While interviewing transportation communication experts for a research project last year, I was given a wonderful description of traditional public involvement practices.
One of the communication experts explained that for at least 20 years, government has encouraged the public to turn to the internet for an increasing number of public services. Licensing, permits, paying taxes, registering to vote, apply to serve on committees. It is a long list and grows daily. Pushing services online makes sense. While it might not save staff time, increasing online activity takes pressure off of traditional brick-and-mortar facilities, which can cut costs. Some states have even closed their storefront offices for certain services because online services have become so popular.
Transportation experts, however, still focus most of their project engagement around open houses and public meetings. And that, according to the transportation expert I interviewed, is a total brick-and-mortar experience. We are still asking the public to go to a physical location at a specific time in order to transact … “participate” … in the public decision-making process.
But wait! Aren’t transportation agencies using Facebook and Twitter to engage with the public? Yes, and no.
Yes, more and more agencies are using social media to stay in contact with their constituents. But a closer look shows that most of the innovative uses of social media for online public involvement are really focused on promoting a traditional open house. One transportation agency this week issued a news release asking the public to attend an “interactive” public meeting that was planned to discuss the findings of a recently completed corridor study. But the only “interactive” part of the meeting was that people who attended the public meeting were able to talk to a public official. There was not any way to offer input in the process either through a traditional web page or an interactive mobile app.
In fairness, change is slow to come to transportation public engagement in part because public engagement is not easy. There are federal regulations like the National Environmental Policy Act that governs aspects of public involvement in federally funded projects. There also are state and local rules about how the public should be involved in decision-making. We also as an industry want to make sure we do not ignore or overlook a potentially affected population that may, or may not be using online tools and services.
Yet, there is so much evidence that crowd-sourcing data can provide a more complete picture of the challenges facing a community. And, isn’t that what we do at a public meeting or open house? We ask for public feedback – i.e., crowd sourcing? And, there is so much evidence that people are more mobile than ever and that those people are using the internet for all kinds of daily activities. Getting people to comment on the challenges for pedestrians or cyclists while those people are actually using the intersection in question makes a ton of sense.
Transportation as a decision-making function of government is starting to warm up to this issue. In a cost-cutting move, Idaho no longer holds physical public meetings, instead using online tools to accept comments on its state transportation plan. I was really impressed by an presentation on micro-participation by Jennifer Evans-Cowley of Ohio State University. She is presenting the information in a poster session focused on public involvement at next week’s annual Transportation Research Board meeting (Jan. 22-26). This year’s TRB also features other poster sessions and panels that discuss how to evolve the public participation process without ignoring or leaving anyone behind.
Transportation is not the only area asking how to expand public engagement opportunities. A report released Tuesday on a recently held “Congressional Hack-a-thon” shows how Congressional staff suggest social media can help expand opportunities for public interaction. The recommendations focused on increasing dialogue with the developer community, making data more accessible to the public and improving committee video.
Similarly, TranspoCamp is an un-conference that brings together transportation experts and the development community in a kind of mashup intended to spark creative solutions to transportation challenges. The next TranspoCamp takes place this weekend, Jan. 21, in Washington DC.
Ultimately, I believe government wants to improve the level and quality of participation in the transportation decision-making process. While we cannot eliminate public meetings – yet – we certainly can see a near-term future that looks beyond the brick-and-mortar.