Camp, Transportation, and Los Angeles

Peter Marx
Oct 6, 2015 · 4 min read

My 11-year-old son went to camp over the summer where he alternated between hiking, rafting, Minecrafting and building robots. This last weekend more than 120 people and I went to LA’s first transportation camp at the Institute for Transportation Studies at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. My son experienced a camp in the outdoor and virtual worlds far different than the ones I went to at his age. I, too, experienced a camp unlike any I had ever heard of.

While the Transportation Camp had no spooky tales told
around the campfire, it told many interesting
stories of the past and future.

The day started with Juan Matute having all of the attendees introduce themselves. There were people from different cities, transportation agencies, advertising and place-making companies, ride-share companies, computer companies, and automotive manufacturers. One fellow works at a company which installs Wi-Fi on to local city buses. A number of people were traffic engineers and city planners. A few produced what they used to call software applications, known today as just “apps.” Some of these apps are reasonably well-known.

Several local public innovation luminaries gave three minute soliloquies on how they saw transportation changing. Ashley Z Hand, recently the Chief Innovation Officer from Kansas City, MO and now the Transportation Technology Adviser to the City of Los Angeles, spoke on how she is putting the immense complexity of today’s evolving world of transportation into a set of recommendations for working through the future. Joshua Schank, the brand new Chief Innovation Officer at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Agency (Metro) spoke of his past work and probable future work. I spoke about the subjects found in this post.

The Words People Use Today

Someone stepping into the transportation camp from the 1950s expecting to explore the virtues of large-bore engines and electronic ignitions would have been mystified. There was simply no discussion whatsoever of engines, driving, entertainment systems, paint, or wheels. The closest anyone got to discussing things found on TV commercials was an hour-long discussion on how active safety systems are evolving into autonomous self-driving vehicles.

Many people talked about apps, platforms, data systems, disruptions, innovations, and sensing networks. Even more folks talked about cities, streets, and communities. A number mentioned bicycles and pedestrians. Hovering in many conversations were the words such as equity, access, technology, and diversity. I heard no mention of a particular car brand or make.

New words used today vs. the past when talking about personal transportation systems.

Is it Zeitgeist?

The camp was structured as an un-conference where the participants choose the sessions. This presumably more closely reflected everyone’s interest into today’s and tomorrow’s transportation system. The resulting session list reflected the realities of cities that I see across the world today:

A mish-mash of paper, cloud, and Juan Matute at the whiteboard.

In keeping with today’s mash-ups of reality and meta-reality, physical and digital, and public and private, the Transportation Camp took place indoors with a parallel conversation happening in the cloud.

Today vs. Yesteryear

Paralleling the use of words today vs. those used in the ancient past is some personal history. Down the hall from the 2015 camp’s lecture room is one of the rooms where I learned how to program in early 1980s. (Yes, it was a mainframe and, yes, we used punchcards, IBM 3270 terminals, and even DEC paper-tape.) My interest at the time was in making computer games, something that I felt strong social pressure never to reveal to the computer system operators. That room also happened to be one of the early nodes on the ARPAnet, today the greatest playground on Earth, a.k.a. the Internet.

Similarly, in front of the Luskin School of Public Affairs is a new bike lane put there earlier this year. Having once gotten a dramatically priced citation while riding a bicycle the “wrong way” from an officer who spent a considerable amount of time lecturing me about following car-based traffic laws despite the street being a small inner campus loop with virtually no public access, I find the new paint a welcome acceptance of today’s realities. I regularly make use of this particular contra-bike-path today as a silent reminder of that long-ago expensive encounter with that well-meaning uniformed representative of the automotive regime.

Resistance is Futile?

A recurrent part of the camp were discussions about how to handle change in cities. One discussion involved autonomous vehicles where the audience debated whether they would ever exist, whether they should exist, and whether any machine could ever be safer driving than a human being. People quickly broke into two solid camps with both disbelieving the words of the other. Nobody disputed that the robots were coming, only whether the marketing reflected possible realities.

Another discussion was on bike share and whether LA should have one system, many systems, whether people would ride, and whether drivers could accept bicyclists. Again, people broke quickly into camps. There were a number of people stating aspirations of the region having common payment systems, interoperable sharing platforms, and abundant amounts of personal decency.

The subject of the camp was transportation, but
the subject of the meta-camp was on managing change.

In every conversation there was a tacit acceptance that change was happening with a considerable amount of anxiety around the anticipated resistance to change on the part of the community.

A crowded room at UCLA Luskin facing the future of LA’s transportation

I think of the Camp as having been a reflection of the discussion happening across transportation today. Cities are changing and few are changing as much as Los Angeles is. The city has become the place for electric vehicles, for ride-share, for the gig economy (a.k.a. the “Hollywood model”), the place for new public transportation. With five rail and subway lines under construction and three large bike share systems underway, the region is seeing the most dramatic changes since they built the freeways.

In a sense the Camp felt like a place for folks working in many very different types of organizations to come from across California to get together in order to have a day-long group hug. I am glad they came to camp out in Los Angeles.

Peter Marx

Written by

Personal narrative. Now: VP, GE, Adjunct and/or Board Member at Institutes at UCLA and USC. Then: CTO, Los Angeles, game developer, software engr, researcher.

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