Public Outreach

countering the “empty buses” myth — with video!

The Pinellas County, Florida transit agency has done this video to help counter the impressions people get from seeing empty buses around the area.  Seeing empty buses often causes people to complain that the buses are too big, are obviously not needed, should be replaced with smaller ones, etc.   

Some viewers may be irritated by the "big number" rhetoric:  We hear the systemwide annual ridership over and over without any context for understanding it.  It's certainly not true that the system's 14m annual rides mean that buses aren't empty a lot of the time, as the video has already explained and justified.

But it's a very worthwhile effort, and transit agencies need do to these things. APTA or some other pro-transit entity could be commissioning them for all transit agencies to use, but home-grown ones will always have some advantage because so many people respond only to data from their own community.

Thanks to Michael Setty for the tip!

how much should agencies explain their planning thoughts?

A reader recently asked the Whatcom Transportation Authority — which covers the Bellingham, Washington area — why they didn't have service to their little airport.  (Bellingham, located just below the Canadian border on Interstate 5, has been getting new nonstops to places like Las Vegas and Honolulu, as Canadian travelers demand a lower-cost alternative to their beautiful but expensive airport, Vancouver International (YVR).)

Maureen McCarthy, WTA's manager of Community Relations and Marketing, took the time to write the following email in response, which I wanted to share because it's so respectful and cogent (and also explains, once again, why transit to airports is such a difficult issue).  

Hi ____,

We’d like to offer service to the airport, as ideally all major transportation modes would be connected via transit.  A number of factors are holding us back:

  • As you probably know, our routes are built to work as a system.  In order for people to go from route to route within the system, routes need to come together, or “pulse” [link added] through our stations.  Adding the airport to Route 50 wouldn’t allow Route 50 to meet the pulse.
  • An alternative would be to serve the airport with its own route.  This is problematic because neither the current demand to the airport, nor demand to the industrial area that surrounds it would warrant  a dedicated route.

Why doesn’t the demand to the airport warrant its own route? 

  • Canadian travelers make up a large percentage of travelers in and out of Bellingham Airport.  These would not be transit users.
  • Flights before or after our regular service hours make up a significant percentage of departures/arrivals to the airport.
  • Nearly everyone would require a transfer to reach the airport.  This would not only make for a long trip, but luggage would make this inconvenient.
  • To be viable, service to the airport would have to be frequent.   Frequent service is expensive service.
  • While airport parking or  taxi rides are expensive, neither seem cost-prohibitive enough (to the average airline passenger, that is) to cause people to seek a much less convenient alternative.  For example, I regularly ride the bus to work and for other trips.  I wouldn’t take it to the airport, however.  The bus would require a transfer and I’d be relegated to the bus schedule. Cost would be $2.  For only $8 more, I can take a taxi door-to-door, exactly when I need to go.  Many, many people would be in this same boat—requiring one or even two transfers.
  • When you consider how tough it is to motivate people to take the bus for easy trips (like to their office, once per week, with no luggage, during regular hours), it feels much more daunting to get them to consider it for a trip to the airport.  Again, we perhaps solve this by offering frequent service—like every 15 minutes, from early until late, but this would be extremely costly—drawing resources away from other routes, serving people’s everyday needs.

Again, we recognize the value of linking all modes of transportation!  And perhaps now that flights from Bellingham are more affordable (it used to be more of a luxury to travel from here), there will be greater demand for this.  In the meantime, for a system of our size to be efficient, we need to focus on the everyday needs of most people.

Would be happy to discuss further if you’re still curious.  Thanks for asking!

Maureen

Now, a big transit agency would need an enormous staff to do this kind of interactive feedback, but notice a few things:

