transportation research board conference

Conferences: knowledge exchange of the past or for the future?

agglomeration economies As I write this, I’m preparing for my second Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The 11,000+ attendee conference takes place January 22-26, and covers all topics related to transportation planning, policy, and engineering and related topics like health and land use planning.

The preparation work got me thinking: a conference this big is a wonderful opportunity, and at the same time it’s also a burden. In order to get the most out of it, that is, in order to catch a raft on the river of information exchange, one must do a lot of prep work – who’s going to be there? Who should I see? What topics are being covered? What topics overlap with my current projects? And then, one actually has to go there and see those people and talk to them in person. It got me thinking. This type of information exchange seems a bit antiquated. Or is it? Today, we have tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even simple email that allow rapid communication without physical proximity. Individuals are putting together knowledge share events, where subject “experts” educate their friends in a fun, relaxed, and community setting, negating the need to rely on a large centralized entity to plan the exchange event. Do these things better facilitate information exchange than the traditional conference? Judging by the popularity of the “unconference,” perhaps a hybrid model is appropriate.

One thing we know for sure: collaboration is the new black. Whether it’s through bike sharing, car sharing, crowd sourcing, or peer-to-peer anything, the 2010s are all about collaboration. What traditional conferences do is exemplify how Richard Florida’s creative class flourishes in Edward Glaeser’s agglomeration economies: bring smart, motivated, interesting people in close proximity with one another and they’ll start collaborating. This collaboration is at the heart of innovation. But again, are traditional conferences the best vehicle for delivering this collaboration, if attendees are meant to shuffle themselves into pre-assigned sessions with pre-assigned topics, hour after hour, day after day?

Would smaller, collaboratively-led “unconferences” be a better answer? Would more or better information be exchanged in these settings? Maybe the success of a conference as large at TRB actually is due to its sheer size: the conference itself is a city of the creative class, rubbing shoulders with one another.

-          Terra Curtis

Capital Bikeshare (Washington, DC)

DC bike laneI’ve spent this week in Washington, DC at the annual Transportation Research Board (TRB) Conference which brings together transportation professionals from all over the world to discuss the state-of-the-art and the state to which it’s heading in the future.  Topics ranging from innovative pavement materials, livability, community involvement and many others have been covered. This afternoon, after spending all morning in a session about context-sensitive solutions, one of my colleagues and I decided to try out DC’s Capital Bikeshare (side note: check out this map of bike usage).  I have to admit, my initial experiences with the system left a lot to be desired; the first station we tried to rent from had a completely faulty payment collector.  We had to walk 4 or 5 blocks to the next station to rent from another station.  Had we not been so interested in trying out the product (after all, we’re here for a transportation conference), I’m sure this issue would have been enough to turn us away not only today but in the future as well.

Once we figured out the payment structure ($5 for a 24-hour membership plus fees for any rides over 30 minutes long), we checked out our bikes and were on our way.  Despite the below freezing temperatures in DC today, the rest of the ride was a joy.  DC has implemented new bicycle infrastructure all over the city.  And for the US, much of it is quite innovative.  On Pennsylvania Avenue, for example (see the photo above), they have arranged a partially separated, two-way bike path that runs down the center of the roadway.  This is supposed to avoid conflicts with vehicles that frequently pull over to the curb (buses, taxis, delivery vehicles), but we found it was still plagued by blockages (again, see the photo – that is actually a police vehicle blocking the way).  Elsewhere, we had to leave the protection of the separated lane to swerve around a taxi and a post office vehicle literally parked in the lane, without anyone sitting inside the vehicle.  With these new treatments, enforcement will be a necessary add-on.

With more studies showing that even minimal bicycle infrastructure like “sharrows” can induce cyclists to ride more safely, I think DC has done a good job to encourage and foster cycling not only downtown but also in the suburbs near metro stops.  Let us know your feedback if you’ve used Capital Bikeshare as well.

-Terra Curtis