Community Is Crucial in Transportation Planning

Newer methods aim to reach a more diverse and broader group.

The COVID epidemic was a time of reckoning for transit agencies. Many people stopped commuting to their offices, and that change hit transit hard. But one potential upside is that for researchers and planners, a lot of information migrated online, and that has enabled a much broader collection of information from transit users. Transit agencies now have many more ways of collecting customer data than paper surveys.

Transportation planners are working harder to find out what consumers want. Why? “We want to help their economic mobility, help people get to jobs,” said Jennifer Dill, director of the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland (Ore.) State University. “We should be thinking about outcomes. We can’t really plan for that unless we understand what’s important to people, how they use [transportation].” 

Equity is a key factor in community engagement. “Most of the people working as transportation engineers and planners are predominantly white and male, so you’re getting one perspective,” said Dill. “It’s really important to hear from more marginalized groups.” For those who don’t own a car, “[public transportation] could make a big impact on someone’s ability to get a job or get to a grocery store they can afford.” 

USDOT: Engage With Diverse Public Groups

A 2012 Transportation Research Board report, “Practical Approaches for Involving Traditionally Underserved Populations in Transportation Decision-Making,” reiterates this point. A top-down style of interacting with the public can lead to less desirable outcomes, such as public involvement limited to taking comments at required public hearings or not letting the public know how their information was used, the report says. 

What are some more effective ways to gather information from the public? The U.S. Department of Transportation published a guide on this subject in November 2023, “Promising Practices for Meaningful Public Involvement in Transportation Decision-Making.”

“Public involvement strategies should involve a combination of in-person, digital, virtual, and print tools, in languages spoken by community members,” the DOT guide says. It’s also important that those with disabilities and diverse needs can participate and affect the outcome.  

The most effective ways to reach community members depend on the population and on what changes you want to make, Dill said. Cell phones and other electronic devices produce lots of anonymous data about where people go. With what is often called “big data,” “you can learn a lot about trends and patterns, but not a lot about how to solve people’s problems,” she added. 

“The opposite end of the spectrum involves talking to community members to find out what is the problem we are trying to solve,” said Dill. “If you are doing that, the best practice is to compensate them for their time. These are often people who have lots of responsibilities.”

Planners can reach community members with standard processes such as workshops and interviews, Dill said. More creative ways involve processes like photovoice, often a good way to reach young people, she added. It relies not just on verbal feedback but uses participants’ photos and narratives. A youth could take pictures on their trip to school, showing parts of the trip that are challenging and parts they like about it.  

Dill said, a public transportation agency sometimes recruits thousands of people to complete a survey that includes a travel diary recording everywhere they go and how they got there. The surveys may use GPS in the person’s phone or car, which requires the person to opt in to allow the data to be recorded anonymously. The agency might discover that whether a route has bike lanes may influence a person’s decision to ride a bike.  

Portland TriMet Involves Community in Bus Shelter Placement

Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, installed a bus rapid transit line along a major street in the city. There was also a protected bike lane at the sidewalk level, next to the sidewalk. It was designed so the bike lane ran between the bus shelter and the curb. But that meant people at the bus shelter had to walk across the bike lane to reach the curb. 

Oregon TriMet's Line FX2 Bus at a bus stop

Courtesy of TriMet

TriMet was “very concerned about people with vision impairment and other disabilities,” said Dill. The agency built a prototype of a bus station and had members of the community with disabilities test it. Researchers took videos, watched them to see if people had problems using the station, and refined the design based on their comments. 

From Focus Groups to Games and Contests

The DOT guide offers a long list of ways to engage the public, from the traditional (briefings and focus groups) to the more unusual (games and contests, interactive broadcasts, hotlines). For instance, games and contests are a fun way to appeal to people who might not otherwise participate in transportation planning. They could be board games, card games, art, or poster contests. Organizers should try to engage community members in developing the games and prizes. 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority sponsored a contest for children to create designs to be incorporated into ceramic tiles in a new transit station in their neighborhood. The artwork was a reminder to community members of its investment in the neighborhood every time they used the station. 

Talking to Citizens at Community Events

Katie Selin, a planning associate at Alta Planning and Design in Portland, is very involved in community engagement. “We always say we want to meet people where they are,” said Selin. “Sometimes that means setting up a table to talk to people at a community event like a festival or farmer’s market.”