  • Well-intentioned public ignorance about the basic geometry of transit service and demand is nearly universal, so there is an intense need for people to hear cogent and reasonable replies to their complaints.  These explanations both convey useful education and also make it harder for the complainant to decide that the agency is just stonewalling.
  • Not all agencies have someone like Maureen.  Note that although her title is Manager of Communications and Marketing, she clearly understands transit planning.  As a result, when she receives an intelligent question, she can give an intelligent response.  Unfortunately, I've met many people in the Communications/Marketing role in transit agencies who do not have this skill or training, and have not thought about the importance of communicating planning ideas.  In fact, mutual incomprehension between the planning and marketing worlds is a major source of frustration inside many transit agencies, though by no means all.
  • Fortunately, a great deal of this kind of communication could be automated.  Giant transit agencies are unlikely to employ vast sweatshops of Maureens to knock out such emails on a big-city scale, but they could publish more extensive documents with pre-prepared explanations just like the one above.  After all, Maureen's explanation is perfectly appropriate to anyone who asks the very-common question about why transit to the airport isn't better than it is.  So put that on a FAQ list on the website, offer this explanation, and share links to that page when someone asks you that question.  It doesn't need to take much staff time.  See the TransLink (metro Vancouver) Network Planning Primer as one example.  (And yes, I can help your transit agency write exactly what's needed, in an appropriate voice.)

How would your transit agency perform when asked a question like this one?  (Remember, phrase it as a question rather than a complaint, and don't express anger as you're asking the question.)  Even if the answer is automated, ask: Did I get a coherent answer to my question?  

These days, you can quickly identify customer-hating corporations because they respond to your questions with automated emails that prove to you that nobody read your question.   They brush you off with banalities and ignore what you actually asked. When United Airlines or AT&T talk like this — and they do it routinely — they're saying: "We're too big to care, we know that you're stuck with us, and it's easier for us to pretend that you're a credulous moron than to take the trouble of reading what you wrote."    

Transit agencies can't afford to take this view, especially when they get an intelligent inquiry.  United and AT&T may have accurately decided that their customers are stuck with them, but despite all the confusing talk about "transit dependent" riders, transit agencies should never assume that riders are stuck with them.  Even if some are, the frontier of the battle between transit and the car lies in the hearts of people who are open to transit and have good reasons to use it, but who are very much not stuck, and won't have any patience for an agency that assumes they are.  

That's why clear explanations of how transit agencies think is so urgently needed, right there on the website, and it's why a lot of my own work, including my entire book, is about filling this void.  The forthcoming CNU Transportation Summit in Long Beach, by the way, will be working on this very question.  It might be an exciting thing to attend.  

portland’s southwest corridor: get involved at the beginning!

Portland Inner SW CorrPortland's regional government Metro has just launched a public feedback period on its Southwest Corridor Project.  This is the most important time to be involved. For details on upcoming engagement events, and online feedback opportunites, see here.  (Scroll to bottom for public meeting info.)

Most people won't pay attention to this project until a final transit project is proposed and the federal funding process is well underway.  At that point, when there's little option to revise the project, everyone will be stuck in a binary support-or-oppose debate that is often angry, boring, and frustrating to all sides.  At that point, too, some people will be saying that "the fix is in," that Metro was always going to build the project a certain way and that the whole public process was just window-dressing.

When we get to that point, people who were engaged in this process back in July 2012 will need to pipe up and say, no, actually there was quite an extensive public conversation before any hint of a transit line was drawn on map.  The public and advocacy groups had ample opportunity to shape the entire definition of the project and its priorities, before Metro had done much planning.

The study area [Download PDF] consists of all the suburbs lying generally southwest of downtown Portland, and a large swath of southwest Portland itself.  Portland's part of the corridor is shown at right.  Download the PDF to see the full extent.

Even if you're not in Portland, you might want to poke around the project website just to get a sense of how broadly Metro defines its corridor studies.  At this stage, the project is presented in such an inclusive way as to barely hint that it may lead to some kind of rapid transit line.  This is the right tone for this point in the process.  The Portland area's style with these things is to start from the question "What kind of community do you want?" — and gradually build a case from the answers to that question toward a transportation improvement, in the most transparent way possible.  The tone of these processes is always that the transit line isn't an end in itself, but a tool for a wide range of outcomes that citizens value.

This corridor has understandably been a relatively low priority in the past three decades of rapid transit development.  Its catchment is relatively small as corridors go, density is low, topography is relatively difficult, and all the options for bringing any rail or BRT project into downtown Portland look likely to be very expensive.  Look at the map above:  The only alignment that won't involve tunnelling will approach alongside the already-level Interstate 5 and Barbur Blvd, which are right next to each other.  This alignment briefly turns due east and then makes a 90-degree turn to the north — locally known as the "Terwilliger curves."  The east-west segment exploits a break in the continuous ridge of hills running north-south, and after you turn northward you're running laterally across the steep face of these hills all the way into downtown.  Barbur and I-5 are flat through here only because of continuous restraining walls and viaducts, all of which will be expensive to refit for rapid transit.  

