public input into ongoing projects

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.
Professionals, please leave your thoughts in the comments, including links to good resources on this.  It's not my core speciality.
But in my experience there are three questions here:
  • 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.

9 Responses to public input into ongoing projects

  1. Andre L. July 21, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    I personally think that public meetings are worthless, as a genuine input tool, in most situations. Most I have ever attended were dominated by vocal, organized groups concerned with only one aspect of a project, derailing the whole purpose of those meetings. For instance: a meeting to discuss a new subway extension has its attendance stuffed with people from a single block complaining, vocally, about a minor detail about the alignment that will result in the demolition of a building.
    On the other hand, I believe moderated input online forums would go far in terms of allowing structured input, discussion and even feedback. They are cheap to implement, and the cost of time for staff to interact with such forum is much lower than that of organizing a lot of public meetings town hall-style. With a categorized forum, you can classify, [i]ex-ante[/i], the issues in discussion.
    In any case, the most fundamental factor is to delimit what is at stake, and make it clear. If a certain decision on an ongoing project (rail based instead of BRT, for instance) is definitive, the public should be communicated clearly and given appropriate explanations. If the public understands the steps and phases of a transit project and how they can meaningfully participate in each of them, there will be less frustration related to late engagement with issues that are already settled. This, alone, is in my opinion the greatest source of public perception of an attitude of ‘they don’t care about my opinion anyway’.
    Another aspect is that of different levels of engagement. Some members of the public will engage because the project will affect them in a single but relevant (for them) way, like loss of street parking in front of their favorite shop, end a of one-seat-ride bus service that is outdated but took them straight to their church, lengthy disruptions during construction that will reduce patronage on their restaurant etc. They have specific, narrow concerns and the more the project team addresses their doubts, the better.
    For this group, uncertainty is a killer, a source of stress and an incentive for them to team up together and mount NIMBY groups whose aim is solely to kill the project. Sometimes their grievances can’t be mitigated at all, like a previous decision to use an empty land plot for a subway station instead of a playground and neighborhood baseball field. However, in many instances those members of the public can be appeased with a little effort – for instance, when the project supervision team explains and convince store owners on an arterial that is getting massive overhaul for light-rail that block closures to traffic will be only 3 weeks for each block, not 3 months or the whole 24-month overall construction span.

  2. Beta Magellan July 21, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    For what it’s worth, the Transportation Research Board just put out a new report on this (haven’t glanced through it yet, but it might be of some use to the curious):

  3. Terry LW July 21, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    We use a very structured approach with multiple channels. Public meetings flush out the most vocal opponents and need to be well moderated. In doing so you can then engage directly with the most vocal opponents one on one after the meeting and bring them the full information they require. The aim is not to make them happy, that is the road to perdition, but to make them fully informed so that they cannot every claim that information was with held. It is also surprising that for all but the most recalcitrant, having personal contact takes a lot of heat out of the situation. We also use letterbox drops. This is in addition to mail outs. This is because many property owners are not at the address of the affected property, but need to be informed. The tenants, however, are more likely to be users of any system so they too need to be informed. We also set up social media and website info for the connected. By running multiple channels you avoid the worst accusation of all, that you are trying to hide something. However, you have to put enormous effort into ensuring coordination of all info. We also set up our call centre with FAQs and scripts plus nominated responders. We have found that acknolwedging up front that there will be pain in change is the best way, while still emphasising the wider benefits. That said, there are always difficult customers. When with other employers we used drop in centres more often, which are great where there is a localised effect. Having large scale maps, very clear renderings of final implementation (photoshop, not artist), information on likely property impacts (values tend to increase around PT infrastructure) etc all helps. Using a comms expert is important for targeting the info. The worst thing is to have a PM or similar put the info together, because they come from a very different perspective. The commitment to delivery can make it hard to understand the community perspective. Stepping into their shoes and assuming no knowledge of esoteric concepts like network benefits changes how you explain things and avoids jargon. We also change the information according to the stage of the project, so concept info packs are very different to the absolute detail of construction packs. With things like LR we try to find ways of minimising business impacts in particular, including special promotions, hoardings and signage that assists retention of consumers. Engagement is quite expensive as a component of a project, but without it the project can be lost very quickly. Scanning media, social media and the web constantly is required to stop misinformation becoming “fact”.

