New Zealand road trip.  “New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth–everywhere you go looks like a post card,” Ross says.  He grew to appreciate the friendliness of Aucklanders, as well as the city itself.  “It has all the benefits of a major global city–diversity in people and cuisine and a level of global awareness that you don’t find in similarly-sized North American cities. It’s a very active city, and I’ve gone back to swimming, which I did in high school, including a bit of open water competition. Cameron, who isn’t really into sports, has even started cycling on occasion,” he says.

Though Ross and Cameron will be relocating to Melbourne in September, and are excited for the change, they will miss Auckland and wouldn’t rule out moving back at some point.  Ross answered our questions about his work and life in New Zealand below:

You work as a transit planner.  What does that entail?

I design public transit networks including buses, trains and everything in-between. I am a technical lead (Transit Practice Lead across Australia and New Zealand) and a project manager, and soon will be responsible for helping to grow my team (and the Melbourne office–more on that later) as well! I do everything from technical work such as data analysis and bus network design, to writing up reports with our recommendations, reviewing others’ work, meeting with clients and presenting to the public. While the technical work can be a bit closer to engineering than planning, the process we go through is very much that of urban planning, requiring close work with clients and stakeholders in order to build consensus on the best way to move forward.

What is the best part of your job?

Sitting around and drawing maps on paper. I used to do this in class when I was bored–now I get paid to do it.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Managing expectations–sometimes clients have a particular outcome in mind, but that outcome actually isn’t good from a cost-benefit perspective. Clients don’t like to hear this.

What do you wish more people understood about transit planning/urban planning?

  1. Most things we do have to do with big picture outcomes–even the best projects with the most benefits will probably inconvenience someone.
  2. Building more roads will not solve traffic congestion—it will just encourage more people to drive. The only way around congestion is to offer other options–i.e., walking, cycling, public transport, or traveling at a different time.
  3. Designing a transport network to serve peak demand requires a huge amount of resources and results in massive infrastructure that is only used a few hours per day. This makes little sense from an economic perspective. We are better off building transport networks that serve a variety of different purposes throughout the day and encouraging people to travel outside of the peak when they can. Employers demanding strict 9-5 schedules are actually a big part of the problem!

What is a big part of your job that would surprise people outside your industry?

The amount of thought, time and energy that goes into every little thing. People love to complain about their transport system, but rarely understand how much goes into planning, designing, building and operating it. Also, because nothing operates in a vacuum, every change or improvement has flow-on impacts (positive and negative)across the network, some of which are unexpected.

What would you tell someone visiting New Zealand not to miss?

There are beautiful places all over the country, so don’t just spend time in Auckland. Some of my favourite places include the black sand beaches on the west coast of Auckland (Waitakere Ranges Regional Park), the Coromandel Peninsula, Tongariro National Park and Queenstown. That said, many of the most amazing experiences are small and unexpected, such as a short 1km walk down the beach to the Three Sisters in Taranaki, prompted by a little brown sign on the side of the road. While many tourists focus on the dramatic scenery of the South Island, there are amazing places to go all over the North Island as well. Also, Wellington, the Capital, is an incredibly cool city with excellent cafes and the best coffee in the world.

DO: Drive—go for a road trip, spend time on both the South Island and the North Island, stop in Wellington, drink Flat Whites, drink local Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and craft beer, and check out some of the most beautiful and remote beaches on the planet.

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