Portland has already built one long tunnel to cross these hills — the dashed red line that you see heading west from downtown.  That tunnel, though, is part of the westside line, which has a much larger catchment including all of Beaverton, Hillsboro, and the so-called "Silicon Forest".  A tunnel for the smaller southwest corridor will probably be difficult to pencil.

All Portland rapid transit studies are land use studies, and are ultimately about what kind of community citizens want.  Still, this one will call for some spectacularly clever engineering options — more than enough drama to engage infrastructure geeks across the continent.  Stay tuned, and if you're local, get involved.

tweet-analysis for transit agencies, and more on positive feedback

A group of researchers studied tweets emerging from Chicago rail transit passengers, plotting them by time of day and correlating them with disruption events on the network.  Emily Badger at The Atlantic has the story.  A key insight:

Bus and train agencies generally gauge how riders feel about them the old-fashioned way, with surveys and focus groups. What if, instead of politely asking people if they find their morning commutes safe, sanitary and efficient, agencies tapped into the raw and unscripted assessments we all love to broadcast from our smart phones? (Case in point: I may have tweet-whined this morning from inside the Washington Metro system: "Why will it take 8 1/2 months to replace the escalators at the Dupont Metro?")

A group of researchers at Purdue suspected agencies could learn a lot about rider satisfaction by doing this (oh yeah, and all this data is free!).

Unfortunately, the results also picked up on my theme from last week:

[Samuil] Hasan, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue, presented these findings Tuesday to a riveted room at the annual Transportation Research Board conference in Washington. Noticeably absent from his charts were the moments when everyone seemed to be tweeting wild praise for the Chicago Transit Authority.

"The most interesting thing we found is that transit riders do not give any positive sentiment at a particular time. They only give negative sentiment," he said. Now, this may seem depressing if you work for one of these agencies. "But that’s not very disappointing," Hasan said, "because we found that the lack of negative sentiment is basically what transit authorities should look for. If there’s no negative sentiment at any given time, that means that things are running smoothly."

That may be partly true of operational disruptions, but Hasan seems unaware of the role of positive feedback in encouraging good work by operations employees.

In many other areas of transit agency activity, the absence of positive feedback is unequivocally a problem.  In operations, "smooth running" is the goal, which menas that change is usually the enemy.  But network planning, for example, is about creative change that solves problems and improves the relevance of the service.  Almost everybody, deep down, feels some entitlement to the status quo, so negative feedback on a change proposal is inevitable no matter how good the plan is.  

When a transit agency is trying to do something new, and good — whether in network planning, infrastructure, wayfinding, marketing, communications, or whatever — you should assume they're getting lots of negative feedback from people who just want nothing to change.  That means your positive feedback really matters.

“awesome driver!”: the power of positive feedback

Now and then Twitter pops up something like this, from someone called @wmataplusside.

@wmataplusside@wmata awesome driver! Very clear & announced everything! orange line car 5053. Tell him to keep up the good work 🙂

 In a local ecosystem dominated by colorful critical voices (including @FixWMATA, @dcmetrosucks, @unsuckdcmetro, and my personal favorite moniker, @MedievalMetro), @wmataplusside's niche is to offer all good news:

‏ @wmataplusside  Cell service at Anacostia, Navy Yard, and Waterfront is real! Its really there! #wmata

WMATA, the regional transit agency of the Washington DC region, has a problem that afflicts almost all transit agencies: Negative feedback is constant, positive feedback is rare.  Transit is an incredibly visible service; when something goes wrong — whether in management or operations — there's no concealing it.  Media feed on negativity, so that's what spreads, and what returns amplified to the agency staff.

Experienced transit staff learn to "control" for the negativity.  I often tell client agencies that if the feedback on a service proposal is only 75% negative, as opposed to, say, 95%, then that's actually pretty positive.  Negatively-impacted customers respond in much greater numbers, and usually much more belligerently, than positively-impacted customers, so it's unfair to count comments as though they were votes.  The same is generally true of operations; commendations of good work from customers are rare, because few bother to comment in that situation. while lacerating feedback from angry customers is routine.

