TDM TAKEAWAYIf learning forums can energize rather than make people sleepy, attendees just might take innovative ideas back to the real world of transportation.
It’s 10 a.m. on Saturday and the TransportationCamp emcee chirpily asks participants – all 425 of them – to introduce themselves and then say three words about anything.
The emcee said it wouldn’t take too long, but I was skeptical.
In fact, I was skeptical about a lot of things. This was my first TransportationCamp and my first “unconference.” I’m used to PowerPoint presentations, panels, and topics carefully curated months before so I know when to stay and when to skip out. This style, where participants suggest and then lead sessions, seemed to have a worrying lack of quality control. I knew that some presentations from out-of-town attendees were planned (and strategically not announced by the organizers ahead of time), but what about the rest?
A big, black sheet of butcher paper was plastered on the far wall with a grid dividing the day into four sessions with nine groups per session. In the hour before we were asked to introduce ourselves, individuals and pairs wandered over to write their session ideas on large, pink Post-it notes that they stuck below the grid. As the Post-its began to expand to 20 then 30 ideas, conference staff began to sort and piece together a potential schedule with liberal input from onlookers. By the time 11 a.m.’s first sessions rolled around (that’s got to be some kind of record for conference-agenda planning), 36 topics were chosen and 20 were discarded.
Ok, so my fear of topics not coming together proved to be unfounded, but what about the sessions? Pre-lunch I attended one on low gas prices and Esther Dyson’s Way to Wellville discussion on the link between transportation and health. The advantages of informality became clear when a point was raised about how effective it would be to use a mobile fresh-food store – in the style of a food truck – to underserved areas. One participant said she had done a project that did just that. Plus, she had the data to show that if fresh food is available, people buy it.
In the afternoon, I attended a blogging session and one discussing the wonkier topic of California’s switch from “level of service” metrics to measurement by vehicle-miles-traveled for roadway planning. It was a more traditional format of PowerPoint followed by discussion. Even in a more traditional format, the session still felt like a laboratory. Participants flung questions at presenters and vice versa. The goal wasn’t really to teach but to all build upon research together, to create something new that day, that very session.
The networking was intense. Nowhere have I felt more comfortable walking up to another participant and striking up a conversation. Tweets, retweets, texts to other friends of mine at the conference just added to the swirl of activity. Was I actually getting more energy as the conference went on?
Somewhat miraculously, every session started on time, a rare feat for a 400+ person conference. Even at lunch, huddled in small groups discussing our mornings, it seemed like we were forming our own mini-sessions eager to keep plugging away at another transportation topic.
Dozens of participants lingered in the discussion rooms and plenary hall to continue debating and building on the themes of the day. A small group of four sat purposefully around a table, sketching out ideas in an open notebook.
In the around-the-room introduction, I toyed with asking people to pitch me their ideas for my Mobility Lab posts. As I was introducing myself towards the very end, I settled on a simple “Go Tar Heels” to get fellow University of North Carolina grads (there were more than a few) to say hi to me during the conference (they did!).
Hindsight, however, is 20/20 and I now realize what my words should have been: “best conference ever.”
Intro photo by M.V. Jantzen and panel photo by Paul Mackie of Mobility Lab