2019 40 Under 40: Marc Szarkowski

Sept. 13, 2019
Marc Szarkowski, Transportation Planner, WSP and Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration.
  • One word to describe yourself: Tinkerer
  • Alma Mater: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Favorite book: “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” by Jane Jacobs
  • Favorite TV show: “Everybody Hates Chris”
  • Favorite movie: A tie between “Rear Window” and “Tin Men”
  • Favorite hobby(s): Urban sketching/drawing; 3D modeling and rendering; SimCity 4
  • Fun fact about yourself: Thanks to personal trips as well as contributions from many friends, I have schedules, maps and passes from more than 127 transit agencies from around the world and growing. I love seeing how different parts of the world communicate transit service, one of the most important forms of urban infrastructure ever invented, to their passengers. For something so universal, there sure is a lot of variety in the ways transit information is conveyed!
  • Favorite station or stop that you have ever visited or frequent (and why): The Market East (now Jefferson) Station and adjoining Greyhound Terminal in Philadelphia. It's unpretentious, it always gets the job done, and its connections to local buses, regional and intercity buses, the Market-Frankford Line, and regional rail are intuitive and invaluable. I've stumbled in at all times of the day and night and have always been able to find my way; it feels like home and I think all stations should be this way. The Center City Commuter Connection, which made Market East Station possible in the first place, is itself a remarkably underappreciated and undervalued asset.
  • For cities that are lucky enough to have intermodal terminals like this, please don't take them for granted! Here in Baltimore we have no such thing, the result of decades of poor planning by - I hate to be this blunt but I think it's true - people who claim to support transit in the abstract but never stepped up to practice what they preached because they never were regular transit riders themselves and thus never suffered the consequences of their disjointed policies and decisions. Incredibly, I've talked to a few older planners from previous generations who, amazingly, didn't seem to think all this discontinuity was a big deal, and I'm concerned that this mentality continues to carry over to some of the contemporary rapid transit and intercity transit proposed for the city and region.
  • Favorite route you have ever ridden or frequent (and why): I have several favorites here in Baltimore because, if used in combination, they really come close to frequent "show up and go" service, which is the only kind of transit that's useful if you don't want to waste your life waiting around.
  • I think mostly in terms of corridors rather than in favorite routes because while I ride almost all the routes that serve the core of the city, I haven't yet ridden many of the crosstown routes in the outskirts or the suburbs, and these are the less-frequent routes that really are hair-pulling. If it's late, a half-hourly or an hourly route in these areas could really get someone fired from their job.

Marc Szarkowski is employed by WSP USA, but brings his unique blend of graphic design skills and aesthetic, creative urban design insight and passion for public transit to Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) as an embedded consultant.  

Szarkowski has been described as an underground transit superstar with work such as his plan and renderings for the Jones Falls corridor and a proposed redesign of the MDOT MTA bus system. One of the larger projects Szarkowski has been a part of is the BaltimoreLink bus network redesign for which he won widespread recognition for his “polar map” of the system.

In addition to the polar system map, Szarkowski also redesigned the signs for MDOT MTA’s 4500 bus stops, transformed the look and feel of the bus schedules and developed renderings of proposed infrastructure investments. He was involved in all the collateral and design work associated with BaltimoreLink including the complete branding and aesthetic package, which established a comprehensive, cohesive, fresh look for every aspect of the new system.

Szarkowski is also credited with finding realistic, but progressive solutions, such as when he was tasked with designing a selection of handheld braille maps for blind passengers as a component of the MDOT MTA’s Inclusive Transportation Planning project. He met repeatedly with passengers who were blind to understand and observe how they interacted with existing collateral. He used this information to develop a prototype map which was then tested with the same passengers who informed the project. As a direct result of Szarkowski’s effort, the MDOT MTA is in the process of piloting braille maps for its frequent bus routes and its rail lines.

While his accomplishments with signage, wayfinding and maps are impressive, Szarkowski’s true passion is urban design and the potential to influence the built environment. He has been responsible for the visioning of MDOT MTA’s first transit-oriented development opportunities located around transit stations throughout the greater Baltimore region. Colleagues say that Szarkowski’s ability to relate the vision to the concepts through extensive and clear language sets him apart from his peers in this field.

“Toward the end of my architecture education at RPI, I realized that I didn't really want to practice conventional architecture, and that I was actually more interested in urban design and in how the various components and networks in a city worked - or didn't work - together. As an avid SimCity fanatic through high school and college, I probably should have realized earlier what my true calling was, but better late than never! For a few years after graduating, I did a lot of freelance and part-time rendering, drafting and 3D modeling work, and during this time, I attempted to teach myself the urban design I had missed in architecture school. I read a lot, devouring in particular Jane Jacobs, Allan Jacobs, Jarrett Walker, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, William Whyte, James Howard Kunstler, Charlie Gardner and others. I also felt that architecture school had been underwhelming in that it seemed preoccupied with contextless sculpture, so through the writers above I was thrilled to discover a whole other side to architecture that had real answers to the challenges of urbanism! After school my freelance projects gradually began to shift from architecture to urban design and transit, and at one point, I proposed a ‘frequent transit grid’ for Michael Walk, who was MDOT MTA's director of Service Planning at the time. This snowballed into full-time work for MDOT MTA, where am I happily ensconced today!”

