2024 ITE Student Leadership Summit at Cal Poly

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A little under a year after my most recent trip to San Luis Obispo, I’ve just come back from another visit – this time for the ITE Western District Student Leadership Summit (SLS), which (like the IISE conference I attended last year) Cal Poly hosted.

Getting to SLO

Rather than drive the 101 or the PCH, our group decided to take Amtrak to and from San Luis Obispo. This was, in hindsight, a poor decision (in large part because of the storms that rolled through Southern California and the Central Coast the same weekend). But it was also very cheap and the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner coastal views are simply unbeatable.

On the train, I had the genius idea of trying to film a time-lapse of the train ride up the coast. I had a couple of different devices to film with, but it took some effort to figure out how to keep a camera upright and stable against the railcar window. I realized my iPad mini (which I had managed to get quite cheaply on sale at Target) happens to be just tall enough for its camera to have a clear view through the window while resting on the windowsill. In a feat of engineering, I devised a way to pin the iPad against the window with an umbrella and the weight of my backpack.

This is why I’m not a civil engineer

Surprisingly, this method worked pretty well and I got a nice time-lapse of the views. (Unfortunately, though, I forgot to change the time-lapse speed before I started recording, so this is about 4 hours compressed into 40 seconds.)

Our counterparts from UCLA also joined us, and Amtrak staff were kind enough to give our group of almost 50 students a car to ourselves. The rest of the journey up to SLO was uneventful; we enjoyed the views, nerdy conversation about trains, and some much-needed sleep. Best of all, we arrived in San Luis Obispo on time (which, if you know Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor, is quite the rare feat)!

The Conference

So much happened during the conference that I’ll only cover four big highlights – the Cal Poly team truly took out all the stops for this SLS.

Bus Roadeo

The very first event of SLS also turned out to be one of the best. San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority (SLORTA), the countywide transit agency in San Luis Obispo County, hosted our SLS group for a tour of their brand-new bus maintenance and administration facility. The attention to detail and deliberateness of design at this facility are really incredible. For instance, the bus maintenance garage has reflective quartz floors and skylights installed; the floors are so reflective that maintenance staff can look at the underside of a bus without a flashlight. Also, the administration part of the building has a dedicated recovery/quiet room for RTA staff and bus operators to pray, meditate, or just enjoy a moment of peace. It’s great to see small transit agencies like SLORTA making impressive and effective investments in their staff and capabilities.

How bright are these floors?

The facility is also equipped with a large number of electric bus charging facilities (even though SLORTA does not currently operate electric buses in revenue service) in preparation for the California Air Resources Board’s stipulation that all transit agencies in California transition to fully-zero emission vehicles by 2040. This was a very forward-thinking move; even though the shift to zero emissions vehicles has new concerns like vehicle range, maintenance requirements, and higher capital costs, I was encouraged by SLORTA’s willingness to adapt to their changing environment.

Of course, there was an actual bus “roadeo”. Two of SLORTA’s operators showed off their skills in a bus obstacle course, including some very fancy maneuvering. The most exciting part was the precision stop; bus operators were challenged to rapidly decelerate from 25mph and stop a few feet short of some barrels, all while slipping through an increasingly narrow gauntlet of cones. That really puts DMV driving tests to shame.

Also, a fun fact: SLORTA is the only transit agency in the US with bike racks on both ends of their buses!

What’s Up Western District?!

The What’s Up Western District presentations were something totally new to the SLS playing field. A handful of Western District ITE student chapters were given time during lunch to deliver an open-ended presentation about their chapter. When I was drafting USC’s presentation, I focused on three big “pushes” that we’ve made during the last year: our weeklong trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, our efforts to significantly improve member retention and commitment, and our new website. We had much positive reception to our presentation, and I’m very glad we had the chance to share with chapters across the region what we’ve learned through our growth in the last few months.

I think guided opportunities to learn from other ITE chapters, like this presentation, are great additions to any ITE conference. I’d love to see this idea replicated at a future SLS, or even an ITE international Annual Meeting.