  4. Andy Nash July 22, 2011 at 12:34 am #

    Lots of great comments.
    For the San Francisco Caltrain extension project in 1996 we used a process that broke-down a complex project into a series of decisions, then provided information on three levels: newsletter, technical summary, and detailed technical reports. The focus on decisions and information at several levels was very helpful to the participants, but the project died due to political pressure from the SF mayor (who later relented). Here’s a report on the process:
    I am now working on a project called GreenCityStreets. This is an on-line application that combines a social network, game and best practices library (wiki) designed to encourage on-going public participation. The idea is to create “committed citizens” in other words citizens who know something about public transport and are willing to help support it by: (1) providing political support for difficult decisions (e.g. taking parking for a bus lane) and crowdsourcing good ideas. The approach can also be extended for specific projects and to other modes of transport (or other urban systems).
    The main idea for both projects is that public transport is complex, the first step in getting effective citizen participation is education. Jarrett’s blog (and book!) are an excellent source of information, but public transport is still an overwhelming subject for already overstressed citizens. That’s the idea behind the GreenCityStreets games … a fun approach to learning about public transport. Play the game to learn something and then go to the best practices library to learn more.
    Here’s a link to the game:
    The prototype GreenCityStreets application is on-line at:
    It needs work (your comments welcome!) and a sponsor (e.g. public transport agency or organization that really wants to use input from the public). To use the social network you need to login on facebook (this allowed us to build the prototype easily).

  5. EngineerScotty July 22, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Here in the Portland area, I’ve seen more than a few public outreach programs be denounced as “propaganda” by opponents of the project in question.

  6. Steve Lax July 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    There is no “best way” to approach the public participation question. I say this as one who has been on both sides of the table, initially in my early 20s as a citizen advocate for better public transit at a time when my region had privately operated transit; then as citizen who served on many advisory committees, including both project specific committees and general committees, including the advisory committee to my area public transit agency when it was created; then as an employee of that agency in a community relations position that required me to develop outreach plans and conduct outreach sessions; and finally, until retirement, in a service planning position that required me to present service restructuring plans to the community.
    However, let me offer some guidelines based on my experience:
    1. Make sure you have a clear statement of purpose. Why is the project needed? What are the intended benefits? (If the project has not yet been “studied”, that is, ridership projections, environmental work, right-of-way selection, new bus routings, etc. are part of project purpose, the fact that these studies may show that the project may not be developed as initially outlined also needs to be made clear.)
    2. Identify your target populations. Who are you trying to inform and who do you expect to provide input. There will often be a long list, such as transit users, communities impacted by the project, transit advocates, environmentalists, and taxpayers of all stripes. Different groups will need different types of outreach.
    3. Develop the community outreach plan before the project actually begins and modify as needed.
    4. Make sure the information you disseminate is as complete as possible, appropriate to the stage of the project, and in language the target population for whom the material is designed can understand (no “transit geek” talk without explanation). Also, while you want valid community input, you don’t want to leave openings for those who do not like transit projects in general.
    5. Identify the key elected officials or their aides who will be following the project closely (and other key political operatives) and brief them on each stage of the project before you share information to the community at-large. By making sure these key individuals know how the project is progressing and why you are making the decisions you are making, they may even back you privately while posturing publicly against a particular option. These individuals can also be invaluable in recommending where and when to hold public outreach sessions.
    6. Never hold a formal public meeting, unless you are required to hold a formal public hearing with a court reporter or videographer taking an official record. Instead, if you want direct contact with the public, hold a public open house. Open houses take more staff and time; but they prevent one small group from highjacking the meeting. How to hold an “open house” is a rather lengthy explanation. If you need more information, I’d be happy to take time to explain it to you.
    Jarrett, in his comments, and the others who have commented to the post, all raise excellent points. (End part 1)

