A frequent reader asks
In your experience, what are the most effective means of maintaining public input into an ongoing transit project? Assuming they are a possibility, are formal advisory committees the way to go? Informal contact with the project team? Public meetings? A project storefront? What do you do to ensure that public concerns have some weight as the concept is translated into perhaps a less-than-ideal reality? If you have citizens' committees, do you prevent the involvement of people interested in seeing the project fail? For all of these, I am interested in the perspective from both sides – the public and the professional – and in any tips you might have.
- What media should be used for public communication? On this, I think the best practice is "get the information out there in every possible medium, and invite comment in every possible medium." Inclusion of non-techie people is important, which is why snailmail still matters. Public meetings require so much effort from the participants that they tend to attract only people with strong views, leading to unedifying shouting matches.
- Are there inner and outer circles of "the public"? One common strategy is to appoint a "project committee" or "stakeholder committee" of interested people, with the idea that these people will get to know the project better, debate it more deeply, and engage with the larger public about it. This last bit is usually what's missing. These committees really need to reflect stakeholder communities and participants must feel obliged to represent those communities, not just their own point of view.
But the hardest and most important question is "What is the public being asked?"
I think it's very common to ask the public very general "what do you think?" questions, on the assumption that this lets everyone express their view. It does that, but the answers to such vague questions are almost impossible to use inside the study, and a good part of the public will sense that.
That's why I try to use questions that ask the public to consider the real choices facing the city or transit system. That requires a process that listens and educates at the same time, and in which project planners give the public information and a framing of the problem. This post, despite a dead link, is a pretty good overview of that mode of thought. My network design course is also based on "planning games" that allow stakeholders to experience the tradeoffs themselves. It's the same idea.