Three Ways to Improve Public Participation in Public Transit

Transit agencies are required by Title VI and other regulations to hold public hearings whenever they significantly change existing service, make any changes to fares, or plan a new capital project. However, they are often disappointed in the amount of public participation they receive. TCRP Synthesis 89 reviews strategies that transit agencies have used to successfully improve the quantity and quality of public participation, and this article boils it down to three things: identify and connect with your audience, ensure the events are interesting and engaging, and by your actions build trust and credibility in the community.

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Identify and Connect With Your Audience

The distinctive shape and brown color of a Washington Metro station. Christopher MacKechnie

The most important way to improve public participation is to identify and connect with your audience. For example, when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) desired to renovate Union Station, they reached out not only to the users of the station - their customers - but also to the tenants of the station. In another example, when the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis was conducting public hearings prior to the construction of their light rail lines they hired students at the University of Minnesota who were fluent in Spanish and Somali, the two most prevalent foreign languages in the target area. These employees went door to door, discussing the rail project with residents in their native languages.

When Los Angeles Metro was planning their Westside Subway Extension, they engaged in several innovative techniques that enabled them to receive a large amount of public comment and to get buy in for the project. One thing they did was to schedule informational meetings during the day as well as in the evening so that office workers could learn about the project during their lunch break. In addition, so that service workers who may not have been able to attend any meetings due to family and other requirements could be heard, Metro sought out proxies to represent their views. Finally, they sent postcards to all residents with 1/4 mile of a proposed station informing them about the project and where to go for more information.

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Ensure the Events are Interesting and Engaging

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A Pierce Transit bus lays over in downtown Tacoma, WA. Christopher MacKechnie

Next, the transit agency must make sure that their public outreach events are interesting and engaging. Pierce Transit of Tacoma, WA featured interactive quizzes and prioritization exercises in their latest round of public hearings, and were able to reach 7% of their service area's population. Pittsburgh's Port Authority had a "Tell Us Where To Go Bus" which drove around the service area, allowing many people to visit its exhibits about the proposed service change displayed inside the vehicle. Translink of Vancouver, B.C. frequently has blank maps where the public (which is very similar to what consultant Jarrett Walker does in his transit planning classes ), with guidance from planning staff, can draw out routes that connect places that they would like to go. One caveat: respect the public's intelligence. At a recent public hearing in Los Angeles, consultants had an interactive exhibit that, in featuring pipe cleaners, construction paper, and magic markers was more reflective of a first grade art class than a public hearing for a major capital project.

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By Your Actions, Build Trust and Credibility in the Community

SEPTA Norristown High Speed Line
The unique Norristown High Speed Line vehicle. Christopher MacKechnie

An essential ingredient in a successful public hearing campaign is fostering trust and credibility in the community. The Sunset Empire Transportation District in Oregon makes its staff volunteer in the community four times a month to demonstrate to the public that the agency cares about the region. Staff also ride the buses for two weeks after a service change to answer any questions the community may have about the change and to receive comments about the change.

Also important in building trust and credibility is transparency. When Laketran of Lake County, Ohio (the eastern suburbs of Cleveland) was facing the need for significant service cuts, they released all facets of their financial predicament to the community. By doing so, not only did the community come to believe that the financial trouble was genuine, but they also came up with innovative financing ideas that resulted in less of a reduction than had been planned.

Of course, the best way to build credibility in the community is to put the decision makers out in the community. At a minimum, the decision makers in the agency should attend all public hearing; they also should be regularly in contact with groups representing all interests to make sure that when someone comments, they believe that even if their comment is not acted upon that it was heard by someone who could act upon it.


Increasing public participation builds trust between the public and the transit agency. The recent trend towards sharing more information to the public is great news for any transit system that wants to work with stakeholders to develop routes and schedules that truly work for the community.