Diverging Approach: Nerd Prom

Every year in Washington, D.C., the White House Correspondents’ Association hosts their dinner, nicknamed the “Nerd Prom” in the D.C. media elite from its history as a wonkish if inward-looking celebration of the media industry as a whole.

Here in the Chicago transportation planning industry, our Nerd Prom is the annual Transport Chicago conference, a one-day conference on a sunny Friday in June where planners and other transportation professionals from throughout the Chicago region meet up and boast to each other all the ways we’re awesome and pat ourselves on the back for being so awesome and progressive. It’s a great place to meet and mingle with many of the regional decision makers who help guide the various facets of transportation infrastructure throughout our region, so we highly recommend it for students and non-professionals who have a vested interest in the Chicagoland transportation network.

It’s a great conference that this blog highly recommends, but many years it ends up being an echo chamber of things most of the planners already know. Heading into this year’s conference, which was held last Friday, I expected more of the same.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Two moments stuck out in my mind, two moments while I’ll remember for quite awhile and which added immense value to this year’s conference. The first moment — not chronologically first, but still first — was the lunch keynote by Olatunji Oboi Reed, the founder of Slow Roll Chicago and Equiticity, two organizations devoted to promoting social equity through improved and context-sensitive transportation infrastructure in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of black, brown, and indigenous persons of color. Reed pushed most of the room — especially the majority of us who were, as Reed said, “stale, pale, and male” (present company included, for better or worse) — out of our collective comfort zone to acknowledge the disparities between transportation infrastructure and indeed the entire planning process itself in white communities of moderate or significant wealth compared to what goes on in marginalized communities. It was eye-opening and a great perspective that often gets overlooked.

This leads us to the second memorable part of the conference, which immediately preceded the lunch keynote. Streetsblog Chicago‘s John Greenfield moderated a five-person panel weighing the merits of extending the CTA Red Line down to 130th Street compared to a modernization of the Metra Electric line to provide enhanced transit service to Chicago’s Far South Side. The panel was pretty well-balanced with two Far South Side community leaders (one pro-CTA, one pro-Metra), two (white) transportation policy wonks (Daniel Kay Hertz arguing for Metra modernization and Yonah Freemark arguing for Red Line extension), and one Cook County DOT member reminding the panel and audience to be mindful of the variety of workplaces that remain inaccessible to the Far South Side since they are outside of downtown, which either infrastructure improvement will continue to underserve.

The panel was enlightening for several reasons: first and foremost, kudos to the conference organizers to reaching out to members of the local community to come represent their transportation interests and desires from beyond the transportation planning industry standpoint. That in and of itself helps to break the stale/pale/male paradigm Reed discussed at lunch by bringing in local voices to advocate for better improvements based on the wants and needs of the local community rather than planners like us handing down decisions from on high and expecting the local community to not just go along with it, but to be grateful for the improvements and the chance to be a very small part of the process. (Sound familiar?)

Second, the session broke the Transport Chicago mold by exposing some of the rifts in ideology and theory within our group of professionals. Even among dedicated transportation professionals, there are plenty of opinions about what works best and what would be most effective for our constituents. It’s an undercurrent that permeates many of the conversations we have with our peers internally over drinks during professional happy hours but rarely floats to the top of the conversation in a more public venue. Once again, kudos to the conference committee for taking a risk and assembling a panel guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers and push people out of their comfort zones.

At this point, we have to address the elephant in the room: the conversation indeed got a bit heated, and produced quite the quote, courtesy of Yonah Freemark:

Metra is where innovation goes to die.

Here at this blog, we have plenty of issues with how Metra operates, whether its playing a little fast and loose with schedules to maintain off-peak on-time performance or creating a business model focused on moving trains rather than moving passengers or antiquated fare collection issues or yes, the missed opportunity of the Metra Electric line, or plenty of other issues. But for us, we aren’t trying to call out Metra just for the sake of calling them out; we believe that by highlighting some of these missed opportunities and focusing on pragmatic, budget-neutral (or at least budget-minimal) solutions, Metra can leverage a huge untapped market to increase ridership and fare revenues by advocating for suburban-specific transit improvements that serve an audience beyond the traditional Monday-Friday 9-to-5 commuting crowd.

