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TRB 2021: Virtual Platform Heightens Engagement in Transportation Research

As a 26-year veteran of Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual meetings, WGI’s Glenn Havinoviski shares his unique perspective on this year’s virtual event.

As a veteran of over 26 years of Transportation Research Board (TRB) meetings held annually in Washington, DC, I was skeptical, as were many other veterans, of how a virtual platform for this meeting (thanks to the lingering pandemic) was going to fare. In recent years, the week-long TRB Annual Meeting had evolved from an event held concurrently at three hotels in Northwest DC (with countless white minibuses shuttling attendees back and forth, day and night) to a massive, dedicated locale at the Washington Convention Center, which last year hosted over 12,000 attendees from all over the world.

Pivot to Virtual

This was going to be TRB’s 100th Anniversary meeting. But it was clear by last summer that a massive international COVID-19 superspreader event in one location was not a good idea. TRB instead chose to create a sprawling month-long online event, with two weeks of Zoom-based committee and subcommittee meetings that could be spread out so none occurred at night and none in a similar practice area (say, Safety and Operations) were overlapping with one another. The third week was devoted to workshops and megasessions, while the fourth week was devoted to virtual “podium” and “poster” sessions, using a combination of PDFs and Powerpoints for the poster sessions and Zoom for the podium sessions.

In short – it worked! Over 19,000 attendees registered for this virtual event. No longer faced with competing meetings between different committees in which I was equally active, I was able to engage more readily than before (chat boxes enabled continuous dialogue and volunteering opportunities). Most clearly, a congestion pricing workshop where I had a presentation role utilized a complicated scheme of video-based presentations (either self-generated or using TRB’s audio-visual contractor) followed with live Zoom breakout sessions involving the presenters, moderators and attendees addressing future ideas for congestion pricing. It came off perfectly. The result was one of the most focused and stimulating workshops I’ve ever been involved in. As a rule, all of the meetings and workshops boasted more people online than would have attended these sessions at a physical TRB meeting.

Some negatives – there were some disconnects between the mobile “TRB2021” app, which was used for the first 2 weeks, and the browser-based virtual app (notably needing to recreate your personal schedule for weeks 3 and 4). Downloading “posters” (PDF or Powerpoint format) was hit or miss, with occasional dead links popping up before trying a second or third time to access the file successfully.

TRB virtual lobby

Some Takeaways

Some of the takeaways from the first 3 weeks of the event include the following (with my particular focus being on transportation operations, connected and automated vehicles):

  • COVID-19 has had a notable and relatively consistent impact on transportation operations across the US, but the long-term impacts will depend on whether work-from-home (WFH) continues to be a trend. WFH increased from historically under 10% of all workers to over 50% at mid-year 2020, and now is settling in at 30-40% of the work force. This has reduced morning commuting volumes and has decimated the use of public transit in larger cities, with many systems servicing well under half of their pre-2020 ridership. Other travel during mid-day, afternoon and weekend periods, has returned to just under normal levels, though transit use remains well below historical levels.
  • Vehicle automation continues to be a long-term trend, with an increased emphasis on the use of automation for local delivery activities and touch-free services. While automated driving assistance systems (ADAS), frequently called Level 2 automation, are becoming more common for private vehicles, many vendors, especially those providing shared mobility, shuttle and freight delivery services, are choosing to focus on readying Level 4 services, which would require vehicles to be sufficiently automated and self-reliant to not require a safety driver to take over in an emergency, which corresponds to “Level 3” automation. There is concern that transitioning from full automation to driver control is a significant risk area. As has been the trend, the move towards widespread vehicle automation is still expected to take several decades.
  • However, the use of data from vehicles to help manage transportation operations and improve safety (Connected Vehicles) continues to evolve. Although a recent FCC ruling has sidelined wireless Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) in favor of broader use of Wi-Fi and Cellular Vehicle-to-Roadside (C-V2X) communications, testing and evolution of C-V2X is continuing in an effort to expand its use, and eventually 5G communications would enable lower latency for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) messages that could augment automated vehicle sensors.
  • The impact of changing travel patterns on tolling and congestion pricing in the aftermath of the pandemic is yet to be established. Reduced commuter traffic demand has impacted volumes and revenues on tolled express lane facilities. However, there is continued dialogue on distance-based road user charging in lieu of fuel taxes, as well as integrating congestion pricing, reservation of parking, use of micromobility appliances using smartphone applications and location-based data.

More observations from the last week of TRB (featuring the scheduled technical sessions) will be coming soon!

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