Improving society one road at a time

“I find the people who can broaden my perspective to be the most interesting.”--Dustin Black, B.S.'16

Almost 40,000 roadway fatalities occur every single year in the United States. A person dies in a traffic crash every 16 minutes in the U.S. Road crashes are the leading cause of death for children and young adults in America, ages 1-19.

“These are incredible stats that I think about each and every day in my career,” says transportation engineer Dustin Black, B.S.’19. “I believe transportation engineering is the discipline best-suited to make a positive impact in society.”

The biggest challenge Black sees impacting transportation and traffic engineering is the impending paradigm shift away from single-occupancy vehicles as the dominant mode of transportation. “Car-centric design has impacted every aspect of our lives. Everything from roadway safety to land use policies to municipal solvency to the environment and climate change. These are all connected and integral to transportation engineering.”

While Black’s career focus is solidly on improving society through his role in transportation engineering, he didn’t take the usual route getting there. Graduating from high school, he was uncertain about his future or what type of career best suited him. So instead of heading to college, he headed to work and landed his first job at Somat Engineering in Detroit.

“I had always been interested in construction projects, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do out of high school,” says Black. "So, I took a job doing materials testing in the field—a job very similar to many civil engineering undergraduate internships—and worked my way up from there.”

Within two years, he made a move to HNTB in construction delivery, asset management and road design becoming increasingly responsible for managing projects. In 2014, he joined the team at the Michigan Department of Transportation in Project Delivery—Kalamazoo/Coloma Transportation Service Center.

“I quickly realized that attaining a civil engineering degree was the logical next step for me,” adds Black, who continued working at the DOT even after enrolling at Western in 2016.

“I was already very interested in the courses, but I was also able to get involved in many of the student organizations available at WMU,” says Black. “I participated in American Society of Civil Engineers and Chi Epsilon (it turns out that many of my bosses were members at one time). One of the greatest opportunities one will find at Western is its connection to the civil engineering industry.”

Black also spent time getting to know the more experienced graduate students, faculty members and industry partners at WMU. Then, when Black graduated with a B.S. in civil engineering in 2019, he earned his spot as a transportation engineer for the Michigan DOT in Alpena. A job he clearly loves.

When designing roadways, Black must consider users of all types and of all walks of life. His work must accommodate motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, and anyone else that might use the space. “The needs of each population and socioeconomic group in a community must be considered, and each must be paid their special attention,” he adds. “Details matter to the user experience.”

“Everything is interesting in transportation engineering! Especially working for a state DOT, I get to interact with local officials all over the place and get to see what makes their cities tick. I spend a lot of time going to city council meetings and meeting with local business owners, and I get to do other cool things like photo ops on top of the Mackinac Bridge! I truly haven’t been bored in my career yet.”

Not that he has time to be bored. This engineer is busy raising a family and volunteering for numerous organizations—as a certification examiner for the American Concrete Institute; serving on the board of Samaritas; and working as liaison for the Portage (Mich.) Bicycle Advisory Committee.

And this Bronco also supports Western, offering more opportunities for engineering students by sponsoring senior design projects that he hopes will inspire future transportation engineers who will also strive to make a positive impact on society.

What Inspires Dustin Black?

“Just as an example, a Canadian researcher illustrated a key point about how people observe and interpret the world around them that has really stuck with me. The image below resulted from two elementary school classmates from the same neighborhood in the same class who were asked to draw the things they saw on their commute to school. One student was driven to school, and the other walked to school. Both students were able to identify what was on their commute but only one of them was able to provide important details like color, form, and spatial relationships. Same commute, but two totally different points of view. In the end, the researchers concluded that the way in which people move around or through a space affects the way the space itself is interpreted.”