Public Engagement During Social Distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot about the way we live and work, and public engagement for transportation projects is no exception. As stay-at-home orders took hold across the country, transit providers and other government agencies were forced to find new ways to hear from the public. Here at Foursquare ITP, we’ve been helping our clients adjust to this new reality by adapting public engagement techniques to keep time-sensitive projects on track, even while so much has been put on hold. In this blog post, we’ll explain some of the challenges we’ve faced, how we’ve addressed those challenges, and how we’re planning for public engagement in the coming months, with so much still up in the air about the virus and the need for social distancing.

We’ve been working closely with our clients to identify the best tools and methods for outreach amid the challenge of not being able to convene in-person. Some of our clients have grappled with choosing which of the many software solutions, such as Facebook Live, Zoom, or GoToMeeting, best meet their needs. Others have struggled to figure out the logistics of virtual outreach as they try to navigate a set of technological and staffing needs that are often very different from what they’re used to. And all have carefully considered how to conduct this outreach in a way that is still equitable to the variety of communities that they serve as well as meaningful engagement that helps inform decision-making.

We’ve been providing our clients with guidance and technical support to help them navigate this transition. This includes providing information about a variety of different options for virtual outreach, their strengths and weaknesses, the technology and staff needed for each of those options, and some best practices for marketing virtual outreach and ensuring that virtual meetings are accessible. The support goes beyond virtual meetings to include a variety of interactive tools, including resources for surveying the public and running interactive mapping activities that anyone can take part in.

One agency that Foursquare ITP has helped with the transition to virtual outreach is the Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority (EPTA) in West Virginia. When the pandemic struck, we were in the process of helping them update their transit development plan (TDP), a process which requires agencies to analyze gaps in their current services and prioritize transit improvements. Under ordinary circumstances, EPTA would present its new route concepts to the public in-person, but that was no longer possible. Instead, Foursquare ITP built a professionally narrated video presentation to describe the project and provide detailed graphics and tables to explain each recommended change. This video was posted on the agency’s website and social media channels, and members of the public could submit questions and comments via social media or email, with project staff monitoring these channels and responding as necessary. In addition, the agency hosted a live Q&A session on Microsoft Teams, which provided an additional opportunity for residents and riders to provide feedback and learn more directly from project staff; this Q&A was also recorded and posted to the agency’s website and social media. In total, the agency received more comments during the outreach period than they had received from in-person outreach during their previous TDP update.

The Future of Public Engagement

As transit agencies nationwide have shifted to virtual outreach, many are realizing unanticipated advantages that virtual outreach has over in-person outreach. Virtual meetings enable participation by people who can’t attend in-person meetings; for instance, if you’re a busy working parent, or if you have a mobility impairment, it’s a lot easier to participate in a meeting when you don’t have to leave your home and can log on from your living room. Another advantage lies in how easy it is to prevent disruptive participants from taking over a meeting by disabling their microphone or camera access, allowing for more meaningful participation by all attendees. Virtual outreach can also be easily recorded to provide opportunities for people to attend at a time most convenient to them. Virtual outreach can also offer participants several different ways to participate, allowing people to find the method of participation most accessible to them, whether that be via phone, on webcam, or in a chat. Some industry leaders have gone so far as to speculate that public engagement as we knew it will never return.

While virtual outreach is likely here to stay, that doesn’t mean that in-person outreach is gone for good. There is great value in forms of outreach that generate interaction between participants, not just interaction between a participant and staff, and those are harder to replicate virtually. Virtual outreach also cannot replicate every function of in-person outreach, especially for those people on the other side of the digital divide. In particular, it can be more difficult through virtual outreach to engage low-income individuals who may not have a smartphone, tablet, or computer and/or home internet connection or data plan; older adults who may have similar challenges; and people who are not proficient in English. As Foursquare ITP continues planning for virtual outreach we are prioritizing engaging these populations creatively by using a variety of methods including livestream meetings on various platforms; videos of meetings or pre-recorded presentations made available online and at public libraries; information posted in public facilities that people are still likely to visit during social distancing, such as grocery stores and pharmacies; and information that is emailed through existing listservs and newsletters through community-based organizations.

The future of public engagement is likely to be neither entirely in-person nor entirely virtual, but a blend of the two. Transit and transportation agencies and local governments will need to think carefully about the goals of their outreach, the target populations, and the particular constraints they face. As states slowly re-open, Foursquare ITP will be developing new outreach guides for our clients to help them navigate the process of choosing the blend of in-person and virtual outreach that meets their needs.

The best evidence we have right now suggests that small group and outdoor activities are less likely to spread COVID-19 than larger groups gathering indoors, and agencies should take this into account as they restart in-person outreach. For instance, an agency may consider an outreach campaign that includes an online survey promoted at outdoor pop-ups and refrain from holding open houses or in-person, indoor community meetings until a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment is widely available.

It’s still far too early to tell what the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be, but there’s already a lot we can learn from the past few months about improving community engagement. The planning profession needs to actively work to make public engagement as effective and as equitable as it can be, and we must use what we are learning about virtual engagement now to further this effort. Moving forward, we need not throw away the in-person engagement expertise we built before the pandemic, nor should we limit ourselves to the old way of doing things. Blending in-person and virtual outreach can make public engagement a more rewarding and accessible practice for planners and the communities we serve.