This weekend, I did something I haven’t done in years: I went to camp. This wasn’t my old sleep-away sports camp or the baseball camp I attended for years in the early 1990s. Rather, it was OpenPlans’ Transportation Camp, an unconference that gathered many of the sharpest minds working the transit and transportation space working on the side of the country.
Now, the very idea of an unconference makes people raise an eyebrow. Shouldn’t conferences be structured with set agendas and leaders conducting the pace of things? In a society driven by open-source development and collaboration, a transportation unconference is an ideal format for people to meet and greet each other while bouncing ideas around. I met many readers there and many folks I read elsewhere. While San Francisco gets to enjoy a West Coast gathering next week, I’m already looking forward to next year’s event in New York.
The sessions — which are listed here — were uniformly interesting. I sat in on a Q-and-A with MTA COO Charlie Monheim and US DOT’s Giovanni Carnaroli and Peter Appel. I met the gang from Greater Greater Washington, listened to a presentation on subway signaling and the PA/CIS system and checked out a discussion on matching service with demand. Other sessions — including those on taxi cab applications, road pricing and congestion alleviation — drew raves, but unfortunately, I couldn’t be in more than one room at a time.
Throughout the weekend, the theme was clearly the interaction between technology and infrastructure, and although I missed most of Monheim’s keynote speech due to the MPRE, he hit upon a theme that bears discussion. While the MTA’s data leads itself quite easily to app development, there is an inherent incompatibility between the MTA’s system and technological investments. Last week’s stories on the supposedly obsolete fiber-optics network and the NYPD’s communications problems highlight that gap.
Essentially, this conflict boils down as such: When the MTA purchases rolling stock and upgrades its physical plant, it expects its equipment to last for decades. Subway cars, for instance, have a shelf life of around 40 years before they’re up for replacing, and in the interim, it’s possible that hundreds of newer and better models have hit the rails since then. For better or worse, the same is true for major station renovations, signal upgrades and rail replacement projects.
Meanwhile, when I purchase a new piece of technology, I expect it to last for four years, and I know it will be painfully obsolete by the time those four years are up. My laptop isn’t meant to last 40 years, and the technology behind it improves too quickly for it stay usable much beyond half a decade. For example, the software powering the R160 FIND displays will be obsolete long before the rolling stock is ready to be retired; in fact, the FIND displays have long since passed technological middle age. How then does a transit agency as extensive as the MTA incorporate rapidly-changing technology into a system built for long-term durability?
This conflict is one with which the MTA must grapple on a regular basis. Take, for instance, the BusTime project. As the MTA moves forward with bringing the technology to more than just the B63, those behind the initiative are eying all 800 of Staten Island’s buses, and they hope to retrofit the buses and get the system up and running before the end of 2011. With over 6000 buses operating throughout the city, it’s not a surprise then that it takes a few years to get these wide-reaching technological initiatives up and running.
From Transportation Camp, then, I drew the conclusion that transit agencies face two tasks when it comes to technology. They must make sure that the data these innovations produce gets into the hands of developers who can bring it to the public, and they have make sure that the innovations are compatible with infrastructure that will outlive the technology. What will happen to the countdown clocks in 10 years when they’re due for upgrades? What happens with those FIND displays as they age?
We scorn the MTA’s on-again, off-again attempts to bring technology underground, but ultimately, it’s just not as easy as plug-and-play. As long as the developers have access to data though and the authority is willing to share the real-time information it produces, the public should benefit.