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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation
FHWA Highway Safety Programs

Engage Community Representatives

Transportation practitioners have the power to incorporate the voices of their communities in transportation decision-making and to build trust with members of underserved communities. Public involvement is not an afterthought in the decision-making process, but rather a core tenet for agencies, organizations, partners, and individuals who work to evaluate, plan, prioritize, design, construct, and maintain transportation improvements and investments.

Decision-making in transportation safety (e.g., determining community needs and project priorities, planning, and implementation) may not always take into account all the communities those decisions impact. In implementation, “we’ve always done it this way” thinking can result in the treatment of public involvement as a one-time event or a box to check in the project lifecycle, as opposed to an intentional, dynamic process that continues throughout all stages of project development. When agencies use limited communication and outreach methods, like only advertising a single meeting in an area’s largest newspaper, they often do not reach the broader audience who may not read the newspaper or who get news from other sources.

In-person public meetings are a common strategy, but for some people, these meetings can be inconvenient or impossible to attend. Physical meeting locations can be inaccessible for persons with disabilities or for community members that might not feel comfortable attending events at government facilities, or people whose work schedules do not fall within typical daytime business hours. Additionally, people in underserved communities may lack childcare, may not have access to convenient transportation, and may need communication in alternate formats or languages. To ensure the needs and concerns of underserved populations are represented, it is important for transportation professionals to reduce barriers to participation and expand opportunities for engagement.

Meaningful Public Involvement

USDOT defines meaningful public involvement as a process that proactively seeks full representation from the community, considers public comments and feedback, and incorporates that feedback into a project, program, or plan when possible. The impact of community contributions encourages early and continuous public involvement and brings diverse viewpoints and values into the transportation decision-making process.

Diagram of 6 facets of meaningful public involvement: 1. Understand Community Demographics, 2. Build durable community relationships, 3. Understand community wants and needs, 4. Involve broad representation of community, 5. Use community-preferred engagement techniques, 6. Document and share community's impact in decisions.
Source: USDOT

Meaningful public involvement:

  • Increases trust between the organization and the community
  • Increases the likelihood that projects, programs, or plans will be accepted
  • Creates more effective solutions
  • Improves a community’s knowledge of the project, program, or plan
  • Empowers people from different backgrounds to become involved in transportation decision-making
  • Delivers a better project, program, or service with diverse ideas that promote equity and inclusion
  • Ensures against compliance concerns with authorities such as Title VI and NEPA that require public input and nondiscrimination

Public involvement strategies should involve a combination of in-person, digital, virtual, and print tools, in languages spoken by community members, along with intentional and varied outreach methods to ensure that people with disabilities and diverse needs and experiences are aware of and can participate in opportunities to have a meaningful impact on decision-making. When specific to a project or program, public involvement strategies should also be tied to the expected impacts of the project or program. Of particular impact are engagement opportunities that meet people in underserved communities where they are and provide them with culturally sensitive methods of expressing themselves.

Transportation professionals may use a variety of public involvement techniques and channels to empower members of underserved communities to participate in every part of the transportation safety process, including the development of State Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSPs), local road safety plans (LRSPs), Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessments, and project level safety planning, design, and construction meetings. These strategies may include:

  • Collaborating with experts outside of the transportation sector, such as agencies and organizations that address public health, healthcare, housing, food, and education
  • Identifying, building relationships with, compensating, and training trusted community members to become traffic safety champions who can speak about transportation safety to members of their community
  • Communicating clearly about the objectives of and intended audience for transportation projects to solicit meaningful feedback; this may include working with or hiring trusted community partners to relay messages
  • Using plain language so information is accessible to people who are not technical experts
  • Using languages and language formats that represent local communities, such as people with varying levels of English proficiency, non-native English speakers, and people with disabilities
  • Employing professionals who represent people from underserved communities
  • Reaching out to local partners, such as:
    • Community groups
    • Local hospitals
    • Non-governmental organizations
    • Faith-based organizations
    • Youth groups
    • Youth-serving organizations
    • Schools
    • Employer centers
    • Shelters for people experiencing homelessness
    • Historically Black Colleges and Universities
    • Tribal colleges and universities
    • Universities and organizations that serve people with disabilities
    • Chambers of commerce for Black and Hispanic populations.
  • Using social media, virtual public involvement, and a variety of channels to reach a broad group of representatives from underserved communities
  • Meeting in places that are accessible to people with disabilities and located near transit
  • Creating community-led advisory boards to provide ongoing feedback to and accountability for agency activities
  • Ensuring inclusive project-level engagement at all phases of project development
  • Applying tools and survey instruments to properly gather and understand community feedback, including location- and text-based surveys
  • Scheduling events in a culturally sensitive way, such as avoiding holidays
  • Providing services at any in-person events to make events more accessible, such as childcare and refreshments
  • Engaging with civil rights specialists at all levels of planning and project development; Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specialists should be engaged to ensure that facilities are accessible for people with disabilities

In 2019, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (Portland BOT) conducted a citywide Walking Priorities Survey to understand the barriers Portlanders face while walking. When Portland BOT evaluated the demographics of survey respondents, it became clear that Black Portlanders were underrepresented. So, Portland BOT created a Walking While Black focus group to better understand if Black Portlanders were experiencing unique barriers and to identify priorities to improve walking. As shown in figure below, Black Portlanders identified poor street lighting as the biggest barrier to walking, compared to the citywide population that rated poor street lighting much lower. As a result, Portland introduced new lighting-level guidelines to increase lighting on public streets. FHWA's Pedestrian Lighting Primer provides information on effective pedestrian lighting installations to improve roadway safety and personal security for pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

