Community engagement is a fundamental first step in planning and implementing shared mobility services. While not a new concept in the transportation field, the emergence of new technologies and community-based shared mobility pilot projects give us the opportunity to initiate these practices systematically. Meaningful community engagement helps projects reflect the needs and realities of the community they seek to serve with solutions that are useful and inclusive to all.
Engaging the community in a meaningful way may require a paradigm shift for policy makers, providers, and local agencies to understand the value of community buy-in throughout the length of the project. From the onset, community engagement facilitates an understanding of each communities’ key stakeholders and residents allowing the groups involved to identify the concerns, risks, opportunities, and potential solutions that surround an issue. Community members may not be in favor of or share the same opinion of a project but this feedback should be welcomed rather than deflected. Digging into these concerns and understanding residents’ perspectives can help shape the project into its most productive and valued form, increasing usership and longevity. Community engagement is undoubtedly a time sensitive process, but the local knowledge that the community brings can equally save time and money in the long run by avoiding any backtracking or retrofitting caused by a lack of an understanding of the area. Data about the community helps tell part of the story, and the qualitative data often found in community engagement completes it.
This learning module shows why community engagement matters, outlines engagement frameworks, and includes a set of resources including definitions, strategies, challenges, recommendations, and case studies. Just as the engagement process is a two-way conversation between public agencies and the community they serve, this module offers guidance to both entities in the hopes they can work together from the start.
Understanding people’s mobility patterns and experiences is an important piece of a pilot program. That is where community engagement fits into the process. Effective community engagement involves the transportation provider learning about who the end-user of a service or program might be, valuing and legitimizing their opinion in decision-making, and ensuring that the people and process reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. It unravels the story told by the data available in a given geographic area and provides a deeper, human level understanding of a community. For example, quantitative data may depict that in Chicago, only 2% of the city’s bikeshare system’s memberships were held by black residents in 2017, despite the fact that African Americans comprise 30% of the city’s overall population. However, community engagement shows that fear of traffic collision, robbery, and poor road conditions were the biggest concerns for black and Hispanic respondents . While another study found that low-income residents and people of color were less likely to have exposure to bikeshare though their family and friend networks, or through their personal experiences .
Community engagement is often associated with concerns and misconceptions. Some of these concerns for the agency and/or pilot provider include the expenses associated with participatory methods, that it will only involve the same group of people already engaged, or that community engagement incurs complaints from the public . Sometimes these concerns come to pass and are justified (i.e. community engagement will likely be an added cost, the engaged community will likely show up to events, and there will likely be feedback and criticisms from the public), however these challenges should be seen as opportunities for identifying nuanced solutions that will ultimately improve a mobility project and help to assure its success. Understanding the project’s budget and being innovative with these dollars, using a variety of tactics to reach a wide audience, and internalizing feedback to identify ways to improve, are all part of the community engagement process. These strategies can work to complement each other instead of one replacing the other. For example, stakeholder engagement among government agencies across jurisdictions remains an important strategy for planning, but increasing a community’s voice in these planning strategies can help to bridge the planning gap.
Ultimately, community engagement: creates culturally relevant projects, prices projects according to the communities’ income or willingness to pay for services, prioritizes the voices of historically marginalized and neglected voices in the project planning process, improves citizens’ knowledge and skills in problem solving, empowers and integrates people from different backgrounds, creates opportunities to discuss potential barriers, and increases trust between the community and government . Effective community engagement strives to include all voices in the process of city-making rather than just those in positions of power. In the next sections, we’ll discuss participatory frameworks to help us understand the degrees of power withheld or given to the community based on different community engagement strategies.
Participatory planning as a form of justice came to the fore in America after the civil and social rights movement in the 1960s. As a result, many national and state programs began including citizen engagement in local decision-making as a mainstream approach. It was during this time that author Sherry Arnstein’s created the Ladder of Citizen Participation, a widely sourced piece in academia that breaks down residents’ levels of involvement and the subsequent power that they hold. Manipulation and therapy are classified as ‘non-participation’; informing, consultation and placation as ‘degrees of tokenism’; and partnership, delegated power and citizen control as ‘degrees of citizen power’.
Arnstein’s Ladder (1969) Degrees of Citizen Participation
Another more recent framework that the Community Transportation Association of America created is their pathway to inclusion which includes six levels based on inclusion, trust and communication .
Lastly, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) offers a spectrum for participation from Inform to Empower that outlines the public participation goal, the promise to the public and an example technique. IAP2’s public participation framework is further discussed below.
These types of participatory frameworks can be a helpful tool for projects to set their community engagement goals. These goals may include prioritizing a plan, arriving at a consensus, developing new solutions to a problem, or reviewing progress of an already established plan . Understanding why the project requires a certain community engagement strategy is as important as the strategy and execution itself. Next, we will review a variety of ways to include the community in a project, each offering unique forms of engagement.
