TransportationCamp Chat with Chris Pangilinan

OpenPlans and friends are convening the third annual TransportationCamp DC on January 11, 2014, at George Mason University’s Arlington campus. If you haven’t already signed up, you are very welcome.  We’re reaching out to leaders and thinkers in the transportation and technology field, and asking them about what is interesting and important in the field right now. I spoke with Chris Pangilinan, transportation planner at SFMTA.

Can you describe a little bit about where you work, and what you do?

I work at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which is our city’s transportation and transit agency in one, which is unique in the country.
I am a transportation engineer here. I work on a lot of different things. My primary focus right now is on implementing what we call the “Transit Effectiveness Project,” and I’m one of a few engineers and planners doing it.

We are taking roadway improvements, and traffic signal improvements, and designing and implementing them to help our buses and trains move with less friction and less delay throughout the city. For example, looking at ways we can put bus lanes, or stop consolidation, signal priority in the city to help our transit service be better. Sort of like BRT components, but not quite BRT.

How far along are you in that program? Is it new, or have you been doing it for a while?

It started back in ’06 as a long planning project, and we’re now just clearing the environmental impact report. Should be, hopefully if everything goes well with funding, we’ll be beginning to implement it next year. Now we’re in the throes of public process and design. It’s going to be a one to four‑year process of actual construction and build‑out.
As you know, Transportation Camp is about the intersection of technology and transportation, and we want to advance the level of that conversation.

As you think about your work and about the future of the field in general, what’s most interesting to you right now on the technology side of transportation?

What’s most interesting to me is the way that we can tell our story, from a transportation point of view. A lot of times, when we develop projects we don’t necessarily do a good job of evaluating afterward, or knowing what the proposed impacts are going to be.

With technology, especially now we have a lot of buses and trains equipped with GPS, people on Twitter crowd source sentiments about projects and the way things work. The great opportunity right now is to evaluate how those are working, and communicate that story to the public.

We’re going to be going for funding in November for this project, and a lot of other cities do this, too, where they have projects lined up, or an idea, and then they seek funding. If we can’t tell our story well to the public, and they know what they’re getting for their tax dollars or bond dollars, it’s a lot more difficult to tell. If you do know what you’re going to be getting, thanks to technology being able to measure what the problems are today, and being able to measure what the impacts are in the future, then I think that helps tell our story a lot better.

What are some of the public input, or public participation processes that you’ve seen, that have particularly effective?

Someone said it in TransportationCamp SF just a month ago. I forget who said it, but they said “It’s lowering the price of democracy,” or “Lowering the barrier of entry.” I think that’s the key. A lot of times we have meetings, let’s say at Monday at noon in a church basement. Nobody can make that unless you’re retired or don’t have a job. We need to move past that, and I think we’re working a little bit better towards 6:00 PM meetings, but still, being physically there shouldn’t have to be the requirement.

For a lot of folks who are busy, being able to participate via email is of course great. But also being able to interact with the project online and not need a staff member to explain to them what the project is all about, because we have data and good visual communications online to help make the project stand out, both benefits and the cost.

We’ve experimented with this a little bit here. We tried using MindMixer, which is a website I’m sure you’re familiar with. We had polls and discussion forums about certain, broader policies. Like we had a question, “Would you be willing to walk an extra block or two for a faster bus service?” It was great to see the overwhelming support for that.
We don’t normally hear that in the public, because in general, it’s human nature that you don’t speak out unless it’s going to hurt you. If you can provide a forum where you do feel like you’re going to benefit, and you can voice your opinion easily, it’s a great way to do it.

I also saw something that OpenPlans was involved with, with Brooklyn and being able to put sticky notes on the Google map. Those kinds of things, I think, are very exciting, combined with data collection.

I know that you’ve been involved in the Young Professionals in Transportation group, and from that vantage point, do you think it’s a cultural shift at transportation agencies that’s going to make this happen? Or are there policies that would need to be addressed to drive this participation model forward?

It definitely is both cultural and policy. From a cultural point of view, I think a lot of folks are recognizing, especially in the YPT group, that using data, using technology is extremely important in crafting projects and participating.

One of the board members said at TransportationCamp that showing up in person still counts for a lot more. I think it can happen in any business, but I think there’s ways we can use technology to at least elevate the role of not showing up in person, and being able to participate remotely.

We’ve had examples of Google hangouts with the Mayor, and others, folks who have used that to engage the public. I think being more comfortable with that format, too. A lot of folks who are in YPT are very comfortable with the Twitter and social media aspects, but that has yet to filter up yet to the board level. As we get more and more comfortable with that, we can start integrating that in the way we work.

From a policy point of view, there are actual, I think, legal changes that need to occur. For example, with our environmental impact reports, the California Environmental Quality Act in California, requires that we have a lot of written letters that have to be put into the document as part of the record. Of course, that Act was written a long time ago before email and Internet and social media. I think it’s time we look at that, and update that based on what we can use today.

There are better ways. We’re not in the typewriter age anymore. Websites today are a lot more friendlier to access. You can just tell a good website, when it’s easy to navigate, easy to read. We can take some of those technology aspects and apply them for our environmental impact reports to make them more accessible to the public.

January 11th is coming up. What advice do you have for people, either people who haven’t been to a TransportationCamp before, or have been but are coming back? Having done it just recently in San Francisco, what are some of your pointers?

It’s easy, if you’re a first‑timer, to go there and be overwhelmed and wonder, “What am I doing here?” There’s so much going on. If you just were to sign up for it, propose an idea, or just jump in with good discussions, because there’s no such thing as a bad point in TransportationCamp. If you have an idea, just say it, especially in a session, because it feeds the discussion. It’s a great way to get involved, and to learn more.

I would say take a lot of notes, meet a lot of people, and follow up afterwards, too. In San Francisco, we had a great follow up after, and I know that you guys do in DC, too, with the happy hour afterward. I think that’s a great way to keep the conversation going, and to make sure that if you are participating at camp, to participate in those after‑events as well especially with TRB following up, to keep the contacts and conversations going afterward.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)