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Virtual Platforms Boost Diversity in Public Transit Planning Forums

As the COVID-19 pandemic guts public transit revenues and leaves agencies around the world struggling to keep the wheels rolling, policy experts are finding hope in the wide array of viewpoints that have at last been given a voice through virtual community transit planning forums.

In a guest post for Grist, Amanda Eaken, a transportation policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council and transportation director for the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, writes how the pandemic cut transit ridership by 90% in her home city of San Francisco.

“The lost revenue gutted plans for growth, eliminated routes, and increased wait times for the essential workers riding every day,” she writes. “According to a report by the TransitCenter foundation, service cuts hit Black and Latino residents the hardest.”

But the pandemic has also revealed how existing public input processes for many public transit systems were “already broken,” denying a voice to “residents who didn’t have the time or resources to get to a meeting, faced language barriers, or felt disempowered after seeing their communities ignored year after year.” Even when citizens could show up, she adds, they too often found that decisions “were already fully baked, or that the deep, systemic solutions needed were never even on the table.”

Eaken admits that digital engagement will not “inherently fix” problems that are the creation of “a racist, classist legacy of top-down city planning that leaves many low-income people and people of colour—many of the essential workers riding to work today—without affordable, efficient, safe rides.” But she says she finds hope in the fact that “cities are having to rethink how they connect with communities.”

Case in point, she writes, is a recent effort to gather public opinion on proposed changes to “transform Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Washington, D.C., to better meet the diverging needs of cyclists, buses, and drivers.” The District Department of Transportation “built a microsite with all of the background information residents needed to weigh in with their ideas,” and in turn received “over 300 comments, far more than expected, highlighting the value of allowing residents to review proposals and offer opinions on their own time.”

Also using web-based forums to great effect this spring was Denver’s Climate Action Task Force, which relied on the digital highway to “gather residents’ opinions on dozens of ideas, ranging from expanding electric car-shares to providing subsidized transit fares for certain residents,” writes Eaken.

“The effort was incredibly successful,” she explains. Not only were participants able to give a thumbs up or down for a given idea, they could also submit their own proposals and “view the perspectives of others in real time.”

There are still challenges to resolve, Eaken stresses: “Even the most engaging website or presentation is not immune from one of the key challenges to effective public engagement: language barriers.”

But even in the face of this issue, progress is being made. “As part of the community outreach in planning a new electric vehicle car-share and charging network, Minneapolis and St. Paul have translated materials and surveys to serve Hmong, Karen, Oromo, Somali, and Spanish-speaking residents.”