No, TransportCamp isn’t a bunch of transit geeks getting together at a fantasy camp in the woods. In fact, it’s a transportation “unconference” that brings together people from variety of fields with an interest in sustainable transportation. The participants are actively involved, from brainstorming ideas to generating sessions for the day. There are no formal presentations, no PowerPoint, no real organizational structure other than brief opening and closing remarks. Toronto held a TransportCamp last year, and Vancouver decided to follow suit today, with the event held at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) building downtown.

I was skeptical about this event, even more so when I received an update about a week ago from organizer Bernadette Amiscaray. She works for the Car Co-op, a major sponsor of this event, and from her email it seemed to me like we’d be doing more Facebooking and Tweeting than face-to-face networking, which I wasn’t that excited about. But having forced myself out of bed on a typically dark grey Vancouver morning, I was pleasantly surprised by TransportCamp.

First of all, while I did see some familiar faces from the School of Community and Regional Planning (past and present) I also met people from architecture firms, engineering companies, municipalities, and the provincial government. There were transit advocates and bike share/car share representatives, and students from SFU, BCIT, and UBC. Some had a wealth of experience implementing programs or policies, while others had only ideas of where they wanted to see transportation innovations happen. In this way, the experience was a lot like SCARP’s recent Housing Symposium for Affordable Housing. Old connections were deepened and new ones made. This was enhanced by ample time for chatting between sessions and at the lunch break. But the organizers also placed brown bags out, encouraging participants to write an issue on the front: anyone else interested in the issue could drop in their business cards and the organizers would make sure the group got in touch with each other through a listserv. They asked if we wanted our emails to be included on a general listserv around sustainable transportation issues.

Second of all, like Gordon Price, who offered the closing remarks, I had never been to a conference where the participants created the agenda and sessions themselves. It was done in quite a simple way: the organizers asked people to volunteer ideas for sessions. As people raised ideas, another organizer typed them directly into a chart on his computer, which was hooked up to a digital projector so everyone could see it. They quickly filled in the chart, which had available rooms on one side and available time slots along the top. Then they kept going, writing down other ideas as they came. Once all the ideas for sessions were up, they asked if they could merge some sessions together so they all fit in the alloted spaces/times. We then wrote down the times/locations of the sessions we wanted to attend. It seems so simple, but somehow it worked.

The sessions were very simple and low-tech. The group (from 10-20 people usually) would select a note-taker and a facilitator, then begin discussing the idea. Session ideas ranged from civic engagement to transit-oriented development to social media; one participant suggested “congestion: friend or foe”. Each session was an hour in length, generated a ton of both old and new ideas, and bridged the divide between activists and policymakers, students and professionals, pessimists and optimists. It was inspiring to be surrounded by people who genuinely believe in sustainable transportation and are committed to it in their own way. I’m used to that at school (students are at most times fairly optimistic) but it was great to be among a whole range of people of various ages who, although they might disagree on timing and methods of persuasion and priorities, at least agree that we need better transportation options for everyone in this region.

Some interesting ideas shared in the three sessions I attended included examples of car-free housing developments in Sweden and Toronto, the TTC using Twitter to interact with transit users and send out service updates, using social media sites to allow participants to create an organization’s vision/mission, and giving municipalities in the region “credits” for their adherence to the regional plan (such as preserving their Agricultural Land Reserve properties or issuing development permits within transit-accessible areas). Best of all, the whole day was short and sweet: an opening brainstorming session at 8:30am followed by a half hour generating the sessions, then three one-hour sessions, ending at 3:30pm.

I’m particularly impressed with the low-tech, low-organizational needs for this type of event, which has lots of interesting implications for working with communities, disengaged populations, etc. All you need is a few organizers, a few rooms, a small registration fee ($25 in this case) to cover snacks and lunch, and people willing to share their ideas. There was supposed to be wireless service set up, and we were encouraged to bring our computers, but unfortunately BCIT’s wireless service was down today. I actually think this might have been a strength of today’s TransportCamp because this forced people to chat and share ideas more than Tweet them. I am doing my part by blogging about it though, despite having the reputation of a Luddite. Long live simple solutions!

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