“I know this is cliché, but I love making an actual difference - for better or worse - in the lives of transit passengers. I strive to offer ideas that will improve transit passengers' lives, since I'm a daily passenger myself. We hear ‘make a difference in peoples' lives’ all the time, but transit planning and urban design is a profession that profoundly impacts peoples' lives, and even the most modest and seemingly inconsequential design and planning decisions made by transit agencies can instantly affect a passenger's routine and immediately make their life a lot better or a lot worse. It's actually very different from architecture: as building inhabitants we can learn to like or hate any given building, but our daily experiences will rarely make their way back to the architect because they'll have moved on to the next building or project or city. Contrarily, if you improve or worsen a transit passenger's or a pedestrian's experience, you will quickly hear about it directly from the affected people! Transit planning and urban design is both ennobling and humbling at the same time because you can only ever propose an idea within the context of knowing that you can't afford to screw it up, and that even if you do screw it up as part of the learning process, you have no choice but to go back and attempt to fix your mistakes. Meanwhile, Frank Lloyd Wright said that an architect can only ever advise their client to plant vines.”

“I don't like the sluggish proceduralism that is common in transit agencies and other large organizations. I like to experiment and throw out ideas first, then tinker with them as needed, and I get very impatient if a long, drawn-out process impedes the delivery of an idea or project that could otherwise be implemented and adapted much more quickly in smaller, nimbler organizations. I also dislike ‘design by committee’ - I don't think anything good has ever come out of a meeting - and I think some planners have a tendency to overemphasize process at the expense of actual results. I'm so impatient with process that I've actually undertaken some projects at MDOT MTA on the fly as experiments without asking permission or following any established process, feeling that it's a lot easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I think that in the context of Baltimore and other large cities, people are trying to get to work, to appointments, and to school right now, and they can't afford to wait several years for the appropriate hierarchical process to deliver a transit solution. I will say that, having seen the procedural rigmarole that some other transit agencies go through, I think MDOT MTA is a lot better in this regard than other agencies: despite occasionally ruffling feathers, I've gotten nothing but wholehearted support from my mentors, managers and supervisors at MDOT MTA.”

“I absolutely love the urban design, streetscaping and transit-oriented development design work that I get to do at MDOT MTA because it's almost like playing SimCity in the real world! It's exhilarating to explore how to turn a wasteland of parking around a station into an actual neighborhood, even if that neighborhood will take some time to grow and fill out in the real world. Again, knowing that you can play a role in either bringing an abandoned neighborhood back to life, or bringing an entirely new neighborhood to life, is both humbling and ennobling: it's humbling to realize that you're part of a bigger urban organism that is constantly regenerating itself. At any given time parts of it may be wilting and parts of it may be flowering, but even if you don't get to see your work instantly come to fruition, it's reassuring to know you still have an effect on shaping the urban form. Transit and the land use around transit corridors can dramatically reshape cities: the way Washington D.C. has rebuilt itself around metro is a profound example, and no one designing metro stations in the 1970s or 1980s imagined that it was possible or desirable to build something other than parking lots around stations. But look at all the new blocks filled with people that have sprouted around the metro stations now! One of my favorite pastimes is doing "before and after" Street View tours of various neighborhoods in Baltimore: Google Street View has a function in which you can go back in time to see the same street at different times, and there are so many streets and neighborhoods in Baltimore that were completely boarded up on Street View in 2009 that are now completely full of life and people again. Oliver Street in Greenmount West is probably my favorite example.”

“Never preemptively lose interest in a personal idea or project just because initial feedback may be tepid or negative, or even if everyone else seems completely uninterested. You have to push it out and release it into the world regardless of what the mood around you may be: in so many examples of innovation and experimentation, yesterday's doubters always ended up insisting it was a good idea all along! If there are skeptics who throw up obstacles, just detour around them! When developing your personal idea or project, it's also important to maintain a personal drive and determination to see it through for your own satisfaction of getting a good job done - don't lean on others for encouragement or expect others to push you to get it done: we're lucky if we get to have a few people in our lives that will push us forward, but for the most part we can't expect to finish things on the basis of seeking external validation; you have to develop internal validation for getting the things you want done.”

“I'm very grateful that I can play a role in improving the transit system I use every day, even if my ideas don't always come to immediate fruition. I've had my share of frustrating transit experiences – ‘Wow, if I had a car, I would have already been to the store and back in the whole time I've been waiting here,’ - but it's always still encouraging to know that I - that we all - have the opportunity, in our own ways, to make improvements to the urban systems, networks, and infrastructure that at different times can either frustrate or empower us. Again, it's important to push your ideas and projects into the world no matter the obstacles: it's better to be told ‘no’ a hundred times and always look for a different route than to just give up.”