Running on empty: refuelling public participation in transportation planning

Low performing public participation functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy in large transportation projects, find Ted Grossardt and Keiron Bailey.

In their new book, Transportation Planning and Public Participation: Theory, Process, and Practice, Grossardt and Bailey reset the performance balance to explain why – and detail how – transportation professionals can tap into and utilise public participation as an opportunity to better their projects and identify problems to stem any potential damage. As they state “participation need not be approached in such a regressive…underperforming way.” (4)

Grossardt and Bailey utilise The Arnsetin Gap, adapted from Sherry Arnstein’s framework for citizen engagement, which identifies the gap between the quality of citizen experience of participation processes and the desired levels of public participation in planning and design. Indeed, poorly designed participation can fail to deliver actionable public input. It can also feed an existing lack of confidence in the value of public involvement for all stakeholders. For although project processes are held to rigorous expectations, citizen engagement can often be found poorly implemented.

Yet, despite the fact that public participation is often required to fulfil legal mandates and sponsor requirements, the authors rightly point out that “the public participation domain is complex, and education and training requirements for the field are nearly non-existent.” (2) This can – and does – lead to poor performance and wasted resources. By raising standards for involvement processes – and reframing practical approaches – the book outlines ways to create and measure processes that speak effectively to transport project contexts and deliver high quality public participation.  

Currently, public involvement requirements in planning large transportation projects rest on a model of good intent with little specification around measures, goals, outcomes, output and data. In addition, public participation projects tend to be designed and implemented with little attention to or availability of relevant data about how processes may or may not be suited to work in particular contexts. And, as Grossardt and Bailey show, this lack of rigour has demonstrable consequences for participation design, delivery, and outcomes that can affect all stakeholders. For planning agencies, low-performing participation is perceived to add to delays and conflict. For infrastructure designers, when involvement processes fail to produce actionable data for the selection, design, or modification of project plans, the participation module can appear to be a tiresome, futile exercise to fulfil a token legal or contractual requirement. To the public, processes can appear to be inefficient, manipulative in the interests of other stakeholders, and dismissive of their values or priorities.

public participation in transportation planning

Grossardt and Bailey illustrate the gap between existing and desired levels of public participation with an international dataset (the largest published to-date) drawn over 18 years from over 7000 anonymous participants in 30 projects in the United States. Diagnosing the problem as both methodological and cultural, they examine how a defined set of stakeholders, expectations, and interactions are brought together by transportation planning engagement. Alternately, speaking to specific design objectives, they take stock of current public participation methods, mapping them to show how they function in specific contexts, and offer a systematic method for developing high-performance participation processes.

Rethinking expectations of project processes Grosset and Bailey show, through evidence-based examples, how feedback, representation and decision modelling can be optimally integrated to achieve project outcomes. From tactics on how to make public meetings more efficient to how to apply quantifiable metrics to public pariticiaption process, this book is an essential ‘how to’ in implementing public participation in transport planning and design.

In their forward, Grossardt and Bailey delineate the components of “good public participation process”: “It must be fair and democratic…It must be efficient…It must be inclusive…And information gathered must clearly inform.” (xii) This book goes a long way toward providing substantiating these components, just as it clarifies and builds the credible case that performance standards are “the most reliable way for public participation process to ensure success.” (xii)

Photo: Matthew Henry/Unsplash

More Content You Might Like