Public Engagement

We’ve all heard the cynical responses to public outreach:

  • “They’ve already made their decision.  This outreach is just for show.”
  • “They’re not answering our questions.”
  • “Why are the meetings way over there, at a time when I can’t get to them?”
  • “I don’t like any of these alternatives!”

Great transit plans can’t move forward without the engagement and trust of the public and stakeholders. Stakeholders whose work affects transit’s success must be brought along. The largest possible public must be engaged in substantive conversation, so that they both influence the plan and understand why it is what it is.

The best community engagement happens not just through public meetings where people testify then go home, or letter-submissions to which people receive only an automated thank-you. The best engagement in a plan is two-way, in that participants have an influence and become more expert in the planning itself. They come to understand the real choices that are before their community, and learn about other peoples’ perspectives on the question, not just the one they came in with. This type of engagement helps people develop more reasonable expectations for their government, while also making them better advocates for the things they care about.

JWA has been tirelessly improving and adapting our public engagement approach for over a decade. We bring a unique philosophy and set of tools, and we give engagement the level of focus and importance necessary to make blank-slate transit network redesigns possible. The keys to our approach are to:

  • Encourage people to debate the issues with each other, not just with officials. Stakeholders at round tables talking with each other can explore their disagreements in intimate discussion, and come away better understanding the range of views that the agency is hearing. They can also begin probing, on their own, possible paths to consensus.
  • Engage people in solving the real problem.  Avoid presenting the issue as “Here is our proposal, what do you think?”  Instead, set up exercises in which the participants can work on the problem themselves, testing their own ideas and assumptions.
  • Give people a shared vocabulary for their conversations about transit. Stakeholders often start a conversation using words like “efficiency,” or “equity,” or “competitive.” JWA helps them articulate what exactly they mean, so that they and their neighbors understand one another better. This ensures that people discover where they agree, and where they have conflicting desires that are worthy of debate.
  • Present multiple alternatives that illustrate the widest range of possibilities.  When doing network designs and similar transit plans, we often develop multiple alternatives that build people’s understanding of an important trade-off and the very different ways their transit network could be changed.

An example of the last item is the trade-off between designing a transit network for high ridership or for wide coverage. This particular trade-off is summarized on Jarrett’s blog and the subject of Chapter 10 of Human Transit. Other trade-offs matter too, such as an agency’s balance of investment in local vs. regional service; whether to reduce fares (even to zero) or increase service levels; and how important rush-hour service is compared to other times of day and week. There is no objective answer to questions about these competing values for transit. Public engagement is key to getting them just right in each network, for each community.