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Toks Omishakin gives presentation at UT.

From Bike Lanes to Freight Trains, CA Secretary of Transportation Toks Omishakin (’22) Thinks in Connections

In February of 2022, as the country was still recovering from the supply chain shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Toks Omishakin as the state’s fourth Secretary of Transportation.

That May, Omishakin helped strike down a decades-old plan to widen the 710 Freeway, one of the country’s busiest freight corridors—and defended his dissertation, completing his PhD in engineering management at UT’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE).

With the US government’s heavy investment in highways stretching back to the 1950s, Omishakin’s focus on other aspects of the transportation industry stands out. It is also what drew Omishakin to the ISE doctoral program.

“Transportation is ultimately a tool that helps people achieve what they want to achieve: to play, to worship, to access upward mobility at school or work,” Omishakin said. “If your city only has highways and you don’t have sidewalks, public transit, dedicated freight routes, rail, or an airport, you have a dysfunctional system. It’s like laying out all the pieces of a car without putting them together.”

The ISE department embodies this idea, encouraging students to take a holistic approach to systems like transportation networks.

“We look at all of a system’s components together: hardware, software, people, funding, and information,” said ISE Department Head Mingzhou Jin. “Engineering management is all about integrating those components to meet people’s needs.”

Being “People-Focused”

In 2002, Omishakin began his government career in the City of Nashville planning department, analyzing maps and designing new pedestrian and bicycle routes for the city. After a few years, he moved to the Nashville Mayor’s Office. Then, he was hired as the deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).

“It was essentially the same responsibility I had had for the city, but at a much larger scale,” Omishakin recalled. “The way I did the work changed from technical to policy-driven, but my outlook never has.”

Indeed, Omishakin considers initiating TDOT’s Multimodal Access Grant program (MMAG) to be one of his proudest career achievements. Each year since 2014, MMAG makes state funding available to small towns and cities in Tennessee working to improve their walking, biking, or public transportation infrastructure.

“Sometimes you see a bus stop and it’s just a stick in the mud,” Omishakin said. “With MMAG, small towns can build covered bus shelters with benches, sidewalk connections, and digital signage to show when the bus is coming.”

In its first year, MMAG awarded $9.9 million to 13 towns across Tennessee. In 2022, the program had more than doubled in scope, offering $26.6 million to 27 towns. Omishakin has seen the community impacts firsthand on follow-up visits to the recipient cities.

“When you’re only product-focused, you miss out on what the product means for the people using it,” Omishakin said. “When you’re people-focused, you think about the entire process and product all the way through.”

Achieving Broader Impacts

Two years after launching MMAG, Omishakin began pursuing his PhD at UT in 2016. He studied under Professor Andrew Yu, focusing on what he had called “people-focused” thinking and is more broadly known as systems engineering.

“It’s so important to think about things broadly, and I think that’s at the center of what the ISE department does,” Omishakin said. “Systems engineering forces you to think not just about the pieces that make a useful product or system, but how those pieces connect.”

In 2019, the newly elected Governor Newsom recruited Omishakin to be the director of the California Department of Transportation. Although his wife and two children would not be able to join him until the end of the 2020 school year, Omishakin boarded a plane out west and got to work.

“Impact was on my mind—not just philosophical alignment with the governor, but my potential to impact so many people and the environment for such a vast state,” he said.

Omishakin found himself in charge of the largest department of transportation in the country, managing a $17.5 billion budget and more than 22,000 employees.

He was also still sending assignments to Yu.

“Going to California reinforced what I was learning from UT and from this program,” he explained. “The governor was expecting me to make a complete system—not just to build more highways, but to enhance the mobility of people and freight across the state. It was the perfect fit for that systems thinking approach I was exploring.”

The operational focus of the PhD program also gave Omishakin a unique opportunity to translate his original research into state-level policy. For his dissertation, Omishakin was investigating methods to increase electric vehicle sales to meet California’s 2035 environmental goals. Before he completed that dissertation, Newsom approved a ban on sales of all new combustion-engine vehicles in the state by 2035.

“My research at UT and the advice that I got from my professors were directly connected to things that were very practical in real time in California,” Omishakin said. “Without that research, I’m not sure I would have been as effective driving some of the policy changes we were trying to achieve.”

The Pivotal Shift

Omishakin considers his decision to leave behind city planning maps to work in the Nashville mayor’s office as the pivot point of his career.

“It was frightening to think that I would have to sit down with the mayor, city leaders, council members, and state legislators about the direction the city was going in,” he recalled. “But I think that the more we’re focused on the difference that we’re going to make for people and the planet, the more impactful and successful we are. This was my chance to influence policy and shift the budget to focus on people. That was a very intentional point for me and I started to hone the skills that I knew were going to be critical.”

Earning his doctorate was the culmination of a 22-year shift from technical analysis to systems-level thinking, transforming Omishakin from an individual technical engineer into a systems engineer at the heart of a statewide transportation network. He encourages other engineers to bring similarly broad philosophies to their work.

“Whether you work for an auto manufacturer, a city, or a state, you have to be thinking about the sum of all parts and how they’re connected to one another to function,” he said. “I encourage the bright minds that come to UT to think about solutions for people on this planet that will make life better and easier.”


Izzie Gall (865-974-7203,