Tally tells tale of most tweet-worthy at the CNU 2009 Transportation Summit

CNU's summits and Congresses pack a wealth of knowledge into what seems like a blink of an eye. A decade ago, participants clamored for handouts to retain ideas that might otherwise prove fleeting. As information came to flow more electronically, CNU posted speakers' Powerpoint presentations, created audio and video files of some sessions and unleashed small teams of bloggers to capture and share as much as possible of the proceedings.

Then in the last year, the chronicling of CNU events entered a new dimension. Using suddenly ubiquitous social media platforms, particularly Twitter, attendees now report on conferences in real time. Almost as soon as a thought is presented at a CNU event, it is often broadcast to Twitter followers. From there, the idea may carom around the globe as it gets forwarded (or "retweeted"), cheered and critiqued.

"Although Twitter involves notoriously short bursts of thought — each tweet cannot exceed 140 characters — a growing corps now uses it to track the action at CNU events. Users cite its speed and responsiveness, even the discipline enforced by its character limit. The Portland Transportation Summit in November was the second CNU event where Twitter coverage was common. The short term or "hashtag" identifying summit-related postings appeared in more than 380 tweets over the three days of the conference.

Alongside reports from the summit in Streetsblog, Planetizen and New Urban News, the tweeting offers a new form of feedback, a revealing glimpse at what resonated both inside and outside the room. It also shares the task of determining what's memorable beyond a few editors and gatekeepers. "It's useful for articles like the one I wrote on the summit for Planetizen," explains Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Initiative (@MikeLydon on Twitter)." I can check my tweets against others, so in effect it's like having 4-5 people taking notes for you for at once."

In that spirit, we present highlights from 2009 summit presentations, as judged by the Twitter traffic they generated:

Metro Trio
The three summit speakers generating the most mentions all came from Metro, the region's metropolitan planning organization and elected regional government. Metro councilors Rex Burkholder and Robert Liberty and Metro president David Bragdon all spoke on the summit's first morning, when Twitter users were particularly fresh (though their pace never really flagged). Given how MPOs in much of the country do more to reinforce the status quo than reverse sprawl, visiting urbanists had reason to sit up and take note when they heard Metro officials fluently speaking their language.
Presenting Metro's Regional Transportation Plan along with a pointed critique of mainstream transportation planning, Burkholder led all speakers by appearing in 53 tweets. "We didn't want to ask the engineers what to invest in,” said Burkholder, as reported in a tweet from Reconnecting. “Burkholder: Do metrics like LOS [level of service] tell us how we want to live, what kind of communities we want?" quoted StreetsblogSF. “We’re actually going back to the Roman model for cities…We're building a human design that works for people.” Burkholder also made an impression with his admonition to reframe residential density in public debates in terms of its ability to support amenities. "Communities say, 'we want a Trader Joes' in our community," but TJ wants 3k people within mile of store," recorded one tweet.
A longtime leader in Oregon planning circles, Liberty (featured in 38 tweets) established how the urban-centric planning approach and urban growth boundary were enabled by laws and referenda. "It's urban form as a demonstration of democratic choice," quoted StreetsblogSF. He made an impression by pointing out that the reforms in some cases expanded development rights. "Law requires allowance of accessory units on every single single family lot," reported Liberty. In offering one of the most popular lines of the conference — "Exurban development is what I call too small to plow and too big to mow," which was retweeted by New York Times design blogger Alison Arieff and others — he revealed how the Twitterverse appreciates a good quip.

Research on the Cutting-Edge
Reflecting the cross-pollination resulting from recent discussions between representatives of CNU and IBM's Smart Cities program, IBM's Stan Curtis appeared in 27 tweets, many featuring insights from the company's research into how people interact with city systems. "Smart cities is all about smart service. ZipCar, for instance, is a service. There are people who don't want a car, but want the use of a car," said Curtis, as quoted by HoustonTomorrow (David Crossley). "Which cities have the best last-mile choices? It's the ones with local grocery stores, walkability," quoted another.
University of Connecticut transportation engineering professor Norman Garrick was a hit (generating 23 tweets) with his updated research into the safety benefits of highly connected urban street networks. "Rate of injury suburban cities v. grid cities: chance of injury 30% higher, chance of death in car 50% higher in suburban cities," was the information-packed recap from StreetsblogSF.
Economist Joe Cortright also made a 23-tweet impact with his findings (conducted for CEOs for Cities) that a higher score on Walkscore.com equates with higher neighborhood housing values. "Cortright: each 1 point increase in Walk Score was associated with $700 to $3000 increase in home value," wrote HoustonTomorrow.

Policy Reform
Defying expectations that policy discussions must appear in wonky formats, CNU's reform ideas also emerge in tweets from the summit. EconGrrl and HoustonTomorrow quoted John Norquist (14 tweets) on streets policy: "Change the protocols to include roads that add value, not just roads that move vehicles..the federal gov should put money where it creates most value and intersection density is one of those categories." Scott Polikov (12 tweets) promoted reforming the federal processes that charge MPOs with reducing traffic congestion rather than supporting valuable, livable communities. And fellow CNU board member Mike Krusee scored hits (21 tweets) with a number of quotable conclusions learned in his former role as chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee. "Mike Krusee: No road we built in Texas paid for itself. None," reported Reconnecting, Streetsblog, Mannytmoto and others. "The funding of freeways through the gas tax is a huge transfer of wealth from cities to suburbs," was another oft-quoted line from Krusee.

Twitter's search engine stops archiving tweets after 8 days, but thanks to an archive created by Reconnecting America, you can see a few days' worth of summit tweets at cnu/org/summittweets09. CNU will aim to create similar archives for future events.

A shorter version of this posting appeared in the December 2009 issue of New Urban News.

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