These days, between the rise of social media and the success of brash, in-your-face commentary, any company (or any public figure, really) has to walk a fine line when it comes to dealing with public perception and public dialogue. The old saying goes, don’t fight with a pig because you get dirty and the pig likes it; but these days the alternative is to keep a stiff upper lip and get dragged through the mud anyway by nameless trolls on social media. Metra, which is risk-averse to a fault, understandably doesn’t want to have any part in a dialogue that involves people making bold statements such as the agency is “where innovation goes to die”. But, for better or worse, that represents a sentiment that is most certainly out in the public.

For the record, we don’t support Freemark’s comment that “Metra is where innovation goes to die”. Mobile ticketing on the Ventra app is actually quite easy to use and effective. The fleet of the Electric Line is one of the youngest in the country. The latest round of coach rehabs include USB charging outlets. A new Metra Day Pass product will be introduced later this summer.

Are they perfect changes? Of course not. Mobile ticketing can be better integrated with CTA/Pace fares and still relies on the antiquated conductor model of fare collection. The Electric Line has a new fleet but still operates at unacceptably long headways through Chicago’s South Side. Including USB ports makes the car rehabs more useful but doesn’t change the fact that Metra is still forced to operate coaches that date back to the Eisenhower administration. A Day Pass is great, but without pulse scheduling or otherwise encouraging transfers a Day Pass product has limited upside.

But calling those issues out doesn’t mean they’re bad changes, nor does it mean we aren’t supportive of those changes. We’re glad that these blog postings have been making the rounds at Metra (and yes, we do know when they end up on the daily internal email News Clips sent around to Metra’s front office staff). To clarify: we want Metra to be successful. We aren’t a political group. The only agenda we push is improved suburban transit alternatives which are both effective and pragmatic given the current era of constrained budgets and tenuous funding streams.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blog posts — and from being an active member of Chicago’s transportation planning elite (hah!) — people love Metra. The agency is an absolute asset to the region, and what Metra does is unparalleled in this country. People love — or at least want to love — riding Metra, and planners love talking about Metra. Quashing dissidence or thinking that any feedback or criticism must be done in bad faith is absolutely false. When people complain about Metra’s delays or Metra’s fares or Metra’s policies or anything else about Metra, they complain because they want a commuter rail system that’s more reliable, a system that’s more accessible, a system that’s more transparent, and most importantly a system they can use more often.

As we learned from this year’s Transport Chicago conference, transportation professionals stepping out of our professional silo to get a better on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in neighborhoods and communities throughout our region is invaluable. This is in no way an indictment of previous Transport Chicago conferences — there are plenty of other professional echo chambers in our market — but it’s nice to attend a conference that went above and beyond previous years which were best summed up by the great Janis Ian (no, not that one, this one):

Did you have an awesome time? Did you drink awesome shooters, listen to awesome music, and just sit around and soak up each others’ awesomeness?

Our deepest appreciation and gratitude to this year’s Transport Chicago conference board and volunteers who put together the best Transport Chicago conference schedule and roster of speakers in recent memory. We all need to be pushed out of our comfort zone from time to time; it’s the only way we grow, both professionally and personally. In any other industry, professional growth is all well and good but focused more on personal growth and development. But in our industry, professional growth has a direct impact on the lives of millions of people throughout the Chicago region we work to serve every day. We owe it to ourselves to break down the silos we work in, to challenge ourselves to try new things, and to make a more sustainable, attractive transportation network that serves everyone in the Chicago region.

Transport Chicago is already seeking volunteers to help organize the 2019 conference! Check them out at TransportChicago.org. In the meantime, there are still tickets available for our Star:Line Social event on Friday, June 15 in Rosemont. Eat, drink, be merry, and talk transportation with us!