Tech Solutions for Transit Emerge at TransportationCamp West

Flickr photo: ##

The potential for technological solutions to today’s urban transport challenges was the theme last weekend as bright minds melded ideas at TransportationCamp West, an “unconference” of participant-led discussions held in San Francisco.

“We’re trying to bring together people from the tech world and people from the transportation world to think outside of their traditional comfort zones, to share new approaches, to talk about tools, to talk about social and equity issues around transportation,” said Frank Hebbert, community planning tools product manager at OpenPlans, which organized the event and is the parent non-profit of Streetsblog.

Transportation planners, advocates, and “data geeks” came from around the country to discuss “where tech and information can support some of those goals,” he said.

Discussion topics ranged from how to improve paratransit efficiency, to promoting a positive image of public transportation, to making transit information more widely accessible. Local transit agency officials from the SFMTA, BART, AC Transit, SFCTA and the SF Planning Department formed connections with innovators around “using information to make better software, and ultimately, a better society,” said Hebbert.

OpenPlans organizer Frank Hebbert facilitates the voting process on discussion ideas, scheduling 64 sessions on the board. Photo: ##

Excited participants eager to move the discussion on transportation solutions came from around the Bay Area and around the country. Many OpenPlans staffers made it all the way in from New York, where East Coasters converged for TransportationCamp East earlier this month.

Hayley Richardson made the trip down from Seattle, where she works in transportation demand management for the suburban city of Bellevue. “To be frank, I had been feeling rather lonely lately – I work in a city that’s very auto-focused,” she said. “I wanted a weekend to come and get re-energized and excited about what I do and the possibilities of technology in bringing down the barriers to public transportation use and getting people pumped about other choices besides driving alone.”

One discussion, led by Google designer Adam Baker, sought ideas for an iPhone app that would facilitate street life. Participants began by listing the qualities of a street they saw as essential to vitality, forming categories such as “open stores,” “community pride,””serendipity,” “seating” and “human scale.”

Through a deductive process, several creative ideas were presented, including an app that would help streamline the permit process for temporary street uses (think Park(ing) Day), as well as a “Friendly City” app that would help nearby strangers engage in various ways. In the end, Baker crowned an app that would allow users to virtually “graffiti” walls through augmented reality as the most promising idea.

Hayley Richardson, left, helps present her group's app idea. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“In this case, I was looking for mass appeal,” said Baker. “When it comes to street life, it’s about engaging everyone, not just one particularl group of users. So something that’s more or less immediately understandable and would likely be accessible to people of different groups, of different ages, is the idea I’d be looking for.”

Immediately after, another discussion formed around the more pressing issue of equitable access to transit information. Participants brainstormed a policy platform that would incentivize info technology developers to provide access to transit information to disadvantaged communities without access to mobile devices.

Mjumbe Poe of Code for America, an organization dedicated to using technology to benefit communities in need, suggested forming legislation to require efforts on the part of developers to ensure equitable dissemination of information.

“Start doing research, or look at what research there is out there, on what the needs are of people in underserved communities,” he said. “Talk to people, do interviews. Figure out how the ideas [from the American Disabilites Act] can be translated into other ways to help those with difficulty in access.”

The discussion concluded with the group forming a contact pool to develop an initiative to campaign for legislation. With a total of 64 similar sessions held on Saturday alone, the volume of networks formed and the potential impact they could have seemed promising.

The event did host a few speakers in the more traditional conference style. Photo: Aaron Bialick
A discussion group listens to an idea presentation. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Discussion leader Adam Baker organizes initial ideas for qualities of street life. Photo: Aaron Bialick
  • icarus12

    Looking at the pictures of this interesting non-conference, I was struck again at how transportation and environmental issues seem to appeal mostly to white folks. Kind of like a blue-grass festival. I think if we are going to get action on the needs of a lot of current transit users (think: poor) we are going to have to do a lot more outreach. Poor and working class people ride transit more than anybody else. I bet they have lots of ideas as to how to make their daily use of it work better for their neighborhoods, children, schools, etc.

  • those dudes

    Were any solutions presented for “real” problems – like crumbling infrastructure, massive operating deficits for transit agencies, lack of true pricing for driving?

  • When is the resulting PigLipStick iPhone app going to be released?
    That will change everything!

  • When is the resulting PigLipStick iPhone app going to go live at the App Store?

    That will change everything!

  • Bob Davis

    Part of the problem with finding a “technological” solution to local passenger transport is that there are so many “variables”. It’s a lot easier to use technology for telecommunications or manufacturing processes than for situations so tied to the often “illogical” behavior of humans.

  • Jaded

    Considering things like “transportation camp” are promoted in areas with an extremely white demographic, it isn’t a surprise there was a lack of diversity. It was the bike rider demographic instead of the bus rider demographic: people who can afford to choose transit instead of being forced to use transit.

  • RuthM

    For what it’s worth, more than a few attendees pointed out the lack of diversity at the event.

    The people with technical solutions definitely outweighed the people with understanding of the big picture problems. But I got the impression that many of the well-intentioned technical people experienced their first dose of reality (“mortality is a performance measure of neighborhood air quality!?”), and I hope the whole thing was a great step in the right direction.

  • Wanderer

    I’m involved in transit, but I didn’t go to TransportationCamp. I’ve been in the past, but it was clearly too techie for me.

    But that’s OK. This kind of event seems to me to serve a specific function–to discuss and formulate how to provide and improve transit information that’s delivered by digital media. That’s a relatively narrow but important task,. Camp-ers should remember that it’s not even all of transit information. Some transit information is delivered on site at stations and stops, other info by phone (yes I know there’s a relationship, but it’s not the same thing), some by (gasp!) printed information.

    Transit information is certainly not all of transit. There needs to be good transit to provide information about. But that’s not really the techies’ job, that’s a lot of other people’s jobs. Where the digital information people can come in is in providing information back to the system managers and operators about what is and isn’t working. If they are (hopefully!) transit riders, they have their perspectives as passengers too, along with other passengers, not all of whom are young and/or White.

    But I don’t really want to beat up TransitCamp for lack of diversity, it seems to me that the basic issue lies in the tech world, which has not been historically known for advancing huge numbers of Blacks or Latinos.

    And frankly, I don’t want the techie crowd to tell me to help the diverse populations that they are not. I want the techies to listen to the range of transit passengers–a range that’s hopefully broadening–about what different groups want by way of information. Then they can, hopefully, take those information needs and figure out tools that would help meet them, or how to modify existing tools. Or determine that the main job is to get more people to use existing tools–maybe not an exciting answer for an app developer, but often

    the most effective one. What TransitCampers should not do is reflexively assume that their transit needs, and their ways of getting information about them, are the right way for all transit passengers.

    It might be that bringing more people of color to TransportationCamp is the way to get this, ah, input. Or it might well be that needs to be gathered wholly separate from this kind ofevent, which demands a lot of a person’s time, and brought to it. That might be the real advance.

  • Grmaloney

    Anyone know if any tech solutions to car sharing, ride sharing, car pooling, etc were submitted? For car sharing to expand, there needs to exist the capability for one way and drop offs. If city car share or Zip had this feature, then it would become much more popular. With all these smartphones, is there a ride sharing app in development?

  • I didn’t go to any of the sessions about it, but there were people there from Avego, which makes an iPhone application for car sharing.


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