As part of their public outreach process, DDOT asked residents to map their daily commutes with pins and string. Photo by thisisbossi via Flickr.
This post is the fifth in a series of case studies about Complete Streets people, places, and projects. Follow the full series over the next several weeks.
All too often, engaging residents in long-range transportation planning means little more than holding a few, sparsely attended evening presentations. For their 2040 transportation plan, however, Washington D.C.’s District Department of Transportation (DDOT) decided to take a completely different approach and create a diverse array of opportunities to provide input, both in-person and online, that were fun, interactive, and personal to get as many DC residents, visitors, workers, and commuters as possible to share their ideas for the city’s transportation future.
The District has seen explosive population growth since the last transportation plan was completed in 1997. An average of over 1,000 people moved into the District each month since 2013. Today, almost 50 percent of DC’s population is black or African-American and 10 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Twenty percent of all residents live below the poverty line. The District is also a regional employment center whose population doubles during daytime working hours. These people are in town during the day, but not necessarily around in the evenings or weekends.
In creating its long-range transportation plan, DDOT wanted input from all of these people. Collecting feedback from so many diverse individuals would be a challenge, but DDOT was committed to making its plan a success and knew solid public engagement was the cornerstone of making that happen.
Bus shelter ads helped drive participation in DDOT’s planning process. Photo by moveDC via Twitter.
To make this happen the Department allocated nearly a third of the project’s $2.3 million budget to public engagement activities. They brought in national firm Kimley-Horn to lead a nine-member consultant team, including NelsonNygaard Consulting Associates, to support the engagement process and technical analysis required for the plan.
DDOT and the consultant team set an ambitious goal of reaching at least one percent of the District’s 1.2 million person daytime population during the moveDC planning process. That’s an ambitious goal for this kind of work — most agencies host a few pro-forma public workshops that reach only a tiny fraction of a jurisdiction’s population. David Whyte of Kimley-Horn, the consultant team’s project manager, partnered closely with DDOT’s leadership team in executing the planning process. “From day one, the moveDC team aspired to reach a true cross-section of DC,” Whyte explained. “Young families and singles, life-long residents and newcomers, old and young, those with means and those with fewer, and drivers, walkers, cyclists, and transit users.
Fun and Interactive
To achieve its one percent goal, the moveDC team got creative. The team distributed details about the campaign launch event through almost every medium possible: social media, blogs, postcards, posters in bus shelters, press releases, articles with local media outlets, email lists, and partner organization’s email lists. DDOT’s team took every opportunity to highlight moveDC during other events and hand out information to encourage people to participate. Everyone involved learned an elevator speech, recognizing that even interactions lasting only a few seconds could spark the interest to get someone engaged in the process who might otherwise not be.
The “Idea Exchange” launch event was what one of the event’s panelists described as a “transportation bonanza”. The team made long-range transportation planning fun and interactive. Participants of all ages were able to imagine their own ideal street by personalizing their “My Street Dream” board, playing with street elements such as landscape strips, travel lanes, cycle tracks, dedicated transit lanes, medians, and even playgrounds to create their ideal street. Each imagined street was photographed and shared online.
A participant at the moveDC launch event plans her dream street. Photo by thisisbossi via Flickr.
The consultant team developed games and activities for each phase of engagement throughout the 18-month planning process. During the middle phase of the project, participants played a game of trade-offs. Participants were given a 2″x2″ gameboard and cards that represented options for using DDOT’s budget. One of the four squares on the board was already filled in to represent DDOT’s ongoing maintenance costs and other commitments. Participants then needed to make difficult decisions about which improvements they wanted to prioritize. They were provided with far more options than could be met by the available resources to highlight the hard choices that transportation agencies have to make. Participants could chose from options such as a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian network, accelerated repairs, fast transit, more local transit, more bridges and tunnels, and sustainability and aesthetic improvements, among others. The cards for the flexible options were either a half square or full square large, depending on the resources needed for the element. The fast transit game tile, for example, was twice as large as the card for more local transit. There was one more twist: participants could choose cards for the three remaining squares, but if they filled in the third square, they had to find a way to pay for that option.
The results of the trade-off game were priceless. The moveDC team gathered a wealth of information on what people valued and what they were willing to sacrifice to increase the amount of available resources. Like nearly every other in-person game or activity, the trade-off game was adapted into an online version to expand the reach of the process to people who were not able attend a meeting, offering many avenues for participation.
By focusing their efforts on interacting with participants, the project team learned what was truly important to people living and working in the District. Whyte vividly recalls a conversation he had with two women in their 70s from Southeast DC. The women told stories about growing up in DC and shared that they wanted to be able to stay in the District as they aged. They were concerned about the District’s future and wanted to see their community continue to be a vibrant place to live for the future generations. The women appreciated the opportunities to share their ideas for the community and actively participated in subsequent moveDC meetings.
“People do care about long-range planning when you relate to them on a personal level,” explained David Fields, of NelsonNygaard, the deputy consultant team project manager. “We talked about how the plan wasn’t just about transportation planning, but had the potential to create vital neighborhoods that are economically competitive and attractive.” Framing the future transportation system in a relatable way moved the conversation beyond “I don’t want this on my street” to thinking about how every street could contribute to the network.
Both Whyte and Fields credit the success of the outreach and the plan process on the commitment and leadership from of DDOT, the many agency partners, and the public who participated in the process. A special advisory committee formed for the plan was also instrumental. The 14-person advisory committee included representatives from wards across the District and others who were actively involved in transportation issues. Almost every month, the planning team held two-hour meetings with the advisory committee. Whyte says the committee “asked us all the hard questions and really pushed us to come up with the best ideas,” probing the team to make sure they were doing everything they could to reach every group in DC. The advisory committee meetings were open to the public, attracting 30-40 observers each meeting. This openness gave people what Whyte describes as “a view under the hood” of the more technical details of the plan, but also widening the circle of people that had in-depth knowledge of the process.
DDOT, the consultant team, the plan’s agency partners, and the advisory committee envisioned a broad-reaching public outreach strategy to be sure that everyone touched by the plan’s eventual implementation were able to help direct what the plan would say: an equitable planning process would lead to an equitable outcome. By reaching people who wouldn’t normally hear about a long-range transportation plan, and by engaging with everyday users of the system at a personal level, the moveDC plan reflects a more representative slice of the District.
The project team also went to special lengths to reach youth groups and senior organizations so that the voices of people of all ages were represented in the plan. Whyte says that teens were happy to share how it took them an hour and a half to commute to their charter school every day. As word of the process spread, high school and college students were attending the workshops for class project credit.
Overall, the outreach process meaningfully connected with more than 12,000 individual participants, more than the one percent goal. “In the end, there were as many recommendations to improve access in the city’s economically challenged areas as there were in more affluent parts of the District,” Whyte said.
At every step of the way, the moveDC process was much closer than most long-range or project planning processes in gathering input from people from all walks of life. It’s a process very befitting for our nation’s capitol.
- moveDC website, District of Columbia Department of Transportation
- Ideas that Build public workshops, District of Columbia Department of Transportation
- National Planning Award for Transportation Planning: moveDC, American Planning Association
This case study was written by Hanna Kite.