Downtown SLO

To me, no trip is complete without walking around the city. The City of San Luis Obispo’s transit network is not that great, so I managed to hitch a ride to downtown SLO from the Cal Poly campus. I really like downtown SLO – it has that unique “college town” vibe, and it reminds me of Ann Arbor (home to the University of Michigan) in particular. Even though it’s not an especially large city, Downtown SLO is very walkable and has excellent bike infrastructure.

Last year, I discovered this excellent Turkish store in downtown called Lokum. They sell all kinds of Turkish goods, including cutlery, cups, rugs, fabrics, coffee, baklava, and Turkish delight – the last one is my favorite, so of course I had to visit again and pick some up to bring back to LA. I’m surprised that it’s not very famous at all, and I think it’s absolutely worth a visit. Aside from Lokum, I visited the SLO Museum of Art (small, but free and nice) and Court Street (an excellent pedestrianized outdoor mall). I also had to pick up a Cal Poly stuffed animal to add to my collection..

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A small disappointment was my attempt to get a SLO Transit ticket to add to my (other) collection. It seems like almost all SLO Transit riders use the Token Transit app or a Cal Poly ID to pay fare, but I tried to purchase a paper ticket using the machines in front of the downtown transit center. Unfortunately, the machine’s credit card reader wasn’t working; when I paid with cash, the machine took my cash but didn’t print a ticket. SLO Transit – if you’re reading this, please fix your ticket vending machines 🙂


Speakers and presentations are the bread and butter of any conference, and SLS was no exception. Broadly, I feel that the Cal Poly team did a great job of choosing speakers, and the speakers did a great job of choosing their content. I think a lot of SLS attendees, myself included, liked all of the YouTubers who spoke at the conference: Road Guy Rob, CityNerd, and City Beautiful. It’s funny how almost everyone I know in ITE watches the exact same YouTube channels. In my opinion, including these creators was a great way to connect with the (mostly) young demographic attending SLS.

One exceptional presentation I attended was Lindsey Van Parys’s. I didn’t initially feel excited by her apparently transportation engineering-focused presentation, as someone who is not a transportation engineer. However, she focused heavily on community engagement for transportation projects and highlighted some exceedingly successful projects, including one where the selective use of federal grants made it cheaper for a city in California to convert a dozen intersections to roundabouts than to convert a single intersection to a roundabout. Van Parys’s incisive exploration of how she made this happen and how she convinced the community to be okay with such a drastic change, all while making sure the roundabout designs were human-friendly, was inspirational. She also touched on a project in the Bay Area where roundabout was built with a rail grade crossing through it, which I think is an amazing feat of engineering in itself.

Atmospheric River?

In contrast with the journey from LA, the trip back from San Luis Obispo was quite the odyssey. We had originally planned to take the Coast Starlight from SLO to LA. I was already a bit worried about this, since the Coast Starlight was over 6 hours late when I had taken it from Portland to Los Angeles. It turns out there was really no need to worry because Amtrak cancelled our reservation due to a landslide between Emeryville and San Luis Obispo, so trains couldn’t even operate south of the Bay Area. After some back-and-forth with Amtrak, we were rebooked on the Pacific Surfliner, also between SLO and Los Angeles. This train, too, was eventually cancelled for “weather” reasons.

To Amtrak’s credit, rebookings were pretty simple and totally free. This experience is far better than with airlines, even if Amtrak’s on-time performance is much worse than an airline. In the end, we took a Thruway bus from San Luis Obispo station to Santa Barbara, and then a Pacific Surfliner train from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. Even though there were numerous spun-out cars on the 101 freeway along the coast, a tree that fell down in front of the train, and flash-flood warnings almost the entire way, the Amtrak crew got our entire group safely to Los Angeles – all for less than $10!

Even though the trip back to LA involved a lot more water than I would’ve hoped for, this year’s SLS was an excellent event. I was impressed by the Cal Poly team’s execution, and it’s great to see how successive SLS conferences iterate and improve off each other. I’m excited to see what next year’s SLS will look like – but let’s hope it won’t be raining for the third SLS in a row!

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