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Big Idea: Next Evolution of Public Participation

Fionnuala Quinn has been to plenty of public meetings. Really, she spoke up at one just last night.

The northern Virginia-based civil engineer and bike advocate has seen enough to know there is a lot of room for improvement. She’s bringing her experience and expertise to the 2015 National Bike Summit, where she’ll talk about how the public participation process is “both vital and problematic for bicycling” — and how it can be improved. We caught up with Quinn this week to talk more about her Big Idea. 

Photo of Quinn at the 2013 National Women’s Bicyclign Forum by Brian Palmer

What’s your Big Idea in a nutshell?

The public participation process takes many forms but I’m focusing here on public meetings related to future transportation projects. These meetings are generally intended as a chance to learn details and provide input before important decisions are made.  The meeting could be for a new road or bridge but is more likely to be related to the expansion or retrofit of an existing roadway.

Generally, such meetings are held by a local department of transportation on evenings or weekends in a public building such as a library or school.  All public meetings are not created equal in their meaning or stage in the process or in the potential impact of comments. Some types of meetings are mandated and deal with the specifics while others are essentially just courtesy information about a project that is about to go to construction.  For any given local situation, it is important to figure out the type of meeting, it’s purpose and what they agency will be doing with the input.

For those interested in better bicycling infrastructure, opportunities to submit feedback really matter. Showing up and making constructive suggestions can influence the ultimate design and can change the outcome of what gets built. Most public infrastructure has a working life measured in decades. In the case of bridges, replacement of the proposed facility may not be considered again for half a century so a few feet width one way or the other can make the difference between whether or not bicyclists can connect to large parts of the transportation network.

Your big idea is centered on revamping the public meeting format for community change. How do you think it’s working now? 

One reason new infrastructure underserves bicyclists is because their issues are not sufficiently represented when long-term decisions are being made. Typically, unless a project has some element of controversy or they own adjacent property, not many people attend public meetings. Even among bicyclists, relatively few attend and even fewer speak or provide written input. Many bicyclists may not realize the potential impact that they personally could have on what is to be constructed in their community. Even when bicyclists do comment, it can be unclear to them whether they were even heard or they may never realize the influence that they had on the design due to lack of feedback mechanisms.

A significant reason community members do not participate in the process is that they are unaware that meetings are happening in the first place. Meetings may be advertised through a notice in the print newspaper while many people now receive information elsewhere. There can be a reliance by agencies on non-profits or volunteer groups or home-owner associations to get the word out to the wider public so advertising can be quite hit and miss. It generally takes some legwork and on-going engagement to find out about upcoming public meetings.

It takes a lot of confidence for a member of the public to stand up and question the work of ‘experts’

Generally, there is little by way of education, preparation, or encouragement for the public on how best to get involved. The wider public is generally unfamiliar with the inner workings of the transportation design process and a public meeting may be their first exposure. The meetings themselves can be intimidating and feel rather overwhelming. It takes a lot of confidence for a member of the public to stand up and question the work of ‘experts’ or add a seemingly trivial point to a multi-million dollar design conversation. When officials present information, they are inclined to use jargon and terms that are unfamiliar to the general public. Many times, what is to be constructed is presented in the form of engineering drawings, a method of presenting information that can be completely unfamiliar to non-engineers.  

If it were entirely up to you, how would you change the process?

If it were entirely up to me, we would begin civic education about how we design the built world during elementary school. Students would be taking field trips to construction sites where they would ask engineers questions about the proposed designs and teachers would be assigning follow-up homework to students regarding their opinions on design of future projects.

In the meantime, there are many elements of the current processes areas that could be enhanced right away:

  • Better means of advertising and use of new media to reach the public
  • Broader outreach to a broader range of the wider public
  • Materials and workshops that prepare community members for effective participation
  • Better use of everyday language and explanations that can be more broadly understood
  • Terminology and acronyms glossary in meeting handouts and explained during meeting.
  • 3-D and animated mediums to help attendees visualize better what’s proposed
  • Additional messaging on why public participation is important and the community role
  • Ongoing forums and materials to explain the process and encourage participation
  • Advance local get-togethers to discuss the network plans or particular project
  • Wider advance coordination among stakeholders on issues and comments
  • Meeting models that are less formal and more welcoming
  • Childcare availability and children’s activities to facilitate more attendance
  • When possible, ensure that meetings are held in transit/bike-accessible locations
  • Wider story-telling about public successes in influencing planning and design
  • Advance walking and biking filed visits to discuss what’s planned and identify issues
  • Reporting on participation and the results and impacts of comments
  • More shared tools for public meetings to streamline and reduce costs
  • Organize locally to prepare in advance, plan comments and attend together for support
  • Better communication to bicyclists that they personally can make a difference
  • Increased communication that comments are heard, valued and have been considered

In what way is bicycling underserved by the process as it stands now?