Sometimes it’s a back-to-school night, where parents are already gathered. Selin and her colleagues may let community members know about a project they’re proposing and ask what they think.

People answering a sidewalk community survey

Courtesy of Alta Planning and Design

Brandon Gonzalez, principal at Alta, is working on an active neighborhoods program in Phoenix. “We want to know, ‘How can we identify transportation improvements driven by the neighborhoods themselves?’” Gonzalez said. “It could be a new sidewalk, a new crosswalk, a bike lane, access to school, access to the park. We do an interactive survey online.” 

People may say, “‘This is an area where we feel unsafe. We’d love to see a crosswalk,’” said Gonzalez. 

Sometimes he and his colleagues stand in front of grocery stores and ask passersby for their transportation priorities, whether those are bicycle infrastructure, pedestrian infrastructure, getting to the park, or getting to community structures.  

“In Phoenix, we keep hearing over and over again [about] the lack of investment in sidewalks over the long term,” Gonzalez said. “It’s connected to the lack of equity. [People say,] ‘When we get to a major street, we need a crosswalk. We’ve got to run across four lanes of traffic.’” 

Alta works with a group in Phoenix called the Connectors, people who live and work in the neighborhood and who Alta pays for their time. “We’re asking them to tell us where the problems are,” said Gonzalez. “We as professionals can say, ‘These are some options we have.’ We say to the government, ‘Here’s what we think might work.’ Then we take it to the community. We prioritize.”

Using Data Mining for Transportation Planning

David Wasserman, data science practice leader at Alta Planning, uses the term “civic analytics” to describe the use of data mining and analysis for urban planning, including transportation planning. This is passive community engagement. Community members don’t sign up to participate; they just have a cell phone or smart car where they agreed to allow their data to be used anonymously for research. 

One benefit of such large-scale data mining, said Wasserman: “It potentially provides the opportunity to get engagement continuously rather than on a project basis.” If that method allows planners to get open-ended feedback from citizens while making it clear that they are part of the planning process, that could make them feel involved and that they’re contributing to the community, he said. 

Several consulting companies are working with transportation agencies to help expand their community engagement. One is Cambridge Systematics (CS), which was founded in 1972 and has worked with more than 50 agencies, including those in Washington, D.C., Denver, Baltimore and Los Angeles. In January 2024, several CS employees formed a wholly owned subsidiary, Locus, which focuses on creating products where big data from smartphones, connected cars, and other sources can be used in transportation planning. 

An individual’s phone collects location-based service information from many apps — weather, dating, GoogleMaps and many others. The person’s identity is not revealed, but the location of the phone and the movement from one location to another are. In the aggregate, this can be very valuable information for transportation planning, said Pragun Vinayak, Locus chief of staff. 

What makes the data especially useful is the size and the reliability. Locus accesses data from about 200 million unique devices per quarter, Vinayak said. After processing and retaining only the devices with the most robust data, they end up with about 8 percent of the population. By contrast, surveys usually get data from just 0.1 or 0.2 percent. Locus analysts scale the sample size using expansion factors that allow them to say, “On an average day, this is the number of trips where travelers in this area did xxx,” depending on the information they’re looking for.

Even more important than the sample size is that Locus can get 15 to 20 days of information from each device, said Vinayak. A survey typically covers a single day.

Locus uses this information to create a travel packet showing how people move, which can then be used to create an emergency evacuation plan. The company did this in Florida for the Division of Emergency Management, said Vinayak. Locus was able to show state officials what routes residents take to evacuate an area, and how long it would take. The plan was used for hurricanes in 2021 and 2022. Before that, when planners didn’t have access to cell phone data, the evacuation plan was based on a very small sample size. 

Sometimes, It’s Just Walking

But transportation is still about people moving from point A to point B. And that doesn’t have to require data analytics or high-tech planning. It might mean going for a walk. 

Mark Fenton, a former mechanical engineer who used to train Olympic athletes, has for many years done walk audits to help citizens see which parts of their neighborhood are walkable. He got interested in the idea after the 1996 surgeon general’s report saying that if people exercised 30 minutes a day, five days a week, it would dramatically cut deaths from all major diseases. Yet people weren’t doing it. 