This is why folks like @wmataplusside are doing someting important.  When not offering his/her own positive feedback, @wmataplusside is harvesting good news from all over the local Twitterverse, and retweeting it, amplified.  If you want one feed of all the good news about WMATA (and I'm sure the agency does), this is it:

‏ @dcmetrosucks:  I have to say that #wmata has stepped it up this past month and a half…haven't had any significant delays on the OR during peak hours.

‏ @jamdizzle  So pressed with @wmata! Didn't really believe they'd put the money the bus ate on my SmarTrip and certainly not within a few hours!

@jeditrainee:  Love the new bus bays at Seven Corners. Going through there used to be a nightmare. #wmata

@HS1979: On a shuttle. Watched WMATA employee explain to driver how 2 help one confused young passenger. "Take care of her, ok?" IMMD 

@mindymoretti:  $13 cab ride vs. $1.50 bus ride. Snarly cab driver vs. uber friendly bus driver. Well played @wmata well played.

‏ @csimpson82:  My orange line train driver would have an AMAZING career in radio! Excellent job today with the stations!

@zebrafinch:  Cheers, kudos to DC Metro staff Ms. Taylor (Woodley/Zoo) & Gregory (White Flint) for ALWAYS BEING HELPFUL & on task! TY! @wmata #WMATA

@zebrafinch:  New and cheery lighting at formerly dark Metro station. Good! #WMATA http://twitpic.com/9e1yv5

@chrispulaski:  With all my negative #wmata tweets, I have to say that more often than not, the metro workers I encounter are wonderful people.

They don't have to be specific complimnents.  Expressions of sheer passion are also passed on:

‏@Adam_Ulbricht:  Have I confessed my love for the #DCMetro lately? Ya, it's amazing

@Wmataplusside also supports by being useful, extending the agency's eyes:

@wmataplusside: @wmata there are hornets building a nest inside of bus bay H at Naylor Road

The user @wmataplusside took a while to track down, but here's his or her self-description.

Unrelated with WMATA, just a Marylander who grew up with the Green Line. Not really much about me. A suburbanite, born in Virginia, raised in Maryland. Ride Monday through Friday and weekends when I need to go into the city. Been riding all my life, and it's really not as sorry a state of affairs as others make it out to be.

It moves people back and forth without serious incidents being commonplace. Sure, incidents may occur from time to time, but it's not nearly as bad as the Beltway. If riding Metro sounded like listening to a bad traffic report, I could understand relentlessly hating on it.

Started the feed because I couldn't understand why so many were dedicated to being negative about it, and none positive. Goal was an outlet for compliments and comments as a means of hopefully encouraging more positive behavior by wmata employees. Answer rider questions and tweet about my experiences on rails and bus, pass along information about delays when I'm in them. Just want to provide a contrast to all of the pessimism, and another side to the #wmata conversation.

Or as he put it in a tweet:

@wmataplusside: I may look like the eternal optimist, but I'm more normal than it seems. And after reading twitter daily, more lucky than most.

If nobody is aggregating positive feedback for your city's transit system, maybe you should start!  Positive feedback can guide an agency at least as well as the negative can.  Probably better.

portland: balance the budget yourself

Portland's Tri-Met faces another horrible funding shortfall this year, but they've come up with a good survey tool to engage the public in their decisions about what services to cut.  It's one of those "balance the budget yourself" tools that's becoming increasingly necessary to bring voters into contact with reality about government budgets.  

If you live in Portland, you should definitely work through the survey and send them your own balanced budget and comments.  If you're not in Portland, is your transit agency communicating about its trade-offs this well?

steve jobs vs. market research

From the NYT obituary of Steve Jobs:

Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

This may sound blunt and arrogant, as fast-moving minds often do, but Matt Bai expands:

In other words, while Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.

This point has great relevance to transit and urban planning generally.  Citizens express their desires lots of ways, but few of those expressions tell planners exactly what to do.  "Research," as Jobs uses the term, probably means a very broad process of perceiving what customers are actually doing, how they're responding to existing products — many other sources apart from asking them what they want.  It also means relating those desires to the some sense of what's mathematically and physically possible.  The synthesis of these inputs requires a certain amount of science but also a certain amount of inspiration or instinct. 