  7. Steve Lax July 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    (Part 2)
    You don’t say what type of on-going project you are working on or what stage the project is in. I would suggest, however, that the type of project will help define the type of outreach.
    Let’s consider a number of projects:
    1. Isolated capital project, for example, building a new streetcar maintenance facility and needing to lay new track to reach the existing network. Here a project storefront accessible to the impacted neighborhood, if properly staffed, might be a good idea in addition to other outreach efforts. It is most likely the only type of project where I would recommend a storefront as part of an outreach effort.
    2. A major capital project without significant impact to existing operations during construction or negative impact on future operations or negative impact to the community, for example, adding an additional track to a commuter rail line to allow more reverse peak and express operation where right of way exists. This project primarily needs project update information in the form of newsletters (mail, e-mail). The public needs to know what you are doing and why and they need the ability to ask questions on an individual basis.
    3. A major capital project with significant operations considerations, for example, building a new light rail line and restructuring bus service once the new line opens. Here the public needs to be able to understand how the new system will operate and one or more community open houses should be held. (Material explaining the restructuring should be available before the open houses on a project web site, through the mail, or via e-mail.) The timing of these open houses should be early enough in the process to allow for evaluation of public input and to allow for adjustments to the initial restructuring plan when warranted.
    4. Operations changes, such as service discontinuances or restructurings. Here, you need to develop an initial proposal on what your objectives (often partly budget based are); but you need to get public input through open houses or other means to fine tune the proposal. If you are working on a restructuring for a specific geographic territory, an advisory committee may be helpful.
    5. Planning studies, such as developing a proposal for a light rail network to be built over a thirty year period. Here an advisory committee would be your primary public feedback mechanism, supplemented by public open houses at appropriate stages of the study. As always, newsletters would continue to keep the public who asked to be kept informed up-to-date. (The advisory committee(s) should be small enough to have discussion but move forward; perhaps, a maximum of eleven people per committee.) The committee(s) must reflect the broad community input; so a seat or two must be open for opponents. However, if you know who your opponents are/are likely to be, you most likely can invite someone who will not sabotage the effort by simply saying “no” to everything. There are most likely some opponents who can offer constructive opposition that will actually help improve the final outcome.
    6. Fare studies (such as revamping the entire fare structure, not simply fare increases), agency budgets. Here again an advisory committee is probably most useful with other outreach as supplements.
    In all cases, don’t ignore the value of a well-designed web page on the agency’s internet site. The page should be updated as needed with detailed links to more detailed information of public interest.

  8. Chris Bradshaw August 3, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    I, too, am a retired veteran of both ‘sides’ of the scene, as public participation officer and activist and neighbourhood-association member.
    Now that you are in Vancouver, you might want to read Harry Lash’s book, Planning in a Human Way (1972). He was with UBC’s planning school. Also, Edmund Burke wrote another insightful book on this subject, A Participatory Approach to Planning (1979), based on his work in social planning, but still very sage for all situations.
    Both would have made the point that the planners should spend more effort participating in the community than getting the community to participate in their consultative contrivances. Planning is an intervention in the ebb and flow of life ‘out there.’ Planners may have a ‘public good’ to enhance, but must first adhere to the dictum, “first, do no harm.”
    Although that is not entirely possible, the next best approach is to try to solve the various communities’ problems at the same time as your are solving your agency’s problems. Spend as much time getting the communities to talk about themselves, as you do explaining your world to them.
    Another thing planners get backwards is to start with data, then principles, then options, and then the favoured solution. The community might go ‘hmmm’ during the early stages, but that is not agreement. Then if they see their toes being pinched in the last stage, as details get filled in, they will howl like hell.
    The sad part of this approach — other than it doesn’t work — is that it gets your opponents very organized and involved, and your allies the opposite, believing that you don’t need them.
    I developed the “informal,” or networking, approach to planning, which received some positive recognition in the mid-90s. It reduces the effort community people need for participating, and talks in terms of detailed outcomes from day-one. And if there are community interests that are not organized, it works through ‘trust people’ to understand their realities and values.

  9. Oscar August 14, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    I think the key is knowing what you are seeking input on (issues that ARE best solved by the public), and conversely making sure the public know what you are not seeking input on (issues that are best solved by professionals). Different projects often require different types of input, and hence different approaches, so I dont like to promote one thing over another.
    Regarding the ‘ringleader’ situation, where a small section of the community is just doggedly against anything – bringing in wider groups is often more helpful. One way that I find works well is a combination of “drop in exhibitions” (where professionals are avialable for a couple of afternoons and members of the public come and go – and leave formal comment cards) and leaving the same material on the internet (allowing the same formal response) works well.
    Ensuring locals understand the trade-offs (you can’t have X if you dont give Y) is often also important. This often requires a lot of good explanation….