“How do we get people to be more active?” said Fenton. “That’s what got me interested in the idea of more walkable communities.” He does walkability audits all around the country in a type of community engagement called experiential community input. He leads members of the community in a walk in different parts of their neighborhood, evaluating what the walk is like along the way. 

Gathering a variety of public officials and private citizens, he will stop at various points and ask them to rate the walkability of a spot from 1 to 10. As people shout out their answers, he presses them for why, and what it would take to bring that spot up to a 10. 

“It’s a mix of people,” Fenton said. “The mayor, public health officials, business owners, teens who ride bikes, parents of smaller kids. The business owners are worried about parking. The public works director is looking out for potholes. Parents want to make sure it’s safe for kids to walk to school. I don’t let any of them dominate the conversation.”

Different parts of the local government host the walk audits, Fenton said. It could be the local health department, planning department, economic development, parks and recreation or schools. Or the downtown business organization might host it. 

“Increasingly, business owners realize walkability is very important from the customer aspect,” said Fenton. “There are business advantages to making [an area] more walkable. Wide sidewalks in front of a café or restaurant feel more inviting.”

Walk audits are most effective when done with a local partner such as a church or school. “You are much more likely to get more inclusive participation,” Fenton said. “It makes it feel more comfortable for those left behind by traditional ways such as planning meetings.” 

Walk Audits in Rural Louisiana

Jessica Stroope, research associate at Louisiana State University’s AgCenter, uses walk audits to identify barriers to walkability in rural communities. Using the walk audit tools she created — reviewed by Fenton — participants make a map as they walk, showing barriers to walkability. 

Then a list is made of immediate and long-term steps needed to improve walkability, with a three- to six-month follow-up. Immediate steps could include moving a dumpster blocking a tree to make a sidewalk accessible to those in wheelchairs. 

On a recent walk audit in Lake Providence, La., a librarian from Head Start, an elected official, a 4-H agent and a concerned citizen wrote their concerns, said Stroope. These included missing sidewalks and an intersection that lacks a crosswalk from the library to the Head Start center. 

Walk audits provide experiential community input.

Photo courtesy of LSU AgCenter

“Teachers have to walk the kids across a state highway to get to story time at the library,” said Stroope. After the walk audit, the town plans to install pedestrian-activated lights this summer. 

Fenton led a walk audit in Greensburg, La. Participants found an overly wide road with parking, so people in wheelchairs had to go behind parked cars. Fenton suggested moving a row of parking to create a sidewalk, with the area leading to the sidewalk restriped for better accessibility. 

“Small changes can go a long way in making a rural town more walkable,” said Stroope. “You walk from the post office to the library to the church to the park. You see your neighbors, you get the activity, you get fresh air.” 

A good walk audit pays attention to all forms of transportation — walking, biking and transit. Car travel is often taken care of, but parking could be a factor. 

From big data to walkability audits, public engagement is more important than ever for transportation planning and research. Some of the newer methods let planners hear from a more diverse and bigger group of citizens. Those are all useful tools in making communities accessible to a variety of forms of transportation. 

What Makes an Area Walkable?

Walkability audit leader Mark Fenton believes an important way to engage the community in transportation planning is to lead a group of citizens in looking at an area’s walkability. After doing this for 35 years, he has a good feel for what makes an area walkable. 

  1. A mix and proximity of different destinations, what planners call a land-use mix. That could mean a worship institution, a grocery, some stores and houses. Small towns and some cities had that mix in the past. But in the post-World War II model of office parks, land uses are separated by design, making it very hard to walk. 
  2. A connecting network for a person not in a car. That can mean walking and bicycling lanes, a good transit network where buses come frequently, and a low-cost network of facilities. Citizens who don’t own a car are often the ones who don’t come to planning meetings, so walk audits may be a good way to reach them. 
  3. The details of design have to be inviting and accessible for people in wheelchairs, the blind and visually impaired. That can mean curb ramps, awnings, and curb extensions at intersections.

Areas that have these features are expensive because they’re desirable, said Fenton. “Housing experts should be in the conversation,” he said. “What we have done is segregate housing by income in suburbia. We need to stop doing that.”


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