A Rookie's Take on the TRB Meeting

A Rookie's Take on the TRB Meeting

Jessica Wilson TRB
Now that I’ve had a chance to catch my breath after the whirlwind of the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting (TRBAM), I’ve been reflecting on my impressions of the meeting as a first timer.

In the months leading up to the TRBAM, several colleagues volunteered their feelings and thoughts on the meeting, including what I should expect and prepare for. I was met with encouraging commentary about the number of opportunities presented by the TRBAM, including the limitless networking and relationship building possibilities, as well as the coverage of seemingly every transportation topic imaginable. They also prepared me for the potential feelings of information overload and the extensively long days. Needless to say, I made sure to rest up prior to the trip and pack an inexhaustible supply of snacks to be ready to remain on my feet for 8+ hours each day. As I reflect, I have some key takeaways. 


I arrived at TRB on Sunday to help set up EBP’s exhibition booth and spent the remainder of the day engaging with exhibit attendees from all over the world, originating from academic institutions, private companies, non-profits, federal agencies, and state DOTs. The strange social experiment of “booth”, or the act of “boothing,” as it was internally referred to as, elicited a variety of results, from 3-distinct groups of exhibit attendees: 1) People who were on a mission for SWAG; 2) People who just wanted to chat with other people; and 3) People who were interested in learning more about the services we offered. By the end of the first day, I was able to characterize which group a given person fell into quickly and adjust my approach accordingly. Regardless of the motivation of the booth attendees, after 2-3 years of limited social interaction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hugely rewarding to connect with hundreds of passionate transportation professionals in-person.    


As I learned from my colleagues, the 2021 TRBAM was held virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2022 TRBAM was held in person in a relatively smaller format. As such, the 2023 TRBAM represented the first full-fledged meeting held since Jan 2020, with many conference goers returning for the first-time post-pandemic, in addition to a brand-new cohort of shiny, first-time attendees. When asked, the tenured conference attendees proudly reported the number of TRBAMs they had attended, with a select few offering up more years of attendance than I had years of life. Despite the vast differences in attendee ages, experiences, backgrounds, and areas of expertise, all attendees were united in an interest in (and for many, a love for) transportation. I discovered the more experienced attendees were more than happy to engage with a first timer, sharing tips, advice, and insight on the TRBAM, professional development, and all things transportation.  


In addition to my boothing responsibilities, I had the opportunity on Monday to attend a lectern session on advancing equity by improving walking and biking networks and on Tuesday to attend the TRB Minority Student Fellows poster session. Both sessions I attended provided new insights and perspectives on methods of analysis to derive solutions to problems related to transportation inaccessibility and inequity. As professional interests of mine, I found myself engaging with numerous transportation students and professionals, bonding over analytical quandaries and data inadequacies, and sharing and receiving tips on new ways to consider common transportation challenges. These discussions provided insights on multimodal analysis methodologies that I hadn’t encountered and could consider incorporating into my own analytical work at EBP, such as combining bike and pedestrian level of stress analysis with proximity and accessibility to places of work.  


On Monday, I managed to sneak a morning walk in prior to the start of my boothing responsibilities, and briskly power walked from the conference hotel towards the national mall. Despite the near-freezing temperatures, the magnitude of the national monuments highlighted the importance and gravity of holding the TRBAM conference in the nation’s capital, providing an unsolicited commentary on how transportation research, policy, and planning invariably affects and connects us all. This theme held true for my remaining time at TRB.   


By the time Tuesday evening rolled around and it was time for me to depart, I left TRB with a number of new LinkedIn contacts, several new business cards, and a handful of new insights to mull over. Yes, TRB was information overload, and yes, I was exhausted, but I also left TRB feeling excited about the sessions I’d attended and new contacts I’d developed and energized about the state of transportation policy and planning practice.  

The spotlight theme for the 2023 meeting was “Rejuvenation Out of Disruption: Envisioning a Transportation System for a Dynamic Future,” which encapsulated topics ranging from the recovery of transportation agencies post-pandemic to emerging, automated vehicle technology intended to bridge existing transportation network gaps and enhance vehicle safety. These topics hold promise for an exciting and innovative year in the world of transportation, for which the annual meeting only provided a glimpse. 

 It now made sense to me why TRB had so many tenured conference attendees and why so many students and professionals returned year-after-year. After my first TRB trip, I can definitively say I enjoyed the experience, and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to return in the future.