ASCE Younger Member Leader Takes Infrastructure Advocacy on the Road

July 12, 2018
Gilbert’s engineering background combined with his outgoing personality make him the perfect messenger for communicating with elected officials about infrastructure.

It was your standard get-to-know-you activity.

Go around the circle, give your name, where you live, your job, and one interesting fact about yourself.

And it got your standard responses, the civil engineers in the room each dutifully participating with the expected answers.

Until …

“So my name is Jazz. I just quit my job, I don’t really know where I’m going to live, and I’m about to leave on a two-month bike ride across America.”

Jazz Gilbert, ladies and gentlemen.

Gilbert, P.E., M.ASCE, as his get-to-know-you answers indicate, is quite the character. He’s enthusiastic, funny, and outgoing in the extreme. These qualities have made him one of ASCE’s most visible Younger Members, a successful structural engineer in California, and a popular practitioner adviser for his alma mater Cal Poly SLO Student Chapter.

But he wasn’t kidding with those answers. He really did leave his job of five years, and he really did ride his bike from coast to coast.

It may sound crazy, but there’s definitely a method to the madness.

Gilbert took two months to bike across the country. PHOTO: Jazz Gilbert

Infrastructure advocate

Gilbert has long been a voice of infrastructure advocacy for ASCE, participating in Infrastructure Week events, joining his fellow Region 9 members for Legislative Drive-In days in Sacramento, and meeting with Members of Congress in Washington, DC, at the ASCE Fly-In.

“It’s interesting to me,” Gilbert said. “Being involved through ASCE, I think being part of policy change. I like helping to influence people.”

Gilbert’s engineering background combined with his outsized personality make him the perfect messenger for communicating with elected officials about infrastructure.

“All of my friends make fun of me because every single party, every social gathering, every professional event, I’m the one going around, talking, making sure everyone is doing well, seeing how everyone’s doing,” Gilbert said. “That’s just what I enjoy doing. I like conversing with people, I like interacting, I like hearing people’s stories.”

So when Gilbert made the decision to remake his career last fall, he combined his love for meeting people with his passion for cycling and headed out on the road for a two-month bike tour across America.

The plan? See the country and talk to people about two important issues: suicide prevention and the importance of infrastructure investment.

“Me being me, I didn’t want to do just one thing,” Gilbert laughed. “I like to overwhelm myself and try to do too many things.”

“There were countless times where a car was within three inches of me, and if there was a gust of wind or I had turned slightly to avoid a rock, I would’ve smacked straight into a car,” Gilbert said. PHOTO: Jazz Gilbert

On the road

Gilbert may occasionally be guilty of overambition, but he’s also stubborn.

So he stuck with the plan and finished the trip – from Pomona, CA, to Phoenix and Tucson, to El Paso to Dallas to Tuscaloosa, to Atlanta to Charlotte to Richmond, to DC, and finally Baltimore. Eight to 12 hours a day; 2,800 miles.

“When I’d stop for breaks, I’d chat with whoever was willing to listen,” Gilbert said. “And if they weren’t willing to listen, I’d talk to them anyway.”

Gilbert continued the trip even when the rack on the front of his bike broke and locked up his front wheel, sending him flying over his handlebars somewhere in the middle of Texas.

He continued the trip even after a motorist rear-ended him while he was waiting at a stoplight near Starkville, MS.

“I heard her brakes slam, and then I was on her hood and my bike was on the ground,” Gilbert said. “She gets out of her car and she’s like, ‘I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to hit you.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, no [kidding], you didn’t mean to hit me. If you did mean to hit me, this would be a real problem!’ But I was totally fine.”

All part of the adventure.

Gilbert certainly got an up-close-and-personal view of the nation’s infrastructure, especially at it relates to cyclists.

“There were countless times where a car was within three inches of me, and if there was a gust of wind or I had turned slightly to avoid a rock, I would’ve smacked straight into a car,” Gilbert said.

“It’s crazy the number of people that just squeeze by you. It’s scary. Generally speaking, the difference in roadway bike infrastructure varies depending on whereabouts in the country you are.”

The best places? The rail-to-trail projects he found in Texas and throughout the Southeast.

“There are these former rail lines that they’ve turned into trails of varying degrees,” Gilbert said. “Some of those remain as dirt trails or off-roading trails for mountain bikes. And through cities, some of them will be paved as multi-use trails. And some are straight up like 100 miles of paved trail that go through the middle of nowhere. Those were the prettiest and most enjoyable parts of the trip.”

Jazz Gilbert got an up-close-and-personal look at America’s infrastructure. PHOTO: Jazz Gilbert

What’s next?

As Gilbert returns to so-called normal life, the question arises: what’s next?

He may have left his civil engineering job, but he isn’t necessarily leaving civil engineering. Gilbert is looking into a path to politics via law school. Instead of advocating for infrastructure as a practitioner, he could push for policy changes from inside the system.

“We absolutely need more engineers in politics,” Gilbert said. “We approach things in a different sense. We think through things very holistically. We weigh pros and cons and generally make fairly unbiased, objective decisions. So that mindset is something that I feel would really be valued and valuable.”

Perhaps we will see Senator Jazz Gilbert in the future.

“I enjoy listening to people’s thoughts and hearing from people and learning from people,” Gilbert said. “An efficient politician, in my mind, isn’t an expert in anything beyond being an expert in learning from others.

“So, yeah, that’s the thought. We’ll see.”

  • I, too, rode across the US in 1991, when I was 55. My two sons, 22 and 28 years old, joined me, or maybe I should say I joined them. It was my best ever adventure. There was no advanced planning involved. Every week, I would pull out maps and predict where we would bike each day of the upcoming week. We seldom achieved our goals, but why worry. In total we biked 3,700 miles from Ocean City, WA to Ocean City, MD; spent 49 days biking; and 5 days to rest our bodies. We did not figure out where we were going to start until the evening before leaving. When we decided to start at Ocean City, WA, it was just natural to finish at Ocean City, MD which is a popular beach city not far from our home in Reston, VA near Washington, DC. We started the ride on June 24 and finished on August 16; weather was phenomenally good.

    We did a northern route, and a fair amount of North-South. We went through WA, OR, ID, WY, NE, IA, IL, IN, OH, PA, MD, and DE. Crossed the Continental Divide at Togowtee Pass, WY, elevation 9,500′. The highlight of the trip was all the people we met and talked to along the way. We celebrated every day’s ride with some brews and pretzels. We had all sorts of sleeping accommodations, from strangers’ homes (in beds) to pitching our tent in their yards, a few campgrounds, most commonly city parks (watch out for the sprinklers that automatically go on at midnight), RAGBRAI (Registers’ Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa)campsites for a week, and motels for four nights.

    As a principal of SCS Engineers, I did not have to quit my job to do this, and neither son was working that summer.

  • Jazz and I should talk. I just did a 4,200mi race across the US and it gave me a lot of time to observe and ruminate over pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. It was frustrating to see what some DOTs have done to make riding incredibly dangerous—the sorts of decisions that are flagrantly lacking awareness of any users besides cars and heavy trucks. Riding like that also gives you and overwhelming sense of the decaying state of our infrastructure. Ten states in thirty days was a very compressed trip, but it gave me an honest sense of how drivers respond and insight to the correlation between the road conditions and their behavior.

  • I keep laughing! I found myself in him, ha ha ha! Cheers!

  • Very interesting article. I wouldn’t mind meeting Jazz myself. I just completed a marathon bike event myself–Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure.

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