Responses to "What makes walking difficult in Portland?" on a scale from 1 to 6 from the Citywide survey and the Walking While Black focus group. Poor lighting was the top result for the Walking while Black focus group, with 5.00 compared to 3.62 Citywide. Sidewalks/walking paths missing on BUSY streets ranked 4.94 for the focus group and 4.66 Citywide. People driving too fast on BUSY streets: 4.82 focus group, 4.29 citywide. Not enough places to cross busy streets: 4.78 focus group, 4.46 citywide. People driving too fast on residential streets: 4.74 focus group, 4.44 citywide. Sidewalks/walking paths missing on residential streets: 4.71 for focus group, 4.29 for citywide. Drivers not stopping for pedestrians crossing the street: 4.47 focus group, 4.29 citywide. Buckled/cracked/uplifted sidewalks, or other tripping hazards: 4.47 focus group, 3.46 citywide. Missing curb ramps at intersections: 4.00 focus group, 3.22 citywide. Not enough time to cross the streets: 3.91 focus group, 3.08 citywide.
Source: PBOT

For more information, Appendix B of USDOT’s Promising Practices for Meaningful Public Involvement in Transportation Decision-Making outlines specific techniques, tools, and considerations for equitable public engagement. There are many tactics available to practitioners.

Equitable engagement with community members should inform and guide transportation decision-making, including investment decisions and project development. To further trust and transparency, transportation professionals should report to the community on how the community’s feedback was integrated into projects. Accountability tactics, such as asking the public to rate the effectiveness of engagement activities and measuring qualitative concepts such as changed perceptions, the extent to which transportation projects lead to other community enhancements, or the changes made to a program as a direct result of community input, should be incorporated into performance metrics by the transportation decision-makers. These results should be considered in the development of the organization’s next public involvement program or plan.

Acknowledging past harm is important to build trust with underserved communities and advance a safe and equitable transportation system. “As we continue to advance this work, it’s important to recognize that past Federal transportation investments have too often failed to address inequities, or even made them worse. And because a piece of physical infrastructure endures for decades, families and communities today must contend with the results of discriminatory choices that may date back generations. For example, highways routed directly through Black and Brown neighborhoods, often in an effort to divide and destroy them, continue to affect the well being of the residents who remain. In other cases, we see inequities in our failures to invest, as with transit deserts that leave out the communities that most need affordable transportation options, or contracting opportunities for transportation projects that fail to engage and utilize women and people of color.
Secretary Pete Buttigieg (USDOT Equity Action Plan, April 2022)

Transportation Alternative (TA) Set-Aside Implementation Guidance

Federal-aid recipients, including recipients of TA Set-Aside funds, are responsible for involving the public, including traditionally underserved and underrepresented populations, in transportation planning and complying with participation and consultation requirements in 23 CFR 450.210 and 23 CFR 450.316, as applicable. “Underserved populations” include minority and low-income populations but may also include many other demographic categories that face challenges engaging with the transportation process and receiving equitable benefits (see FHWA’s Environmental Justice Reference Guide for more information).

To assist with these public engagement efforts, FHWA expects recipients of TA Set-Aside funds to engage with all impacted communities and community leaders to determine which forms of communication are most effective, including gaining insight on the unique circumstances impacting various disadvantaged and underrepresented groups so that new channels for communication may be developed, and to use this information to inform decisions across all aspects of project delivery including planning, project selection, and the design process.

Safety professionals have grappled with using the right language to explain and act on transportation safety issues in the past. For example, transportation safety professionals have advocated replacing the word “accident” with the word “crash” to emphasize that roadway collisions are preventable. Employing culturally sensitive language is similarly important at every step of the transportation process to build trust. Equity discussions and word choice about socioeconomic status, race, disability, and homelessness may be complex, difficult, and confusing. To address this, consider:

  • Collaborating with community partners to develop appropriate word choice:
  • Relevant community partners may include individuals who work in social justice, civil rights, disability rights, and advocates for seniors; children; and people who bike, walk, and roll.
  • Identifying community champions who are trusted by members of underserved communities, and providing the champions with training, materials, and compensation to facilitate engagement on transportation safety with their community.
  • This can help ensure safety messages reach populations that may not be traditionally reached through standard communications channels. The CDC also provides assistance in Guiding Principles for Inclusive Communication.

Next Steps

Consider how current public involvement processes and partnerships in the SHSP, Local Road Safety Plan, VRU Research Assessment, Vision Zero Plan, and other Comprehensive Safety Action Plans include underserved and disadvantaged community members. Ask:

  • “Do underserved communities have meaningful opportunities to participate in safety planning processes? If not, what strategies can be implemented to empower members of underserved communities to participate in every part of the transportation safety process?”
  • “What concerns are community members raising? Consider disaggregating feedback to determine the specific concerns of each community and explore if certain communities may express different concerns.”
  • “Are community and public health representatives included and properly engaged in transportation planning efforts?”
  • “Are communities and experts beyond the transportation sector, including agencies and organizations that address public health, housing, food, schools, and other SDOHs, meaningfully included?"
  • "Are there opportunities to train, hire, and retain individuals from underserved communities?