I wouldn’t say that all things virtual have been a raging success in 2020 – we’ve blogged on some of the benefits and downsides before. But Virtual Public Involvement (VPI) can offer plenty of benefits.
When it comes to reaching the public, not all of our communities have easy access to traditional Public Involvement Meetings (PIM). These days we’re all busy. PIM and Public Hearings can be burdensome to the schedules of stakeholders we need to hear from and reach. Meetings about traffic improvements are missed, well, because of traffic. But with 75% of Americans owning cell phones – often as their sole source of internet access – public involvement is literally at our fingertips.
The daily users of our transportation facilities have unique observations and experiences to offer vital insight into the planning and development of our projects. As taxpayers, community members seek to have an overall grasp of how their money is being spent. And to the extent that we engage them early, we can accelerate project delivery – a true win-win for everyone.
Going virtual offers opportunities
When it comes to VPI, 2020 really left us without a choice. Our industry was deemed essential and transportation planning and project development marched on. We had to get outside of the box, and for public outreach teams, nothing made us happier than the creative flexibility it offered. With the myriad of tools available to us, engagement levels have skyrocketed. Virtually, we can reach Environmental Justice (EJ) and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) populations, as well as folks without internet access or schedule constraints, thus broadening the overall input.
- NCDOT launched MetroQuest to garner input for their 2018-2027 State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). They found the “all-in-one” solution boosted public involvement by 19 times in ALL demographics, even previously unrepresented ones. NCDOT reported a 600 percent decrease in cost per participant after making the investment in a web-based “all-in-one” tool.
- At this point in the times we now find ourselves in, I’m sure you’ve encountered a QR code in lieu of a restaurant menu. But have you ever considered it for project visualization? NCDOT did. The ‘Complete 540’ project donned a QR code instead of a lengthy web address.
- GDOT hosted a Virtual Meeting Room for the I-75 Commercial Vehicle Lanes Project that offered project visualizations and a live Q & A. They received comments posted online, emailed, mailed, or through the comment hotline. They also made displays available daily from 9 am to 4 pm at the local GDOT Office and the local County Administration Office.
- SCDOT launched a local community office for their I-526 West Project. In close proximity to the project, locals can meet one-on-one with the project team to ask questions about construction, impacts, and relocation. You can also live chat with the project team via the project website.
Do your homework. Know the community. Cater to your audience. Who they are is key to how we reach them. At the end of the day, VPI is not only a one-stop-shop for all project-related info; it also allows us to prioritize community health and safety (and avoid paper waste – a win for the environment). VPI requires a bit of a learning curve, sure, but ultimately, implementing these strategies allows us to reap tremendous results for our Project Development Process.
2020 may have changed everything we do – the way we conduct our business, educate our kids, collaborate within our teams and shop for consumer goods – but when it comes to VPI, this change is for the better. And it is likely here to stay.