In the last decade, the use of virtual public involvement tools to supplement in-person outreach has grown significantly. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and public health guidelines halting in-person gatherings have pushed agencies to move the entirety of their public process to a virtual setting. Agencies such as the Iowa Department of Transportation (IowaDOT), Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT), and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) have begun to adopt Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that include the use of online tools such as online comment forms, online meetings, and multimedia messaging during project development.
Public participation is an essential part of the project development process because it provides the public a voice in the decisions that dictate how transportation systems in their communities are designed, operated, funded, and maintained. Effective public outreach occurs when everyone, regardless of demographic, has the full and fair opportunity to participate. Conducting all outreach in a virtual setting may inadvertently exclude certain demographics (e.g., those in rural areas, low-income families, those with limited English proficiency, those who are elderly, and those with disabilities) from the public process due to technological barriers and internet accessibility. Conversely, some demographics may be more likely to participate in a virtual public process, compared to a traditional in-person process, given the convenience, flexibility, availability, and low-cost of using online tools.
The extent to which moving outreach to a virtual environment, through agency’s SOPs and virtual public involvement best practices, affects community engagement has not been quantitatively or qualitatively measured. Research into which populations are attending online meetings and engaging with online tools, and how that compares to traditional in-person meetings and tools, will have far-reaching implications for how transit agencies conduct outreach moving forward.
The purpose of this research is to measure the degree to which virtual public involvement affects community engagement during project development. This research will build on current TRB and transit agency efforts to identify and establish virtual public involvement best practices by using case studies to measure how virtual public processes compare to traditional in-person processes. Research findings will provide insight into how demographics have responded to virtual engagement tools (including online meetings, online polling and comment forms, and social media) and consider effective practices to more broadly engage the public and recognize potential disparities in access to virtual engagement opportunities. Findings could determine how agencies conduct their outreach in the future, even after public health guidelines allow for in-person gatherings to resume.