You can ask a citizen anything, but the trick is to figure out if the frame of reference you're using is the one that actually matters to their decisions, and even you get only part of your answer.  Often we ask questions that express the questioner's interest rather than the citizen's.  (In the extreme form, this becomes push-polling.)    For example, suppose we ask: "Should we build light rail or a busway here?"  Well, not everyone is interested in technology-choice questions, and from those people we'll get low-commitment answers that don't mean much.  Some people are happy to say "no opinion," while others feel compelled to state a view no matter how faintly they may feel about it.  These vagaries of mood or temperament make a huge difference to research outcomes, especially when the question isn't stated in a way that engages what the citizen actually cares about.  (In focus groups, peer pressure makes "no opinion" less of an option, but that doesn't give me any more confidence that the right question has been asked, if indeed there even is a right question.)

So I would rather ask the public big questions about what they think transit is for, and what it should be trying to do.  "Do you see transit in your community as primarily a social service for people who can't drive?  If so do you think it should remain in that role?"  "Should transit serve every bit of the city, or focus on areas where it can carry high ridership?"  "Here are five possible goals that transit could focus on; what do you think should be the prioirty among them?"

But most importantly, we in the transit business have to think, not just analytically but in a more humanistic way that's open to inspiration and flashes of insight. 

Because we have to take risks, and while you can analyze risks forever, only inspiration gives you the confidence to take one.

what makes a good “planning game”?

People learn from doing more than by being told, so public outreach is increasingly turning to various kinds of simulations, which can broadly be called planning games.  A planning game is any interactive exercise that allows people to play with the tools of planning, under some kind of budgetary constraint, and thus to experience the hard choices that arise from the material. 

You've probably played with online tools, often published by newspapers, that invite you to "balance the government budget yourself."  Planning games drill down to a more detailed level than that, but they share the same spirit:  They invite the citizen to express her views through grappling with the actual problem that government is facing.  When used as outreach tools, the rule of these games is: Listen and educate at the same time. 

Planning games can be group exercises in public meetings, but of course they can also happen on the web.  Web-based versions are better for allowing an individual to explore at her own pace, but they don't fully expose the user to the diversity of opinions and needs in a community.  Public workshops tend to be much better for that.

I'm inspired to return to this topic because of an intriguing style of planning game developed by Community Transit in suburban Snohomish County, Washington (north of Seattle).  I'll talk first about the kind of planning game I do — and the one on which my network design course is based.  Then I'll talk about the very different approach that Community Transit used.

Geography-Based Planning Games

To build stakeholder consensus around a transit plan in a difficult area, TransLink in Vancouver BC uses a geographical planning game.  I helped them hone this tool for their South of Fraser area in 2006 and they have used it successfully in other areas since then.  It can be helpful in many other contexts.  This planning game technique, applied to a fictional city, is also the core of the interactive course in network design that I teach.

Picture1 For a long-range infrastructure plan, stakeholders would be gathered in groups of about six around a map of their community, with a layer of clear acetate over it.  We'd give them some tools:  the red tape is an elevated metro, the blue tape is light rail, the green tape is frequent bus service.  Here, fellow citizens:  We have 24 kilometers of green tape that we can lay out.  You can trade five km of green tape for a km of blue, or ten km of green tape for a km of red.  Design your own system, but experience the process of making hard choices as you do.

A similar exercise can be done when doing a short-range bus service redesign.  Here, you're just dealing with frequencies of service rather than technologies, so the costs are more obvious.  Red tape is a bus every 15 minutes, blue is a bus every 30 minutes, green is a bus every 60 minutes, so a kilometer of red is worth two km of blue or four km of green.

Self at SOFA wkp  At the end of the work at tables, different groups of citizens would have come up with different networks for the same area.  So we'd put the resulting maps on the wall and I'd lead a discussion about how different groups had solved the problem differently, and get citizens talking to each other about why they approached the problem in various ways. 

At the end, we understood their views, but more important, they understood each other's views.  They also understood the underlying problem facing the transit agency, so they could form more useful and constructive ideas in the future.

In my course, I add a number of other features to this tool, including different ways to analyze the resulting networks, and also ways to humanize the issues.  I also emphasize how the geography of transit generates choices among competing values, which is why citizens and their elected officials ultimately need to make the decision. 

