It’s hard work to get people to care about public infrastructure projects. (Understatement of the year, right?)
Ordinary people are busy living ordinary lives. That’s not a slight, it’s just the way it is. We’ve got things to do that occupy hours of the day: grocery shopping, planning a baby shower, helping kids memorize lines for a play, cleaning the gutters…
The last thing on my neighbor’s mind is researching transit routes, intersection designs, or EV charging hubs. Local leaders want community input on community projects, but it’s not easy to motivate the masses to show up ready to engage.
What if community engagement was like culinary school for healthy infrastructure?
Getting residents of a community not just interested, but energized, is an important step towards livable transportation. The more your neighbor learns about the life-and-death differences among design options, the more likely they’ll become a vocal advocate for better infrastructure.
It’s not enough to lay out several options on the table and ask for feedback on the various ingredients. Think about making a homemade pizza. While the specific ingredients are important, the success or failure in the meal comes from the crust thickness, the proportions of toppings, and the oven temperature. A terrible infrastructure chef and a wonderful infrastructure chef each use the same ingredients.
When I worked for the City of Orlando, I had the pleasure (and challenge) of working on an effort to redesign a street that, frankly, needed a diet. The city discovered that 75% of drivers were speeding on the corridor. It wasn’t enough to just change the signs to a lower speed limit, because we knew that design treatments have a direct role in traveler behavior.
Our goal was to come up with strategies to “self-enforce” lower speeds that would make walking and bicycling more comfortable. We had all sorts of ingredients to work with:
Travel lane reductions
Designated pedestrian crossings
Pedestrian crossing signals
Textured/colorized pavement treatments
Buffered bicycle lanes
Motivating residents to learn how healthy infrastructure gets made.
There are two separate but related issues to focus on: community health and business health. An attractive and walkable corridor is good for the mind, body, and economy.
Human health & wellness.
Physical activity would reduce the top 10 causes of death in the United States. A technical description like “traffic calming project” might not have a life-and-death ring to it, but the outcome absolutely has the power to save and improve lives. A significant number of Americans’ car trips are under a mile, which means walking and bicycling are legitimate options if the infrastructure is in place.
Economic health & wellness.
Traffic calming or speed management is one of the go-to strategies of a thriving commercial corridor. Many years after design changes, Colorado is still sharing success stories about how slowing down vehicle traffic led to increased property values and a resurgence of life on a struggling arterial. These are the types of stories that get people working on so-called “boring infrastructure projects.”
Look for creative ways to facilitate meaningful public engagement that emphasizes education and capacity building over popularity. In other words, you want to minimize debate about who thinks walkability is a waste of time and instead teach residents the power of baking healthy and business friendly infrastructure in communities.