Public input in the planning and implementation of transportation projects is a vital part of the project development process for agencies that are responsible for our transportation system. But in today’s environment of ever-increasing time constraints, it can be difficult for the public to take time out of their busy schedules to attend a meeting in person.
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), working with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), recently developed a virtual open house website that provided an online forum to learn about possible improvements to the Oak Hill Parkway project in Austin, Texas. The initiative was funded by the Rider 42 project.
“Everybody leads a busy life and may not have time to attend a traditional in-person open house,” said TTI Associate Research Scientist Tina Geiselbrecht, who is also the program manager of the Public Engagement Program at TTI. “We are always looking for ways to improve and enhance public participation in the planning process. A virtual open house is a venue that allows individuals to learn about the project on their own time.”
The Oak Hill Parkway virtual open house website featured nine project concept videos that were produced by TTI and narrated by TxDOT and CTRMA. After registering, users were able to watch the videos and then offer comments and suggestions for each concept. The unique feature of the virtual open house was the opportunity to chat in real-time with others on the site and with the project development team – just like you would do at a traditional open house.
“There have been other departments of transportation and local transportation agencies throughout the country that have been working on citizen engagement and leveraging on-line technologies to replace activities that were traditionally done in person,” said TTI Associate Transportation Researcher Jason Wagner. “But there hasn’t been as much of a focus on the two-way transfer of information. That’s what we were really trying to focus on in this project: the citizen engagement and two-way communication.”
Judging by the early surveys, users were mostly positive about the ability to communicate with project representatives from the comfort of their laptop or mobile device. The next step for the team is to add enhancements for the next virtual open house.
“This was a proof-of-concept project, so we had a tight schedule to go from the drawing board to the actual live tests,” said TTI Research Scientist Stacey Bricka. “It took a total team effort with involvement from colleagues throughout TTI to make this happen.”