Like postal workers, transportation planners are at work come rain or snow

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It was a cold and snowy morning in the District of Columbia and while most people were tucked under their down comforters at 9:00am on a Sunday, I was just exiting the metro to enter the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the 98th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB). This was my second year in attendance as TPB staff.

Read Matthew Gaskin’s account of his first time at the TRB annual meeting last year.

National performance measures are having an impact

The Sunday work session that called me from my bed dealt with the national performance measures, these measures have been covered extensively in TPB News. The TPB spent last year setting regional performance measure targets for the first time. This session, “Let’s get real about National Performance Measures: Has the process driven you mad yet,” provided a forum for representatives of state departments of transportation and MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations) from across the nation to discuss what has been learned from this first round a setting targets. A representative from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was also on hand to provide explanations as to why these measures were selected and provided insight on potential future performance measures.

While it is still early days for setting targets, the performance measures are having an impact on transportation agencies. Presenters spoke about how they are already noticing a change in the culture at their organizations. For MPOs, presenters stated that while at times it has been a challenge explaining to board members why these measures are important and what they are, the process has served as a great educational tool.

App-based ride-hailing was a big topic

The TRB Annual Meeting normally has a few topics that are covered extensively during the conference. The subject in the past have been safety and autonomous vehicles. This year a hot topic of discussion included Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), these are ride hailing services we have all become familiar with, Uber, Lyft, Via, etc.

One work session, “A big conversation on the path forward for new mobility in major cities,” discussed how ride-hailing companies are affecting cities, specifically public transportation. Is ride-hailing filling the gaps connecting riders to public transportation, or are they providing a completely different means for people to navigate in areas? After this session I was left with a thought of my own, namely, the most securitized statistic concerning public transportation has been ridership, however, with the advent of so many other options for mobility, it is time for public transportation providers to reexamine whether ridership is the appropriate statistic used to determine whether a system is “good.”

The Secretary of Transportation addressed the meeting

US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao spoke on the innovations at the US Department of Transportation (USDOT). Primarily, she focused on the future concerning drones, autonomous vehicles, and commercial space operations. She announced future rulemaking on drones flying at night, and over people. This would be a change since currently drone pilots need a waiver to fly at night or over people. Secretary Chao also expressed the increased need to ensure pedestrian and driver safety considering the increased fatality rate observed nationwide.

Lining up to try an Autonomous vehicle

In addition to the work session, the Exhibit Hall provided a plethora of vendors showing off their latest wares and innovations. One item that caused throngs of people to queue up, myself included, was a demonstration of an autonomous vehicle being tested for public transportation usage. The vehicle itself had a sleek design and can comfortably sit 10 people. Once inside, the vehicle took what could have been a fixed route, akin to a bus route, complete with turns and stops. The vehicle also demonstrated its ability to recognize and stop for hazards, such as a distracted pedestrian stepping off the curb into traffic.

This conference, like the one in the past was an extraordinary event to attend. The TRB Annual Meeting provides an ideal setting for practitioners and researchers to come together to share and exchange ideas. Opportunities such as this should not be missed, and I look forward to the 2020 TRB Annual Meeting next January.

Matthew Gaskin is a TPB Transportation Planner. This was his second year attending the TRB annual meeting.

A brief recap of the February TPB meeting
Here's what happened at the January TPB meeting