How we put together the built environment within our public right-of-way determines much about how we can conduct daily life for years to come. Changes are more readily made when the design is lines on paper so it is key for bicyclists to engage early. The transportation design process is complicated and often involves expensive infrastructure that is difficult to alter after the fact. Those of us who bike already understand that bicycling needs differ in many details from those of drivers and pedestrians. Yet many times the bicyclist comments are not well understood or given sufficient weight in the overall conversation. Although there has been much progress and many exceptions, we have not yet reached a point where proposed infrastructure is typically being planned and designed by people who fully get the bicycling needs or travel. Most importantly, bicyclists are vulnerable users of the roadway and lack the physical protection that is provided by a vehicle. Therefore, bicyclists voices are key during planning and design conversations where right now in many cases they may be treated as an after thought or dispensable aspect of many projects.

How is the public, by and large, underserved by the process?

Without empirical research on participation and results, it is difficult to express how the public is underserved so I base my thoughts on observation and anecdotes.  However, after spending time over many years observing audiences and listening to speakers at public meetings, it is evident that attendees represent narrow sectors of the community population. This suggests that input being received is not necessarily representative of wider concerns, needs and wishes.  Women’s, minority and immigrant-accented voices are in a distinct minority and practically unheard at many meetings. Younger people are rarely present despite the fact that their lives will likely be most impacted by whatever decisions are made.

When we spend public money that will influence how community life will function for years into the future, one would expect to receive considerable valuable input based on local knowledge.  Somehow, this idea hasn’t sparked the community imagination and levels of involvement remain very low. The question is why and what can be improved.

As it currently stands, public meetings are set up in a way in which those who are able to share their voice are also those who have time and resources to make it to the meetings. How can this rethinking take equity concerns into consideration? 

Unless a specific outreach effort is made, those who typically attend a public meeting are not particularly representative of the community at large, socially, demographically or gender-wise. Even beyond that, many public meeting are set up in a way that can be intimidating for the public to make a comment so only the most ‘brave and fearless’ speak up. We should be looking at how we get information to people, how we communicate the importance of their participation, and making the methods of interaction accessible.  If we are asking people to come along to meetings, they should be inviting and convenient and we should be considering such issues as childcare, activities for children, multiple languages and more.

If we are asking people to come along to meetings, they should be inviting and convenient and we should be considering such issues as childcare, activities for children, multiple languages and more.

Is anyone doing it “right,” so to speak? 

The process to engage the public can be expensive and stir up community concerns that make the task in hand seem harder. We can always wish for more but there are already agencies or local organizations doing better jobs reaching out. They likely find that more effective public participation provides better opportunities for all parties to express their needs and reduce the probability that a project will run into difficulties later or not serve the community well.

The planning process includes good examples that have wider application. In Washington D.C., moveDC involved thousands of community members in fun events as well as interactive feedback and reporting on participation. They made extensive use of social media and other technology tools and included all modes of transportation in an effort to come up with best community solutions. Similarly the public participation processes around proposed bikeshare systems in such cities as New York and Philadelphia have been characterized by broader outreach as well as more use of on-line tools to gather input.  With the data and measuring surrounding bikeshare in general, the systems have lent themselves to being scrutinized in terms of who is participating in the conversation and process.

Here in the Washington region, Washington Area Bicyclist Organization (WABA), Alexandria Spokeswomen and Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) have each held workshops to help local bicyclists learn more about infrastructure and encourage more participation in the public process.  In terms of examples of resources, Bicycle Indiana recently published a guide for use throughout the state and are planning future companion workshops to explain the process better. FHWA just published a great new national resource, A Resident’s Guide for Creating Safer Communities for Walking and Biking. This guide includes detailed tip sheets, checklists, ways to take action, and sample materials and explains how to engage with the wider public process. Sadly, OpenPlans recently closing their doors but there are others working in the civic technology world to see how technology, planning, citizens, and government can come together to enhance public participation. Another development to keep an eye on is the creation of positions to change and broaden public outreach such as the Civic Technology Director in Philadelphia. Meanwhile looking to our future, the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. has wonderful model programs for local students that help them engage and understand the built world and their role in shaping it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

There is no one-size-fits-all type of design or process that fits rural, suburban, urban and small town communities. What to build depends on the local land use, community needs and context. All designs have advantages and disadvantages, and community members have different preferences depending on their age, ability and comfort level. However, what is important is that bicyclists engage in the conversation about how best to build their community so that it is designed to accommodate the people who bicycle there.  We need bicyclists in the on-going conversation about how we build the community and there are many ways their involvement could be better facilitated.