Communication Engagement Strategies
There are three overall principles that should guide the engagement process: accessible events, engaging interactions, and outcome-oriented process . With this in mind and community engagement goals set, identifying key stakeholders is a critical step in all community engagement efforts to ensure efforts are representative and equitable. Specific types of organizational stakeholders might include: local, regional, state, and federal agencies, elected officials, local businesses, civic associations, labor organizations, educational institutions, advocacy groups, faith based organizations, tribes, or neighborhood groups . Other key stakeholders to engage include community leaders, such as community organizations, parent groups, PTO/PTA groups, service organizations, senior groups, cultural groups, faith-based organizations, nonprofits that provide services to groups and individual residents . The Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities includes helpful guidelines for meaningful engagement that can serve as a supplemental tool when considering these strategies. Additionally, Seattle’s King County Mobility Coalition and Hopelink generated an Inclusive Planning Toolkit that includes examples and instructions on how to ensure community engagement efforts are inclusive to persons with disabilities and older adults. An inclusive community engagement plan will likely combine several of these 12 strategies to assure varied perspectives. We will refer to the IAPP’s public participation framework throughout this section.
An ongoing evaluation process is an important component of community engagement to not only ensure that the work is maintained throughout the program life-cycle, but also to help projects align their current efforts with community engagement goals. Community engagement performance cards are a useful tool to use throughout the project to serve as a baseline and check point. Other more informal approaches such as human centered design’s journey mapping, can be exercises used on a frequent basis to maintain a high level of community engagement work. A more detailed discussion on evaluation tactics for community engagement are explained within a forthcoming learning module on Goal Setting, Performance Metrics and Evaluation.
Following are a set of common community engagement challenges accompanied by solutions to consider for shared mobility projects. Solutions are not meant to be exhaustive; they are presented as one solution and/or example to proactively confront and think through these challenges so as not to be a barrier to meaningful engagement.
Maintaining engagement throughout the program life-cycle: Community engagement from the needs assessment all the way through evaluation is an important component for projects to achieve meaningful engagement. Involving participants throughout the program life-cycle can pose challenges on the planning and budgeting side as well as the participant side to ensure they do not experience fatigue or burnout. This is particularly true for shared mobility projects that may be exploratory in nature such as a small pilot for microtransit or a highly multifaceted and extensive project such as a mobility hub.
Solution: Legitimize the strategies and processes of the community engagement work. This includes offering incentives and/or compensation and providing daycare and refreshments during events to show community members how valued their time, knowledge, and skills are to improve a local project. Participants should feel empowered and energized knowing their involvement is essential.
Securing funding for community engagement: Funding and budgeting for shared mobility projects is a topic of careful consideration as these projects tend to work with constrained budgets from the beginning. Additional funding opportunities over time can also become a challenge. As shared mobility projects often involve several different stakeholders and partners, deciding how and what to budget to achieve the project’s community engagement goals may be negotiated.
Solution: Outline a public engagement plan during the beginning stages of the project. Identifying what stakeholder or partner will be in charge of community engagement operations can help determine how budgeting should be allocated. Lastly, setting aside resources in the planning stages while also finding funding opportunities that value community engagement will help ensure there are enough resources for meaningful work.
Understanding effective timing for community engagement: Shared mobility projects can take time to become a fully solidified plan, which makes the timing of when to begin engaging the public about a project a sensitive task. Opening up the floor to the public without a clear project plan could be perceived as unprofessional or alternatively could cause confusion if the community latches onto ideas that may not be completely viable. However, bringing in the public too late can also indicate to the community that their opinion and feedback is not actually taken into account, as the project has already been decided on.
Solution: Engage the community as early as possible, ideally before a project and plan have been established, for meaningful engagement. This can be done effectively with thoughtful messaging and goals for the project to help steer conversation while keeping the end result open-ended for the community to offer their input and guidance. This will ultimately result in a more effective and applicable program for the specific community it serves.
Solution: If, for example, a particular mode has already been decided on internally, engaging the community to find out how that mode can best meet their needs early-on in the planning process encourages community approval. It can also limit costly program retrofits if something is planned contrary to the community’s needs. For example, if microtransit seems to be the best solution for a community, then it is critical to educate the community about microtransit early on and create multiple environments for the community to still play a role in helping to define how the service operates, e.g.; where should stops be located, what are the accessibility considerations, are there safety concerns? Equally important is being open to suggestions beyond the proposed mobility solution, if bikeshare is also a popular consideration among the community residents, then can it also be deployed, if not at this moment then in the future.
Ensuring inclusive planning: Central to meaningful community engagement is the concept of inclusion. Inclusion does not just mean increased turnout or high response rates, though that is always an important goal, but rather, paying attention to who is involved in the community engagement process and specifically what voices are not represented. This may include older adults, individuals with disabilities, immigrants, racial, ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous groups, families with young children, new residents, renters, or youth . Being thoughtful about who is hosting an event and when and where it is happening will help dictate who will or will not participate. For example, events that occur at the same location on a weeknight suggest to those caring for their family in the evening, working at night, or those that live far from the building, that their input is not as important.
Solution: Create a demographic profile for the area, using census data, that includes race, socio-economic status, education level, native language, disability, age, and housing. This can help a provider or agency better understand the community and proactively create an inclusive engagement plan.
