New Research Reveals Messages that Move Public to Support Transportation Investments

onlinepubs.trb.org onlinepubs nchrp docs NCHRP20 24 93 C_FR.pdf
Key themes and messages identified in the new report, “Mobile Messages: Moving People to Support Transportation.”

A new research report published this week by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program offers some insight into how the general public views transportation, and suggests some ways to discuss investments that could generate greater support.

But there are not any “silver bullet” messages that work in every situation.

“Mobile Messages: Moving People to Support Transportation,” analyzes the results of more than two dozen case studies; a survey of transportation agency officials; eight focus groups; and, two dial testing sessions.

It found that people are more likely to support increased transportation investment if the messages are personalized, localized and relevant. The researchers said that successful campaigns must focus on livability, accountability, mobility and convenience. Funding proposals also must be specific and funding must be dedicated.

While these conclusions are probably not surprising to people who work in transportation communications, the extensive research also suggests that some of the most common messages used by transportation agencies are actually not persuasive and tend to fail to move people toward support.

The report was prepared by Shane Peck of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Lance Gentry of Heartland Market Research for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), with funding provided through NCHRP Project 20-24, which is administered by the Transportation Research Board (Full disclosure, I work for AASHTO and helped review this research report).

The researchers reviewed 27 case studies of transportation funding campaigns between 2010 and 2014 and found that successful campaigns focused on mobility, economy, and accountability. They also named specific projects and listed the long-term benefits of investments. The unsuccessful campaigns focused on maintenance and funding shortfalls, as well as the poor state of existing infrastructure. These campaigns also were vague about funding. And, the research also found that increasing safety as a message/theme was not successful.

Meanwhile, the focus group and dial testing sessions revealed that most participants valued fixing the current transportation infrastructure over new projects. They also wanted funding proposals to be specific about the projects, ensure that any money raised would be protected from use on other government priorities, that the program be as local-focused as possible and that any revenue increases be temporary.

The NCHRP report confirm previous NCHRP research published in 2010 that suggested themes, messages and words that work with the public.  The new research also complements two new studies that also gauged Americans’ support for investment in transportation.

According to a new America THINKS survey from HNTB, transportation investments that focus on job creation have some support:

“In fact, 4 in 5 (80 percent) Americans would shell out money for infrastructure improvements if those dollars went directly toward creating thousands of jobs in the United States. They would be willing to put an average of $11 each month toward the cause. Nearly 1 in 4 (22 percent) would spend more than $20 a month to make it happen.”

And, the latest annual survey from the Mineta Transportation Institute found that 71 percent of respondents in a nationwide poll would support a 10-cent-a-gallon fuel tax increase if the funds were spent “on projects that maintain streets, roads and highways.”

There are a number of very insightful observations to be gleaned from these reports. Perhaps most significantly is that according to the researchers, the very process of talking through transportation issues with focus groups and dial testing participants positively affected their feelings about the issue.

According to the report: “Clearly there is an opportunity to move people toward supporting transportation. The messages … must be used effectively as part of a comprehensive communications program to engage the public in a conversation about transportation.”

There indeed is not a single critical message that will work in every situation. But engaging with the local community and learning about their desires and expectations while sharing some of the system’s shortcomings and needs will definitely help increase the odds of earning support.

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Author: Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.

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