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The System that Never Sleeps: Highlights from the 2017 WTS International Annual Conference in Brooklyn

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June 16, 2017 | By Margo Dawes (Volpe National Transportation Systems Center) and Michelle Deng (MassDOT)


This May, the 2017 WTS International Annual Conference was held in Brooklyn, New York. As the 2017 Emerging Professionals, we had the opportunity to attend and network with our peers in the industry. The chance to connect with other WTS chapters on this scale comes only once a year, and 40 members represented WTS-Boston with pride among the more than 700 attendees present. With the nation’s busiest transit system as our backdrop, we geared up for three days of technical tours, speaker sessions, professional development, and relationship building.


Technical Tours

“The Barclays Center tour was really interesting because we got to get an inside look at the challenges associated with running an urban arena—the logistics of dealing with vehicular and pedestrian traffic for events, as well as logistics of unloading large trucks with equipment for events. They have a very complex loading dock setup with the second-largest rotating floor in the U.S. They [had] an agreement in place with community stakeholders...to construct a [new subway exit] right outside of the arena, and they coordinate with the MTA and LIRR to have additional service for events. Also, we got to check out Jay Z’s private suite in the VIP lounge area; that was pretty cool!”-Stefanie L. Beaver (VHB), first-time attendee


“I was very impressed with the tour of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It is a very complex, busy, and dynamic operation, with over 200,000 passengers going through there on a daily basis. We were briefed on the operation by the General Manager and two of her managers, and then we took a tour of the terminal and the operations center.”-Diane M. Ricard (Massport)


This year’s conference included access to 19 technical tours throughout the Greater New York City region, from the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub; from the Brooklyn Bridge to Downtown Newark, New Jersey. Margo was able to attend “Along the West End,” a tour of the D line in Brooklyn to see a sample of the subway art supported by the MTA Arts & Design percent for art program. The inside look at a division whose primary goals are to support artists and to make millions of travelers’ experiences more pleasant offered a welcome departure from the usual operational highlights.


Speaker Sessions

“I really liked the [Women Can Build: The Power of Transportation Investment] session on Friday morning that Beverly Scott moderated. It dealt with workforce development and brought to the table a broad array of perspectives and interests. I also served on a workshop on career development moderated by Carla Tillery from FHI. Carla was a terrific facilitator. She kept all of us excited and on our toes.”-Liz Levin


The technical sessions have always been a key highlight of each year’s WTS conference. The session themes were well-curated for the present moment in transportation: they included sustainable and resilient transportation planning, big data collection and analysis, collaboration across agencies and modes, and emerging transportation technologies such as automated vehicles and on-demand mobility.


We both attended a session called “Transportation Visions for the Future,” in which panelists shared their perspectives on strategic planning for future transit upgrades based on neighborhood trend analysis and rethinking land use to create walkable communities around transit stations. We were pleased to see consultants in the transportation field promoting and engaging with active and equitable transportation models.


Professional Development

Interspersed among the technical speaker and panel sessions were gems of advice and guidance from experienced voices in the industry. The professional development sessions featured leaders in their fields who presented on topics such as navigating office politics, social change, and mentoring. Margo attended the “Chief’s Eye View” session presented by three chiefs of staff at large local transportation agencies. The room was packed to bursting and energy was high as the panelists relayed stories and advice from their experiences in pressure-cooker positions. The session ended with an inspiring display of self-confidence by one of the panelists that cemented it as one of the best in the conference program.


Keynote Speakers and Networking Receptions

“Of course, the keynote speaker Arianna Huffington was a treat. She made a strong case for living healthy including wearing flats not heels!”-Liz Levin


“The conference was a great opportunity for networking, catching up with friends, and learning about current transportation initiatives and projects through the keynote events and the breakout sessions. The Greater New York Chapter was a very welcoming host!”-Diane M. Ricard (Massport)


This year’s keynote speaker was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and a prolific author, who delivered a powerful speech about sleep, professionalism, and wellness in a digital age. Ms. Huffington argued that widespread sleep deprivation is at least partially responsible for a host of societal ills, including weight gain, frustration, and diminished capability to make the right decisions.


On Thursday evening, we enjoyed another highlight of the conference: the Annual Awards Ceremony and 40th Anniversary Celebration of WTS International. And on Friday, WTS-Boston members attended the Chapter Circle of Excellence Awards Recognition Ceremony, where our chapter was honored to earn Gold Circle Status. Our chapter’s past president, Rachael Sack, was also honored as the first ever WTS Chapter President of the Year in recognition of her two years of dedicated service. Many congratulations to WTS-Boston and to Rachael!

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Friday’s closing speech by Doran J. Barnes on diversity and inclusion received a variety of reviews. Some found the presentation very well done and thought-provoking, while others felt that they as women of color were not the intended audience. Mr. Barnes, Chair of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Executive Director of Foothill Transit in Greater Los Angeles, shared stories from his own agency’s experience grappling with workforce diversification, and he extolled the value of embracing difference. His talk served as an example of a message that may effectively engage people who have not previously engaged with institutional diversity and inclusive practices, but it may not have landed as well with those in the room who have more extensive experience living as minorities or working with minority colleagues and stakeholders. Regardless of the mixed reception, we hope to see WTS continue to engage with this topic and to push itself as an organization to provide an open forum for members to discuss their views and strategies related to diversity.

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At the Women Can Build: The Power of Transportation Investment general session, one of two panels featuring powerhouse women transportation leaders.


Finally, throughout the conference we were treated to numerous opportunities to expand our networks by engaging with key players in our industry. From the receptions on Wednesday and Thursday evening to the poster gallery and hall of exhibitors, we were able to form numerous new relationships that are instrumental both to our current work and to our professional growth. A big thank you to WTS-Boston for the invaluable support as we establish our careers.

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From left to right: Margo Dawes, Teryne Alexander, Lauren Ballou, and Michelle Deng.

 

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