Monday, January 9, 2017

Four Things I Learned at Transportation Camp

This weekend I was at Transportation Camp, an "unconference" hosted by Mobility Lab that brings hundreds of transportation industry thought leaders, young professionals, and students together to talk about the latest issues, research, and ideas in transportation. By "unconference," they mean that attendees actually propose sessions when they get to the conference that day - so the topics covered are completely up to the people who show up.

There were a lot of really interesting-sounding sessions - over 70 squeezed into five one-hour blocks - and unfortunately I couldn't attend all of them. But here are some interesting things I learned at the sessions I did attend; if you came to Transportation Camp, I'd love to hear what you found interesting at the sessions you attended. Sound off in the comments are tweet me @TransportUSBlog!

1. Public transportation isn't always faster than driving.

Since the Washington, DC metro area is known for gridlock (in more ways than one), there's a prevalent assumption that taking public transportation (like Metro or the bus) is faster than sitting in traffic. But at the first session I attended, "WMATA: Moving Deck Chairs on the Titanic?" Stuart M. Whitaker presented research that concludes otherwise: measuring the time it takes to get from one Metro station to another using Metro or by driving, he found that in some cases the average Metro delay is 50% longer than if you'd driven. It can take even longer when you're riding the bus, as you're sitting in the same traffic as your car would be but making far more frequent stops.

There were some flaws in this research; it didn't include, for example, the time it takes to find parking once you get to your destination, which can take a long time particularly in dense areas like Dupont Circle. It also didn't take into account the fact that some people are productive (reading, doing homework, responding to emails) while riding transit but wouldn't be able to multitask while sitting behind the wheel. But the fact remains that driving is in many instances simply more time-efficient than taking public transportation, even in a major city with several transportation options, and this reality will continue making it challenging to get people to leave their cars at home.

2. I write too much.

I already knew this, but an interesting session by Jonathan Neeley, staff editor at Greater Greater Washington, drove this point home. In an age where more and more people are reading news on their phones, it's important to get to the point quickly and be brief. He said articles in the 500-800 range generally got the most engagement (in the form of comments). He also recommended short paragraphs (this one is already too long by his four-line standard) and breaking up long blocks of text with sub-headers (at least I'm doing that one here.)

Neeley had some other good tips: he said posts that are trying to persuade people should start by defining the problem and then explaining the solution - so that by the time you get to the solution, people already agree on what the problem is and are ready to be convinced that your solution is the best one. He also suggested focusing on outcomes, not processes - don't spend paragraphs talking about what an Environmental Impact Statement does before saying whether the project was approved.

3. Talk about people, not technologies.

My background is in communications, so I couldn't resist the session, "Red State: How can we make the case for transit in Middle America?" Moderated by Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smart Growth, the session was an open forum where people could talk about what arguments they've found to be most persuasive when trying to get Republicans to support transit projects.

The consensus that emerged, in the words of one of the attendees, was "don't talk about transit, talk about people - how do we get people to work, how do we get kids to school." A lot of the transit projects that the people in that room work on are those like bus rapid transit or streetcars that will directly help people get around, whether in Phoenix, Ariz. or in eastern Oregon. They found that the most convincing argument was to "frame it as a jobs and employment access opportunity - let's get people to work."

It isn't always that easy - I made the point that a lot of these projects have a definite, measurable, positive impact on the people they need to convince to support the project, but that isn't always the case. In California and Texas, for example, new high-speed rail lines will help many people access jobs in other cities, reduce congestion and emissions, and bring new development to mid-sized cities between the denser urban areas. But there will be people who are negatively impacted by those rail lines, such as those losing their homes to eminent domain or who may see their property values decline because of new trains running nearby. There wasn't an answer, at least at this session, about how to talk to people who will (or feel they will) be hurt by a new project that will certainly benefit other people and the economy as a whole.

4. No one knows what Secretary Chao will do at DOT

The last session I attended, wonderfully titled "Chao Chao! Here comes the Trump Train!" brought together federally-minded transportation advocates to talk about what they might expect under a Trump-Chao Department of Transportation. There were a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. In fact, at one point we brought up Chao's answers to the Senate Commerce Committee questionnaire to see if there were any hidden clues.

I've written about how Chao, who has served as deputy administrator of the DOT's Maritime Administration, might approach maritime infrastructure issues, but most of the focus at this session was on how federal funding for public transportation might take a hit at the expense of highway construction and maintenance under a Trump administration. We really just don't know yet - we'll likely get a better picture when we see who gets nominated for other DOT positions (deputy secretary, under secretary, etc.) and agency administrator positions.

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