Molly Wagner standing at a booth with an ADA project poster.

Student Spotlight: Molly Wagner, Master of Urban and Regional Planning

January 18, 2023

This article was written by Lisa Williams, CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning student.

Molly Wagner, current Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) student sat down with Lisa for a Q&A to share Molly’s life experiences that led her to pursue a degree in urban planning and the impact of her education at CU Denver on her future career.

Molly’s Road to Urban Planning

What brought you to urban planning or transportation? What’s the long, winding tale that got you here?

I think it was a slow path over time.

I grew up in Fayetteville, West Virginia, which is known for world-class biking, whitewater, and climbing. However, West Virginia is also continually ranked as one of the highest in the country for chronic disease and other health challenges. I’m a pretty observational person, and so I began to think about this disconnect between all the opportunities to be active, yet we have massive health challenges, which really impact daily life. It made me think about how our land is used, designed, and what it requires us to do to live there—such as driving long distances to food, work, and education. I drove 45 minutes to high school each way.

When I was young, we would travel to New York and other east coast cities with my dad for work. He loved taking as many modes of transportation as possible, especially because when living in West Virginia and the only option was a car. So any time we could take a taxi, the subway, or walk it was quite the activity. I appreciate it even more now than I did back then. There was such a freedom to it, which stuck with me and has since influenced how I travel in places I live and visit.

When I was in high school, my dad worked on some major development projects near Fayetteville that put in motion some of the first environmental building standards in the area. He would bring us out to the sites and show us what he was working on—how they were monitoring environmental impacts and cleaning up waste from old coal mining sites. The process was fascinating, but I thought that you had to be an engineer, architect, or developer to work in that world, and didn’t feel like the right fit for me. Instead, I majored in marketing at Virginia Tech, where I got to study a lot of placemaking style work. All of these experiences challenged me to get curious about the way the built environment functions and explore it from different angles and perspectives.

That’s great exposure to the field. Did that lead directly to urban planning for you?

Not directly. After graduating, I worked in the advertising and digital media industry, both in Virginia and San Diego for a few years. I really wanted to get back to that physical placemaking side of things that I was so interested in when in college. In 2016, I was introduced to the executive director of WALKSacramento (now Civic Thread), a Sacramento, CA nonprofit focused on health in the built environment, active transportation, and community capacity building. I started as a volunteer and worked there for five years before starting CU Denver’s MURP program.

How did you choose the MURP program for that next step?

I think the thing that really stood out was how accessible the faculty was. One piece of advice that I got when I was applying to programs was to find faculty that you are interested in what they are studying because that will make a world of difference in your experience. So, for me, it was the faculty and how accessible they were before even applying, and that has stayed true throughout my entire time in MURP.

Molly Wagner riding a bike.

ADA and Everyday Travel

Was Manish Shirgaokar one of those faculty in the beginning, or did you take his transportation class? How did you get connected?

I took his class “Transit, Pedestrian, and Bicycle Planning” in the fall semester of my first year. I really appreciated the way he taught, and I was thinking a lot about where I wanted to be at the end of graduation. I scheduled a meeting with Manish because I was looking for advice on different career avenues based on my transportation interests, and I wanted to push myself in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to push myself. At the time, he had a position open for a research assistant and suggested that I apply for it. That has turned out to be really valuable in developing new skills and getting exposure to the research field.

Did that research project turn into the paper you and Manish are taking to the Transportation Research Board conference?

Yes, the study/final paper is called Is ADA Effective? As Assessment Based on Everyday Travel Experiences and Transportation Infrastructure Challenges. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. So it’s over 30 years old now. Since its initial passing, there has been major progress, such as ramps on buses, but we wanted to learn from people with disabilities about what influences their travel decisions and experiences while traveling to see what is working and areas that might need additional improvements.   

We had two objectives for the study. First, to understand how elements of transportation infrastructure impact the daily mobility of people with disabilities. Second, to investigate how the programming and management of transportation assets impact navigation for people with disabilities. In addition to Manish and myself, Wesley Marshall, who is a Professor of Civil Engineering, co-authored the paper. The paper was presented at the Associate of Collegiate Schools of Planning in Toronto this past November and as a poster at the Transportation Research Board 102nd Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. this January.

Then the second project is my thesis, Investigating the Barriers to Achieving ADA Compliance of Transportation Infrastructure in Public Agencies. This topic evolved from the findings we revealed in the first study. We interviewed several public agency staff to explore perspectives on ADA and how its managed within public agencies. The interviews and a literature review showed that more research is needed to understand how current policies, funding limitations, perspectives, and practices influence ADA compliance. My goal for my thesis is to explore these challenges through a survey and conversations with transportation professionals across the U.S. to better understand the challenges agencies may have in meeting ADA compliance specific to transportation.

That sounds like a really great project.  Are you getting a lot of good information on that already?

Molly: There will be a survey hopefully launching very soon for professionals. I am also working on a literature review. There has been a lot of research looking at sidewalk infrastructure gaps and the cost of sidewalks, as well as different accessibility needs and challenges within transit, but there hasn’t been as much research investigating the implementation of or the lead-up to the implementation of transportation assets from an ADA perspective. This is where I hope my thesis can aid in informing some of the gaps.

Is there anything else you would like for us to share with the alumni and friends of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at CU Denver?

Absolutely, I am looking for anyone, who works in the transportation space to take this survey. I also encourage our alumni to take the survey and share it with their professional networks. I hope to have a broad reach of responses from across the country, so the more professionals I can get it out to the better. Alumni are welcome to contact me directly if they have questions or want more information.

Have you worked with a mentor inside or outside of the program?

I consider Manish a mentor in the research space. I also participated in the CAP Mentorship Program last year and connected with Geneva Hooten. She works at DOTI as the Bicycle Program Manager, and she is phenomenal! She has been so great at introducing me to the Denver transportation community and supporting me through various decisions in my academic and professional career.

Portrait of Molly Wagner overlooking canyons.

Networking in Urban Planning

Are there any other projects that you feel were impactful to your trajectory?

The Barcelona Studio was impactful in a lot of ways. Getting to be there for multiple weeks allowed me to explore and learn about the city in an “unrushed” way. We also had the opportunity to meet with local professionals and advocates to learn about top priorities and challenges related to planning, public space, and health.

While in many ways our cultures and way of life are very different, we are all trying to address similar topics such as the negative impacts of transportation emissions, the rising cost of living, and gentrification. I don’t think anyone has the perfect answer that will solve everything, but there is a lot that we can learn from each other regardless of if we live here in the U.S. or somewhere abroad.

Your role as Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) Colorado Student Chapter President seems to fit with your passions. How has that role and the connection to the state or national chapter impacted you?

I have always found a lot of value in professional networking groups like WTS. I have gotten just about every job I have ever had through a connection or network that I have tapped into. Having a network of very talented, and supportive women is very motivating for me. While WTS is not all women, it is powerful to see so many women of diverse backgrounds and experiences in the planning and engineering space.  

In the short time that I have been involved with WTS, it has helped me expand beyond my academic bubble to stay up to date on all things transportation locally and nationally. The WTS CO Student Chapter board is excited to bring more transportation-related events to current MURP students this spring semester.

Lastly, a shameless plug for alumni—if you are interested in collaborating with the student chapter on an event or need volunteers, please reach out!