This weekend marked the convergence of transit gurus, software developers, and private and public service experts for the inaugural TransportationCamp, a weekend-long “unconference” presented by OpenPlans with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The event — featuring group tours of transportation facilities, talks from industry leaders, and self-propelled discussion sessions — aimed to unite transit professionals and self-proclaimed technophiles to facilitate dialogue between the two parties in an attempt to improve transit systems through technology.
A brief note on the concept of the “unconference”: these are informal, highly flexible forums, facilitating often spontaneous topic discussions that stand in stark contrast to the comparatively staid world of conventional conferences. Like a traditional conference, TransportationCamp featured scheduled talks with an impressive array of industry leaders (Chris Vein, the White House’s new Deputy CTO for Government innovation, gave a particularly fascinating talk on the role of technology in the renewal of government). But unlike a traditional conference, session topics are proposed by attendees, drawn up on oversized post-it notes, and integrated into a master schedule. Compelling session post-its tend to garner the most attention and attendance, with sessions ranging from casual roundtables to Q&A discussions to abbreviated presentations.
This rather democratic structure yields a vast array of session topics – from a discussion exploring fare payment systems facilitated by MTA reps, to a Taxi App Pageant featuring brief presentations from developer start-ups followed by a Q&A session with Ashwini Chhabra, of NYC’s Taxi & Limousine Commission. These sessions were all lively with active engagement from attendees. The problem with such a conference – indeed, any conference – lies in the insularity of its subject matter and the homogeneity of its constituents. While coming from a broad range of organizations and backgrounds, attendees represent a very specific demographic (relatively well-educated and affluent) that can be disconnected from end-users of both the transit technologies being developed and of public transit itself.
A striking example of this disconnect was apparent during the taxi pageant. Here, app developers pitched their wares — Cabulous, TaxiMagic, FareShare, CabCorner and Weeels [click here to read Weeels’ Urban Omnibus feature -ed.] were all represented — most of which aim to promote ridesharing in urban areas. Apps locate and match users based on their GPS coordinates and common destinations, helping both to reduce fares for riders and to ensure cabs are occupied as often as possible. This is a great idea, which explains why so many start-ups are chasing the concept. But while the app may seem entirely useful, few have experienced any success in terms of actually matching users. This failure was squarely attributed to a lack of volume, the inability to achieve critical mass. Without enough app users, it becomes impossible to make successful matches.
A discussion after the session, however, indicated larger problems in this transit initiative. “They didn’t really account for the fact that many people won’t share cabs for social reasons – namely safety,” noted Manasvi Menon, a consultant at the transportation and infrastructure firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. Once we examine the app’s utility from beyond the perspective of someone immersed in transit or technology, issues of safety – or the perception of it — make a cab share program matching users based on GPS coordinates problematic. To address these issues, TransportationCamp may need to broaden its audience beyond transit and technology circles.
Transportation-Camp’s greatest success is its ability to respond rapidly to its own internal patterns or deficits.A similar disconnect was visible early in the day during a talk from Charles Monheim, C.O.O. of the MTA. Monheim, who dubbed himself a “car-free New Yorker” to scattered applause, extolled the recent improvement the MTA was making to the system beyond “bricks and mortar,” namely soft technological infrastructure in the manner of smartphone apps.
Since making its data sets available to app developers, the MTA has seen the proliferation of apps bearing its name, all helping to make the system more user friendly, aiding in navigation, decreasing wait times, and making public mobility in the city more efficient. But while Monheim lauded this “21st century philanthropy,” he failed to address who was left out of the new phenomenon. In a room filled to capacity with transit professionals and software engineers, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has an iPhone. Despite the enormous push to develop apps aimed at improving public mobility, those without access to smartphones, largely the city’s less affluent, are excluded from the app bonanza currently underway.
Fortunately, the beauty of an unconference, and perhaps TransportationCamp’s greatest success, is its ability to respond rapidly to its own internal patterns or deficits by adding another dimension to the discussion over the course of the weekend.
While the question of transit equity went largely unanswered in the sessions attended Saturday, upon returning for the Sunday schedule, one session post-it caught my eye. Rosa Parks: Is there an app for that?, facilitated by Benjamin de la Peña of the Rockefeller Foundation, unpacked the notions of transportation equity in New York City, and explored not only how technology could be used to create a more efficient transportation system, but also how it could “bring attention to the structural injustices” that exist within such a system.
In this session, filled to capacity, like-minded attendees discussed the absence of serious discussion of the digital divide from many of the weekend’s sessions (Monheim’s oversight had not gone unnoticed) and data necessary to visualize inequality in the transit sector. The ability to illustrate transit deserts and other accessibility issues, for example, could be used to help improve underserved districts.
Like all sessions, de la Peña’s was limited to 45 minutes, but the nature of the discussion propelled further discussion and connection over lunch and the remainder of the day – the real goal of any conference.
While TransportationCamp may have occasionally fallen victim to the weaknesses that haunt conventional conferences, the event succeeds in its flexibility and responsiveness. Rosa Parks: Is there an app for that? was coordinated on the fly, and responded directly to a void felt by participants during the weekend – impossible in the world of the conventional conference.
But an unmitigated success still demands the format push conventions even further. Unconferences proudly differentiate themselves in terms of their informality and flexibility, so TransportationCamp would be wise to use these traits to bring a broader array of stakeholders to the table. End-users of ridesharing apps, and indeed, their smartphone-less counterparts, surely have a contribution to be made to the transit puzzle. Inviting them to the table may facilitate more comprehensive solutions to existing transit issues.
Mat Triebner is a freelance urban strategist, designer, and co-founder of Scout Ltd., a UK-based spatial consultancy promoting creative reuse of vacant lots. He lives in Brooklyn.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.