TransportationCamp organized an unconference day during CalACT’s (California Association for Coordinated Transportation) Fall Conference in Sonoma County. This was an exciting departure from TranspoCamp’s usual urban habitat, and revealed an off distinction around innovation.
On Background: What’s an Unconference?
That’s a good question, and one that doesn’t have a universal answer. It’s like a conference, where people go to learn about specific topics around some general theme. Except the agenda is set more collaboratively and transparently. If you walk into a conference and see a bunch of people with sticky notes clustered around one of these, you’re probably at an unconference:
Each of those pieces of paper is a potential session topic, organized by a facilitator into a table of rooms and times to create an agenda. Unconferences have the potential to more accurately reflect the current issues in the room, instead of filtering through an executive committee several weeks in advance. But the results rely heavily on who gets picked (and their talent/agenda) to facilitate the conversation. Also, to realize this potential of openness and participation, facilitators must set the right tone to maintain a conversation that’s both productive (to whatever ends) and inclusive.
What Went Alright
I’m a workshop purist (being totally spoiled by my tenure with Aspiration), but this qualified as an unconference by the slightest of margins. And that was ok. You can’t reasonably facilitate good discussion among any 250 people, let alone 250 people that didn’t expect or want to fully participate. The vast majority of these attendees wanted to show up and be told something. Most came expecting answers, but only a few saw themselves as responsible for giving any. I’ve seen this so many times in transportation, it definitely qualifies as a trend – many public agency staff are conditioned to undervalue their own experiences while hoping someone will present them with a thoroughly documented solution.
What’s the root of this cultural norm? Many jurisdictions rely on standards (the Institute of Transportation Engineer‘s parking ratios, for instance) to the point of calling them Bibles, and refuse any variations or experimentation citing fear of litigation. Neighbors complain that there’s too much traffic? Well, we followed the manual, so you can’t sue us. It’s a horrible system, breeding defensiveness rather than innovation. Coming to a conference, you want ideas, but you want ideas you can “prove” are safe to your superiors or constituents.
Because of the odd dynamic of risk-averse public staff, the sessions were all led by consultants. This felt like the least unconference-y, or the most conference-y, thing about the whole day, because it reinforced the idea that those with experience and those with expertise were two different groups. But at least some of them were good…
What Went Well
The best sessions were led by facilitators that knew how to turn a hard question back to the audience.
The session “VMT vs. LOS“, for example, was led by Ron Milian of Fehr and Peers, one of the state’s best authorities on SB 743. [For the transpo-curious, check out this recap of my work with the Governor’s office to support this piece of environmental legislation, and for others, know that essentially this is a California Senate Bill that will require a subtle but enormous shift in the construction development process, and it goes into effect soon.] The participants wanted Ron to tell them what they needed to do to prepare for the new law. Ron wanted to hear what cities were already doing or planning to do. Neither side had an answer for the other, and that was a huge lesson.
Once that was out of the way, the conversation turned towards the future. That technology will dramatically change transportation was wholly accepted, and we got into all kinds of interesting ideas, such as:
- How assisted driving technology and driverless cars will disrupt automobile insurance.
- Because 30-50% of congestion is related to collisions, driverless cars will open up a lot of space for other uses.
- Parking garages are built with a ~75 year service period, so we need to figure out how to plan for future reuse of these structures as car ownership declines.
- Uber’s self-declared “sweet spot” is trips under 10 miles, which would actually work for most rural areas.
In every conversation about technology, I felt a pervasive assumption that once this mythical “someday” arrived, it would all just work. People weren’t concerned so much about implementation, equity, cost, or any other details. They were looking all the way towards the time when ridesharing, driverless cars, and the rest were completely universal.
This seemed strange to me, and it took a while to figure out why. But much like the parking manuals of today, these planning and transit staff aren’t interested in if/how/why something works, just that they’re allowed to do say it does. We could have a nationwide fleet of electric, driverless vehicles, available for rent by the mile long before we have city staff that feel comfortable challenging bad norms. That was also a huge revelation. Are we going about this whole innovation and openness thing the wrong way, forcing cities to consume new ideas while not creating any themselves?
I believe this odd undercurrent emerged specifically because this was a rural group. I’ve found other TransportationCamps to be, if anything, overly optimistic. These events often have many more students (too young to be sufficiently cynical) and vendors (armed with solutions). They still feel more intentionally cool (food truck catering, live tweeting, etc.). This group was pleasantly lacking of cloying optimism. Much of the national economy has recovered, but many small cities and towns are still fighting reduced budgets, an entrenched culture of opposition, and heightened expectations. The dominant theme was sincerity.
We have more to learn from communities with challenges than those that have it easy (not every city will get several hundreds of thousands of dollars from Audi for a parklet). Maybe it’s time for a wave of tactical suburbanism?