chicago: asking the right question?

Hey chicago

Alex Davies in Treehugger looks at a Chicago campaign seeking public input on what would make people use sustainable modes:

Over the last few weeks, Chicagoans have been asked a simple question: "What would encourage you to walk, bike and take CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) more often?" Ads posing the question in buses, subways and public spaces invite the city's residents to respond with their ideas, via text message. This mass call and response is part of Give a Minute, a campaign created by advocacy group CEOs for Cities and media design firm Local Projects, which looks to take public dialogue out of town meetings and into the streets. The idea is simple: by making participation as simple as sending a text message, Give a Minute will bring more people, and ideas, into the debate.

We've long known that this kind of outreach is needed to have a useful conversation about new transit projects.  The old solution — inviting people to attend public meetings — has always produced highly skewed responses, over-weighting the angriest feedback.  Anything that can broaden the conversation is useful.

But for reasons explored here, I generally advise against grand hypotheticals: "What would you do if …?" or "What would encourage you…?"  Nobody can answer those questions accurately, so the answers are a poor guide to what investments would really pay off.

What's really needed is to engage the public in thinking about real tradeoffs, such as the choices built into budgets.  What are your priorities, this or that?  Those hard choices are the real work of elective government.  If we ask people to think about those questions, we not only get more reliable answers, we also encourage citizens to ask smarter questions themselves.   

13 Responses to chicago: asking the right question?

  1. ant6n January 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    On a roll today, eh.
    Regarding these campaigns, I’d like to add that sometimes these public outreach campaigns can feel very patronizing if the transit agency only asks for input on mundane issues, but the important issues are decided top-down. I’ve recently covered this issue with Montreal’s stm, where the only public input on the issue of purchasing of the new metro cars is the selection of one of three possible color schemes – which are all blue and white.

  2. Jason Stokes January 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    I think it’s a great concept. If they’re only looking to gather a broad spectrum of ideas that transit officials would likely never have – this is a perfect way to do it.
    The key, however, is to actually implement some of the feasible suggestions, and publicize the heck out of it. Therein lies the rub.

  3. Jarrett January 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    Actually, the problem with these generalized-feedback campaigns is that they very very rarely turn up an idea that the transit management hasn’t had. What managements need is help with making hard choices between competing goods, not to be berated because they “haven’t thought of” PRT or free fares or whatever.

  4. Jarrett at January 5, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Jason.  Actually, the problem with these generalized-feedback campaigns is that they very very rarely turn up an idea that the transit management hasn't had.  What managements need is help with making hard choices between competing goods, not to be berated because they "haven't thought of" maglevs or free fares or whatever.   Jarrett

  5. Nicholas Barnard January 5, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

    If this is part of a longer process, perhaps its not a bad idea. Figure out people’s top ten items, then put them against each other for tradeoffs?

  6. Angus Grieve-Smith January 6, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    One problem is that this can never really tell you “people’s” top ten items, only those of the people who are motivated to respond.
    Another is that they have to see it. Why is this on the CTA website and not on the I-pass website or handed out in gas stations?

  7. Nicholas Barnard January 6, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    @Angus – it seems like they’ve done a good job of canvassing quite widely for opinions, which should reach most people. The ads just aren’t on buses.

  8. G-Man (Type-E) January 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    I agree the info returned by this type of public participation is *interesting* but likely not very *useful* or novel to transit planners.
    The trend toward opening up outreach efforts with creative new venues, technologies and formats for comment is positive. Without forcing people to confront tradeoffs, between the service they desire and the impact of actually providing it, we get a lottery winners wish list, not a real glimpse of public priorities. IMO What is lacking to date is a good tool to produce more quantitatively and qualitatively relevant outcomes that would serve as direct inputs to the task of matching the available supply of transit with the demand for it and vice-versa.

  9. tomtakt January 6, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    It’s also redundant. These are obvious questions. There are no innovations that will get people to change from driving to walking in a given environment, aside from changing culture by convincing people that walking is an important part of maintaining health and wellbeing and that supporting local businesses is essential–which would still only have a very marginal (if measurable) effect. In most part of this country (i.e. outside of a few urban areas) this would still have no significant effect on non-recreational transportation choices.
    The way people walk places is if the places they want to go are close enough to walk to and its not cheaper, more convenient, and faster to drive there (or take other modes–but obviously driving is the primary one of concern). Unfortunately we encourage development both financially and through regulations and zoning that makes this extremely improbable for all but a few.
    Hence, barring huge driving cost (e.g. gas price) increases, the share of walking trips will take a long time to achieve–and will never happen if we don’t make the hard decision to change our financial and regulatory incentives in land use.
    Is there really any more to it?

  10. Quinn January 7, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    The comments here so far have been focused on the performance of the feedback gained from this campaign, without asking some deeper questions about what its actual effects are, and whether those are feeding towards a broader goal. As Jarrett’s pointed out, the effect isn’t to get new ideas that management hasn’t already thought of: but it’s a question that people feel enticed to answer, because it gets people thinking about the prices they pay for convenience, the barriers that need overcoming, and to assess their context. It prompts reflection.
    >> What’s really needed is to engage the public in thinking about real tradeoffs, such as the choices built into budgets. What are your priorities, this or that? Those hard choices are the real work of elective government. << I agree entirely. However, I also think these are the kinds of questions people need a LOT of education and at least some hand-holding on, whether that's by employed experts or other citizens with more experience of exposure. Ideally it's best carried out by small diverse groups of citizens across the spectrum of affected parties, and who are willing to undergo the massive time commitment involved in the deliberation of these issues. It's entirely feasible that a campaign like this is actually intended to draw out, help identify, and kick off the process of deeply engaging, the people who would do that work. I don't think the deep deliberation of discussing tradeoffs is best done in mediated environments like newspapers or even websites (and I say that as a student of online collaboration on public engagement, so it's not because I fear the tech). Balancing a decision with full knowledge of the effect of the tradeoffs involves looking someone who will suffer in the eye, and asking what will help them go along. The "citizen assembly" flow I've described above was used for issues of governance in British Columbia (more here), thought it was also quite a costly endeavor. I personally hope deliberation is used more in decision-making for transportation. Though I have a limited deep knowledge of different agencies, I feel there’s interest and potential energy from citizens being left on the table by transportation agencies (and the comment sections on newspaper articles, your own blog and many others are evidence of that). It’s the transparent channeling of that energy into satisfying outcomes that I personally feel is lacking, and which Give a Minute is taking a crack at (the searchability/persistence means a lot when it comes to allowing people to self-organize into interest groups).

  11. Alan Robinson January 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    In the case of Chicago, one of the most needed transit improvements is the integration of Metra lines, and the CTA. Metra lines have an immense transfer penalty as the trains arrive in four different stations downtown. Additionally some Metra lines run in regions where the CTA has the greatest demand for rapid transit. Fare integration between the agencies would go a long way towards increasing mobility.
    This is largely a political problem rather than a funding problem. I’m not certain how much clout a questionaire by the CTA would have for promoting this integration.

  12. Jarrett at January 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    Alan. You make Chicago sound just like Paris and London! J

  13. Alan Robinson January 11, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    @Jarrett, It’s almost exactly like Paris except that the class roles are reversed. The Metra tailors to wealthy suburban commuters while the CTA has many impoverished users.