Public involvement processes for transportation planning and project development require active participation to ensure that many points of view are taken into consideration. Although transportation agencies strive to ensure that a wide cross-section of people is included, people who want to participate may be unable to do so because of schedule conflicts or logistical challenges, such as physical disability, childcare needs, or transportation inaccessibility. Using today’s communication technologies for virtual public involvement can overcome challenges of travel and time as well as enable outreach activities during an emergency, such as a natural disaster or pandemic. At the same time, these technologies may not provide equitable access for all. This is a concern for communities with limited access to high-speed internet, households in which individuals must share a computer, and individuals who do not have smartphones.
The Federal Highway Administration defines virtual public involvement as “the use of digital technology to engage individuals or to visualize projects and plans” (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/innovation/everydaycounts/edc_5/docs/vpi-slides.pdf). The Council on Environmental Quality recently updated regulatory guidance on the use of virtual tools and techniques in the transportation decision-making process. State departments of transportation (DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), rural planning organizations (RPOs), and other transportation agencies have adopted a range of virtual tools and techniques as part of their public involvement programs. As documented in NCHRP Synthesis 538: Practices for Online Public Involvement, among state DOTs the most commonly used virtual tools are websites, social media campaigns, electronic surveys, informational videos, and digital newsletters. These tools are largely used for one-way communication with the public, allowing a state DOT to provide information about plans, programs, and projects. Far less commonly used are tools and techniques that support two-way interaction, which is a hallmark of meaningful engagement where public participants have voice and power.
While virtual tools and techniques have been available for more than a decade, several issues have slowed their full adoption by transportation agencies. One question is whether and under what conditions virtual outreach fulfills federal and state requirements for public involvement. Staff capacity and knowledge is also a consideration: those selecting virtual tools need to understand how the tools work, technology requirements and costs, how a virtual tool complements other public involvement activities, and preferences and needs of participants. Public involvement staff need to be skilled and confident with the functionality of selected tools and in techniques for moderating and facilitating virtual exchanges. A further challenge is that digital tools and technology constantly change and proliferate. Selecting a tool or technique requires looking beyond platform-specific characteristics and instead considering the principles and essential considerations of successful virtual public involvement. Agency leadership also need to understand how to integrate virtual public involvement into the decision-making processes of the transportation agency to optimize the quantity and quality of engagement (e.g., matching tools and techniques with phases of the decision-making process).
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders and physical distancing guidelines that are limiting transportation agencies’ ability to conduct public hearings and meetings for transportation plans, projects, and programs. As a result, many transportation agencies made a rapid shift to adopt or increase the use of virtual public involvement. This recent experience offers an opportunity to identify successful practices in virtual public involvement from many agencies and a wide range of decision-making contexts. In particular, the events of 2020 can reveal important lessons on fair and full access to the transportation decision-making process and how equitable participation can lead to the equitable distribution of benefits and burdens.
Although there has been research on guidelines for engaging the public in traditional, in-person public involvement activities, these guidelines are not fully and directly applicable to virtual public involvement tools and techniques. Understanding that online communication and exchange does not replace traditional, in-person activities, state DOTs and other transportation agencies need guidelines and best practices to efficiently and effectively integrate these two approaches in their public involvement plans (PIPs) and programs.
The objectives of this research are (1) to evaluate the recent experience of transportation agencies in using virtual public involvement with a particular focus on equity; and (2) to develop a manual for selecting, creating, and using virtual public involvement tools and techniques for each phase of transportation decision-making process. The manual will be relevant for communication directors; decision- and policy-makers; and public involvement, planning, environmental, and project development staff at state DOTs and other transportation agencies. The manual will describe how to efficiently and effectively use virtual public involvement to expand the reach and impact of public involvement activities through meaningful, on-line engagement. At minimum, the manual will describe how to:
- Identify and address needs and preferences of specific population groups to reduce potential disparities and promote equitable engagement;
- Select, create, and use virtual public involvement tools and techniques;
- Integrate virtual and in-person public involvement;
- Identify and address staffing and other resource needs for adopting and implementing virtual public involvement tools and techniques;
- Obtain quality input from virtual public involvement; and
- Integrate input from virtual public involvement into decision-making.