Transportation Camp attracts usual suspects to explore transit advances

By Saba Long

Technology is disrupting nearly every aspect of the transportation industry — whether its state-of-the-art robotics revamping the automobile assembly line to a computerized conductor system navigating the railroad tracks or a mobile application providing real-time train and bus locations.

Nearly 250 technologists, planning students, professional experts and other transportation enthusiasts gathered at Georgia Tech for TransportationCamp South, an  “unconference” organized by New York City-based Open Plans — a transportation technology and planning startup. Previous launch cities include San Francisco, New York City, Montreal and Washington, DC.

The keynote panel: Big Problem, Small Budget – Addressing Atlanta’s Transportation Livability Hurdles through Technology included Ben Graham, chief information officer at MARTA, Joshua Mello, assistant director of transportation planning with the City of Atlanta and Nathan Soldat, senior transit planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The rider’s experience expectations can no longer be ignored by transportation authorities particularly if they are hoping to attract and keep choice customers. Also, these authorities must collect and use data to manipulate consumer behavior and adapt to trends.

Which is why it was perplexing to notice who was not present at TransportationCamp South — the Georgia Departmernt of Transportation,  the State Road and Tollway Authority, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the Georgia Port Authority.

Others notably absent included the Gwinnett and Cobb County transit agencies as well as members of the Georgia General Assembly. It was a reminder that the topic of transportation infrastructure remains a nonstarter in the metro Atlanta region. The room was filled with the usual suspects — urban planning and transit enthusiasts, the Sierra Club and other progressive organizations.

The one agency most involved in the discussions taking place at TransportationCamp is the one the region loves to hate — MARTA.

Graham, its CIO, noted there are technology user experience issues at MARTA that still need work. For example, although 25 percent of the web traffic to the itsmarta.com  is from mobile devices, the agency has yet to release a mobile website.

Many complain about the perceived inconveniences of trip planning on public transit but MARTA is working to nip that in the bud. It currently has an iPhone app that provides rail service schedule and near real-time bus schedule — within plus or minus two minutes of accuracy.

Projects in the pipeline include an Adroid app, mobile messaging and a mobile app to further the agency’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign. The app, MARTA Watch, empowers riders to report problems to MARTA Police and customer service. Users can type a detailed report, take photographs and give the exact location of an incident whether it’s a tourist being panhandled or noticing the lights are partially out in a train car.

The agency is also releasing its data to the public for technology entrepreneurs and transit enthusiasts to comb through and develop applications, make improvements and better track ridership trends.

In his panel remarks, Joshua Mello rattled off stats that reminded us why the Regional Transportation Referendum (T-SPLOST) passed in the City of Atlanta.

Within the city limits, 67 percent of Atlantans commute to work by car alone, compared to the national metro average of 74.8 percent that drive alone. Additionally, 12 percent ride transit and 4 percent walk or bike.

He noted the city is focusing on transit-oriented developments and bicycle and pedestrian investments rather than spending on roadway capacity-building projects.

Imagine being able to pull out your smart phone and see a map of available bicycles for rent near you. Partnering with private and not-for-profit groups, the city is in the beginning stages of developing a bikeshare program allowing visitors and residents to do just that.

The myriad of breakout sessions included the 1971 MARTA compromise; using data to drive pedestrian improvements; establishing a regional fare card for seamless payments; and tracking across the various transit systems.

While TransportationCamp South was attended by members of the same pro-transit, pro-transportation infrastructure choir, the conversations were pragmatic and realistic of the political climate of the state and the region.

Even still, there needs to be communication with all stakeholders, including the skeptical ones.

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4 comments
writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

I'm curious if transpo-camp attendees considered/discussed the following regarding proposed inter-city terminal construction? Hopefully, recent revenue increases(tax intake) at the state can all be directed to Norfolk Southern, so that they won't have to go begging for money to build a replacement  Brookwood(Peachtree) Amtrak depot (Amtrak can't contribute) at Northside Drive and the Norfolk Southern Atlanta-Charlotte mainline or at the gulch area MMPT(whenever it may be "envisioned"/constructed). The current Amtrak station rests on Norfolk Southern freight train weakened "footings" which some contend may cause a collapse of the facility, unless expensively remedied, sooner rather than later. As to the "vision" of either Governors Barnes or Deal, which must have occurred during some bizarre sweat lodge ritual, or perhaps a transportation seance(crystal ball not included, presumably), I predict, that if Carter ever develops this site for any type of Amtrak related rail service, the wailing and gnashing of teeth which will occur once it is discovered that the facility can NEVER be used by say Macon-Atlanta commuter rail services or Clayton or Rockdale county connected commuter trains, simply because such trains would REQUIRE either a reverse move(Amtrak policy, nationwide, has been to prohibit reverse moves into terminals/stations/depots due to safety considerations) from/to Howell Jct.(about half a mile west of this site) or purchase of more expensive cab-control commuter cars or additional motive power(locomotives) for dual operational direction of the train, and red faces aplenty. By the time cost factors for altering the signal and dispatching consoles AND factoring in the huge expenses associated with Positive Train Control implementation at the proposed MMPT sites, I'm almost certain that none of this will occur in the next fifty years.

What a shame that these "facts" weren't taken into consideration when these visions(nightmares?) were occurring and your tax dollars were being tossed around for such property purchases(you know, to solve the transportation mess created during and across several governors terms). Otherwise, to construct even a "temporary" Amtrak station at the Atlantic Station mmpt site, for the current Crescent service, and with slim chance that Atlanta-Gwinnett-Gainesville commuter trains or Atlanta-Athens-Charlotte H-S-R will ever utilize this proposed Greyhound/bus/Amtrak facility, constitutes sheer flim-flammery in the name of transportation solutions, at it's worst. But, all the consultants, and transportation professionals knew this already. Right. Sure wish I could tap into the e-mail stream right now. Oh, that's right. I can. That, too, is for sale, at the right price. Best of luck, GOV. This way to the egress.......but, I digress.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

{{"Which is why it was perplexing to notice who was not present at TransportationCamp South — the Georgia Departmernt of Transportation,  the State Road and Tollway Authority, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the Georgia Port Authority..."}}

{{"...Others notably absent included the Gwinnett and Cobb County transit agencies as well as members of the Georgia General Assembly. It was a reminder that the topic of transportation infrastructure remains a nonstarter in the metro Atlanta region."}}

 

State transportation agencies are always "notably absent" (which in the case of GDOT and SRTA is putting it nicely) even seemingly from their own offices (and often their own brains) during the workday.

 

In the case of Gwinnett County Transit, well that agency is just barely hanging on with the possible exception of the GCT-operated express commuter bus routes between Gwinnett County and Central Atlanta.

Representatives from Cobb Community Transit probably were not there because in the ultraconservative and sometimes isolationist quarters that dominate Cobb County's political scene it is not necessarily always seen as being a good thing for Cobb to be seen cooperating with anything that has to do with the region as a whole, especially ARC or MARTA and especially in the aftermath of the fallout from the T-SPLOST which was very-unpopular amongst voters in Cobb and the I-75 Northwest Metro Corrridor.

 

What likely makes the topic transportation infrastructure even more of a "nonstarter" amongst many transportation agencies in the region and at the state level are declining levels of funding and lack of a cohesive long-term vision and the leadership necessary to execute that vision.