OPTION OPPORTUNITIESUnconferences bring fresh ideas, and fresh advocates, together to talk transportation solutions.
This fall and winter will be a busy season for TransportationCamps in the United States, with three currently planned through January and an additional four in various planning stages for Miami, Boston, Houston, and Kansas City.
TransportationCamp South in Atlanta, Georgia, kicked off the latest round of camps on September 26, the third time the city has hosted the camp. Los Angeles hosted its first TransportationCamp on October 3, and the state-wide California TransportationCamp in Rohnert Park will occur on October 20.
The events, organized in an “unconference” format in which the participants themselves propose topics for and lead the various sessions, first came on the scene in 2011 with two in the United States – East and West – and one in Montreal. Washington, D.C., joined the trend in 2012, hosting an unconference the weekend before the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
“The interest in these unconferences and transportation camps really backs up the long-term trend that we’re seeing in the increase in public transportation ridership,” said Matthew Dickens, a policy analyst for the American Public Transit Association (APTA). “More people are riding public transportation, more people are interested in public transportation and [its] benefits, and that’s what people want to talk about at these unconferences.”
In 2014, Americans took 10.8 billion trips on public transportation, the highest transit ridership seen in 58 years, according to data from APTA. That same year, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that showed a 60 percent increase in bike commuting over the last 10 years.
However, since 2003, federal and state government spending on transportation infrastructure has fallen by 19 percent and 5 percent respectively. Attendees at these conferences represent a key advocacy group, attempting to reverse the spending decline and seeking smarter and more sustainable uses of that funding.
In the recent TransportationCamp South, for example, participants discussed how to “make buses sexy,” better design MARTA’s brand, and organize rider-led transit movements.
Kirk Hovenkotter, a program analyst for TransitCenter and a member of the leadership committee for NYC TransportationCamp, attended his first TransportationCamp in Boston in 2013.
“[Unconferences] are so much more accessible,” he said of the format of TransportationCamp. “It creates a very honest space for people to really have dialogues about the issues.”
The unconference format requires the participants themselves to propose and lead sessions. Two years ago in Boston, Hovenkotter proposed and led a session on ways to utilize GitHub to improve procurement practices at transit agencies. He said he wasn’t planning on proposing the session but, after talking to people the morning of the conference, he decided to give it a shot.
“It’s intimidating to see your idea on the board, but once you get started, it’s casual,” he said.
Each conference also has its own particular feel given the size and demographics of the community. TransportationCamp South is one of the smaller camps, with 50-60 attendees, but attracted the CEO of MARTA. TransportationCamp D.C., scheduled right before the annual TRB meeting, tends to focus on transportation policy. For the NYC TransportationCamp, Hovenkotter said he’s really hoping that they can tap into the civic hacker scene and get some of those people interested in studying transportation issues.
The lower price point for TransportationCamp – $25 versus at least $100 for most professional conferences – also lowers the barrier to entry, attracting transportation professionals and enthusiasts alike.
“TransportationCamps can make transportation more inclusive, democratic, and far reaching to new kinds of people,” Dickens said. “We’re looking forward to seeing more of these.”
Photos: (At top) Attendees examine proposed unconference sessions. Credits: M.V. Jantzen, Flickr