While cities and citizens have used new media tools and strategies to provide information and help improve a variety of public services such education and crime, the issue that most often seems to exhibit the most interest and experimentation is transportation. One reason is for this is probably that data about transportation systems – be it bus and train schedules, traffic counts, or pedestrian and bicycle accidents – is often readily available and is (at least potentially) less controversial to release. Another reason is likely that the transportation system is so ubiquitous in cities, and directly impacts the vast majority of residents on a daily basis, that there is a naturally broad constituency interested in its operation and improvement. And as transportation as a professional discipline has always been interested in technology, the two go hand in hand.
To explore the issue further, EMBARQ, the sustainable transportation arm of the World Resources Institute, organized a panel discussion and roundtable at its headquarters in Washington, D.C this past Tuesday. Part of a week-long citywide festival focused on technology and innovation, the event brought together citizen activists and representatives from government agencies and non-profits to discuss open data, online citizen engagement and collaboration – while looking at the nation’s capital as a case study.
While the local city government has been at the forefront of releasing its municipal data for the public and developers to utilize, most of the region’s transportation falls under the jurisdiction of WMATA, the regional transit agency. Even so, Bryan Sivak, the city’s CTO, presented some of the latest transportation oriented projects – including an API for real-time location data for the city’s small fleet of circulator buses, the utilization of QR codes on buses and shelters to assist both passengers and transit managers, and plans for location-based social networking games aimed at promoting a community among riders.
In the same spirit, Lance Schine, the newly hired Director of Innovation for the DC Department of Transportation announced the agency’s launch of a crowdsourcing application to help planners locate stations for the city’s growing bikesharing network. To help spread the word (and reach citizens that may not have access to the Web at home), the department partnered with the city’s libraries to display notices at branch computer workstations (along with the library’s main website).
Aside from government initiatives, the panel included a presentation from David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog, which has served as a powerful example of how online citizen activism can influence policy. In addition, Justin Jouvenal, a Web editor with the Washington Post, highlighted its effort to integrate SeeClickFix reporting into its locally focused online section, and engage the public in reporting issues.
Outside of D.C., Nick Grossman, Director of Civic Works for OpenPlans, highlighted efforts to develop an open source trip planner in partnership with Portland’s TriMet and a number of other agencies, and an upcoming collaboration with New York’s Department of Transportation to pilot online civic engagement and planning tools. Related to this effort, he stressed the importance of focusing on content and processes, and less on technology – adding that many suitable tools already exist, and just need to be deployed in the appropriate context.
Certainly, as our society has become increasingly urbanized, the importance of transportation policy and planning has grown dramatically. Facilitating the efficient movement of people and goods within and between cities and regions is essential for economic growth. At the same time, transportation systems require large investments and can have significant negative impacts on humans and the environment. Maximizing the benefits derived from enhanced mobility while minimizing its costs and externalities is the fundamental challenge facing modern day transportation policymakers and planners.
While transportation policy and planning has historically been the domain of a small group of technical experts, there has been growing recognition that increased participation from a much wider range of stakeholders has the potential to improve the quality of transportation plans and projects. The last round of federal transportation funding designated money for research into online engagement strategies and the piloting of a number of projects, and hopefully the next federal transportation bill will support this further. Given the need to develop more sustainable urban transportation systems, and the significant interest for public involvement, transportation agencies have ample opportunity to adopt new media tools and strategies to communicate and collaborate with citizens.