Solution: Engage community groups that have first-hand knowledge of the neighborhood to glean important insights on how to reach residents, as well as build on the trust that they have established with their constituency. For example, Seattle DOT partnered with Rooted in Rights, a non-profit organization that protects the rights of people with disabilities, to create informational videos on bikeshare parking requirements and to work directly with the disability community.
Solution: Make use of existing and tools. There are many publications that share important information to help make presentations, surveys, flyers, webpages, etc. accessible for persons with disabilities. Detailed information on steps to take for an inclusive community engagement process can be found at CTAA’s Planning Friendly Meeting Tip-Sheet, King County and Hopelink’s Inclusive Planning Toolkit, and Alta & the City of Raleigh’s Public Participation Playbook. We have included a few of the most important considerations below:
Learning how to scale: This challenge goes both directions – both in scaling down traditional community engagement processes used for large development plans to fit a small, experimental pilot project and scaling up that pilot project into a larger, more comprehensive program. Public agencies may have limited control in decision-making, and/or a comprehensive process simply may not scale down for a nimble, temporary experimentation pilot phase. As an example of scaling challenges in both directions, a microtransit program planned for a specific community may not have all of the mechanisms in place to scale to a city or region and conversely, a microtransit program planned at the regional level, for example, might not be designed with the equitable considerations to reach specific lower-income communities.
Solution: Determine the level of communication necessary for your pilot project. Communities need to be familiar with even the smallest projects or they risk not being used at all. Similarly, if there are later plans to scale a project to a larger size, then community engagement early in the process will lay the framework for future expansion. Trying to think through all of these considerations from the outset of a project can be difficult so designing a system that is flexible and the city or transit agency can direct its design throughout the project is important. In this example, a well thought out permitting process or public-private partnership agreement can help to address these issues.
Executing virtual engagement in COVID-19 and post COVID-19 era: The global pandemic has required all projects to scale and adapt traditional community engagement methods to align with stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements. Figuring out how to achieve the same level of engagement, attention and dedication through virtual formats can be a challenge.
Solution: Use the table below to explore COVID-19 modifications to traditional community outreach tactics. The last section of this paper also offers a variety of resources for engagement during COVID-19, such as the different roles and responsibilities needed for an online meeting.
Competing with other priorities: Community members have a myriad of other competing priorities both in their personal lives and with other community initiatives. It can be a challenge to show how one project is significant, while being respectful of their time and other pressing issues in their lives. Specifically, making a shared mobility program relevant and important for immigrant communities, low-income communities, and communities of color can be difficult when these communities may be more concerned with more immediate issues in their lives such as health care access, crime, or unemployment.
Solution: Explain and message the project in a way that makes a human connection to the communities’ day-to-day lives. Though transit issues in the eyes of the project administrator may feel relevant and connected to other community concerns, this connection may not be felt or understood on a daily basis by community members. Making this connection explicit in terms of the impact on people through storytelling, narratives, or interactive activities can help people see themselves in the project. At the same, spending time understanding these competing priorities can help the project be more embedded into the community. For example, if crime is something that the community has raised concerns with, then ensuring proper lighting can help to create safe access points for planned mobility options.
Acknowledging that equitable and meaningful engagement takes time: Truly engaging with the ideas and input of the community and local stakeholders for new shared mobility projects requires quality interactions over a long period of time. Similarly, the concept of equity, whereby those who have not had a seat at the planning table, are deliberately included to create a more just world, requires time. Furthermore, a partnership between the project administrator and community members that reaches a high level of engagement, must be built on trust. Reconciling the slower pace it takes to build trust for effective community engagement and the fast pace of typical project periods is an ongoing obstacle.
Solution: Discuss community engagement goals from the beginning with all partners and stakeholders. With this aim, be realistic with time frames and acknowledge that equity-based partnerships move at the speed of trust. This concept should be communicated and agreed upon by all partners so that timeline expectations are set.
Solution: Work with community partners that have networks and systems in place that can be tapped into to reach community residents and offer familiar places to convene. This can help to save time and resources as opposed to starting from square one.
Overcoming and understanding the lack of familiarity and/or negative perception of shared mobility: In much of the country, many residents in lower-income minority communities view shared mobility projects such as bikeshare programs as harbingers of gentrification or in lower priority in light of other challenges that confront these neighborhoods [28, 32]. There are a number of sources that dig into these racial inequalities in more depth, such as Racism has Shaped Public Transit and It’s Riddled with Inequities or The Wrong Complexion For ‘Protection’: How Race Shaped America’s Roadways and Cities. On the other hand, many individuals are also simply not aware or familiar with the emerging shared mobility technologies. Both situations can lead to disengaged community members or those that are actively against the project.
Solution: Leverage human centered design techniques that are rooted in empathy to understand the community’s perspective and cultivate solutions with them can create a project that communities trust, understand, and are excited about.
For additional resources and examples of how these community strategies have been implemented see Community Engagement Mobility Project Examples: