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.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

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