Thursday, January 17, 2013

Transportation Camp: No Lake, Bunk Beds, and it's in the Winter

Transportation Camp - Why Go?

Why get out of bed early on a Saturday morning in the middle of the winter - decidedly not summer camp weather - to leave your partner (if you have one), children (if you have them), pets (if you have them) and absolve yourself of all adult responsibility and the comforts of routine and loved ones to spend an entire day in windowless rooms - also not camp like - to discuss all aspects of transportation with 300 people, many of whom describe themselves as transportation geeks? Why attend an unconference, an event where there are no keynote speakers, predetermined sessions, experts, bios or daises?  

Why? Because you will have fun - yes, it's camp - with people excited about walkable streets, better transit, open data, paratransit, bikesharing, bus rapid transit plans, and social media use by, for and perhaps with some hostility to transit. Indeed, upon arrival (without trunk, duffel bags, parents, or junk food), one does not even know what is on the program. But like any returning camper, one knows and sees friends, some from previous stays at camp and some from other venues - in this case twitter, normal conferences, and actual work. (Apologies to any twitter friends not recognized from those tiny twitter photos.)

Indeed, as Transportation Camp is an unconference, the campers suggest what will be discussed and offer their own expertise as speakers or as bunch of nerds interested in talking about something.  Some come bearing presentations, cameras, tablets, and laptops; others admit they are concerned citizens without a resume and curious. Some come alone and others with lots of colleagues.

[Attendees reading session ideas posted on colorful, large post-its.]

And what actually happens at the camp social?

Not that anyone was flirting in the social hall or hanging out by the big tree at the lake (wait, that's actual camp), but one sees lots of connections being made, as if data, social media, transit, biking, walking soul mates are finding each other. I saw colleagues and friends from Ithaca, Iowa, Portland, and Boston, and met people from practically my own backyard interested in some of the same hometown (though inside the Beltway) issues. I think half of the San Francisco DOT attended camp in Arlington. There were also a bunch of mobility management professionals, some there to promote ideas, some seeking ideas, and all wanting to share.

In terms of quality, sessions vary from amazing to "I should have chosen something else," with my own experience much more toward the former. As there are only four sessions over the course of the day and about 10 offerings during each time slot, there is often heard the cheerful complaint of an embarrassment of rich choices. If cloning were possible, ...

[Possible offerings displayed. Yes, this photo is intentionally gigantic so that some of the post-its can be read.]

One could easily have spent the entire day immersed in a virtual "track" of data sharing, open source, apps and other things that normal people (translation: someone like me) know little or nothing about. Instead, I chose a variety of different topics - (1) Transit social media engagement (with both the rider and the transit agency perspectives discussed), (2) universal design advocacy and planning for streets and transportation to suit all users (particularly people with disabilities), (3) sharing big ideas, and (4) bus rapid transit (BRT) plans and politics in the DC area. 

Rural Roads Meet the Jetsons, Sort of?

What were some big ideas? Cost-effective personal rapid transit for rural areas; walkable streets - with access to transit - in suburban and rural areas; pre-purchased annual transportation with a menu of transportation choices (to replace one or more privately-owned vehicles). There were a ton more; that's just the tiniest of samples.

At the BRT session, a gentleman from Ireland supplied this DC-area crowd with a list of cities around the world with bus systems worthy of comparison.* Another gentleman, originally from suburban Maryland, talked about his BRT planning experiences in Brazil. Montgomery County's Rapid Transit Vehicle (RTV) plan was discussed in detail, including the role of the planning and transportation departments, which, by the way, report to different entities (the former reporting to the county council and the latter to the county executive). Other DC-area BRT activity described included Arlington, Howard and Prince William counties, with some of those more akin to express commuter services. 

One Person's Mobility Experiences

The universal design session was led by a person who travels in a wheelchair and the session was very much informed by the her experiences, in terms of using the pedestrian network and transit, as well as advocacy and maintaining relationships with political leaders and other types of advocacy groups. She mentioned biking groups as one example of stakeholders that can be useful for people with disabilities in pushing for universal design and multi-modal streets. A controversy arose during the session about expertise of planners versus advocacy of residents and which deserves more weight, though most of the session was conducted in the spirit of building relationships with various stakeholders rather than a zero-sum game of right and wrong.

The social media session I attended (and there were quite a few offered) concentrated on twitter - from the perspective of the complaining rider and the transit agency. Effective engagement strategies were discussed rather than mere whining about service. At the center of the session was discussion about building relationships with staff at the transit agency and how to do that. Sometimes those tweeting interactions become actual relationships.

Tell your parents to sign you up for camp next year, or sign up yourself. Next camp is coming up soon in Atlanta - in February - another decidedly un-camp-like time of year. If we have camp in July, my porch is open for a front row seat at the Takoma Park July Fourth Parade. I'll even make bug juice.

*Cities with bus networks mentioned were Almere (Netherlands), Melbourne, Helsinki, Gothenburg (Sweden), and Nantes (France).


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