I advocate geographically-based games because the network design problem happens in geographical space, and you can't really see either the obstacles or the opportunities unless you look at a map.  But Community Transit did it differently …

The Community Transit "Transit Values Exercise"

Like many US agencies, Community Transit is having to make a steep service cut this year, around 20% of their total service.  They wanted a way to engage citizens in thinking about the choices that this implies, so they invented their own "Transit Values Exercise."

Instead of talking about geography at all, they forged a set of 15 fictional people who represent slices of their market.  The question for participants was:  "Which of these people should we no longer serve?"

Each person is represented by a card:

TVE-cards4

The narrative on the left is Cathy's story, but we're to understand that there are many people "just" like her.  Services that meet the needs of these people have a total cost of 7 points (lower right) out of a total of 125 for all the cards.  Icons on the left tell us that Cathy doesn't have a car (or a bike, or a wheelchair) and gives a sense of the diversity of trip purposes that she uses transit for. 

On the right, the five bars describe the consequences, for the whole network, of serving Cathy and people like her.  Note that she lives in a rural community, so it's not surprising that (compared to a whole network that also serves a larger urban area) she tends to need services that have high cost to operate (first bar) and require high subsidy (second bar.)  Like all rural services, the routes Cathy rides cover a large area (high "Coverage") but have very, very low ridership by system standards.  The middle bar, "Efficiency," refers very narrowly to schedule efficiency: the amount of dead running required.

(Obviously there's a little redundancy among these five, since subsidy itself is a result of ridership and cost [as well as fare levels, not modelled here].   Logically, subsidy could have been omitted, but it does tend to pique the interest of more conservative participants.)

Here's another card:

TVE-cards5

You get the idea.  At the APTA Multimodal Operations Planning workshop on August 17, a roomful of professionals had a chance to play with this tool, choosing different people to "discard" (harsh, but that really is what we're doing) and then seeing how that choice effects the system's cost, subsidy, efficiency, coverage, and ridership.  For example, if you discarded only the patrons associated with low-ridership routes, you can cut almost 50% of the system's total coverage area while cutting only 20% of cost and barely 10% of ridership.  Rural coverage is a lot of area, and almost no riders.

It was clear that the Community Transit exercise would teach citizens about basic budgetary tradeoffs, and obviously it gives those tradeoffs a human face — or at least a set of demographics with a name [though not an ethnicity, an annual income, or a political persuasion].  The bracing task of jettisoning human beings, like deciding who gets the lifeboats on a sinking ship, certainly must have impressed participants with the gravity of the problem, and perhaps, in aggregate over time, such tools could motivate more support for funding sources that could change the picture.

But it's still about geography …

In the last stage of the Community Transit exercise, participants are finally given a map of the fictional community where these people live:

TVE map

Knowing this, we were to make one final assessment about whom to discard.

For me, this part was a problem, because the geography revealed so much more than the game wanted us to think about.  Now, for example, it was apparent that Cathy lives on the way to where Pat lives, so if we "discarded" Cathy but kept Pat we knew Cathy would still have some service.  Yet there was no way for the game model to capture this obvious fact.  I would probably have introduced the map much earlier in the exercise, and thought about how to integrate its geographic information into the "human" discussion about which cards to discard.

Ordinary citizens often assume that a transit agency's service to them reflects an assessment of what they need or deserve.  In fact, this is only true if you're at the outermost end of a line, where the line is serving only you.  Everywhere else, transit efficiency lies in combining the needs of diverse ranges of people onto a single vehicle, and this relies, above all, on taking advantage of situations where multiple people, often with very different demographics, are travelling along the same reasonably direct path.  If you're on such a path you'll get better service than if you're not, even if you are exactly the same person in all other respects.

I wonder if, by steering us away from noticing the way transit combines diverse markets, the Community Transit game may have missed an opportunity to educate about how transit efficiency actually works.  By presenting us with people whose needs are cheap or expensive to serve, the exercise may confirm a widespread and false assumption that transit planning really is about assessing the merits of interest groups and communities. 

That's not what it is at all.  Your transit service isn't a judgment about who you are, but about where you are!  The barriers and opportunities presented by your location (and the location of places you go) are what determine how much service you can expect.  We need to put a human face on our work, and help people understand the human consequences of changes, but we also need to help customers focus on the geometric fact of life.  More than anything else about you, your location matters.

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.