Public engagement is an important and required element of the transportation planning process. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public engagement has shifted dramatically. Agencies of all sizes accelerated their transition to virtual engagement in 2020 to comply with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines. Social media and online engagement tools have become integral components of engaging the public and have effectively removed the time constraints of in-person meetings, offered opportunities for community members to engage in new and interactive ways, and brought new voices into the engagement process. In early 2020, when the pandemic effectively ceased in-person meetings, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) expanded its use of virtual platforms to engage with the public and is continually seeking to improve public involvement during the transportation planning and project development process, as traditional meetings are often not well attended, feedback is sparse, and participation can be limited to special interest groups.
The purpose of this study was to assess the role of virtual public engagement in VDOT’s business practices, examine its potential to reach a broader public, and document lessons learned for improved efficacy. The scope of the study was focused primarily on transportation planning public information meetings where on-demand public input has been frequently used as a substitute for in-person meetings, especially during the height of the pandemic. Based on the study findings, the study concluded the following: the benefits of virtual public engagement in terms of increased participation are widely acknowledged; virtual public engagement challenges exist, particularly with respect to achieving participation from underserved communities; outreach avenues exist to improve participation levels of underserved communities; and a hybrid approach of in-person and virtual events is likely to be the future of public engagement for transportation planning public information meetings.
The study recommends the following: (1) VDOT’s Transportation Mobility and Planning Division (TMPD) should update Instructional and Informational Memorandum II M-TMPD-4.0 (Public Participation/Public Involvement in Transportation Planning Studies) to include data collection guidance specific to on-demand public input surveys; and (2) TMPD in collaboration with VDOT’s Communications Division should develop guidance for district planners on conducting and managing hybrid public engagement events. TMPD and the Communications Division can use the results of this study to promote virtual engagement initiatives and to develop and share outreach strategies and guidance with VDOT districts and other VDOT divisions. The developed guidance for virtual engagement initiatives will provide a consistent approach across districts to reach and engage underserved and underrepresented communities. In addition, the guidance will provide a consistent approach to measuring the effectiveness of outreach and engagement efforts, which will help to inform and shape future outreach initiatives. The benefits of developing guidance for hybrid events will be a more streamlined and consistent process for conducting, managing, and evaluating public engagement. Since hybrid events are expected to increase, the developed guidance should result in fewer logistical problems for public engagement events.