Transit Equity Day, observed on February 4, underscores the crucial need to champion inclusive public transit solutions accommodating users of diverse backgrounds, irrespective of socioeconomic status, geographic location, accessibility requirements, or demographic traits. It simultaneously honors Rosa Parks’ courageous act in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, emphasizing the imperative role of community engagement in acknowledging and tackling obstacles toward achieving affordable and accessible public transit nationwide. One of the most exciting parts of my career at Avid Core is working with community leaders, public engagement leads, transit agencies, and community members to ensure active participation in improved transit options for communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Below are ways in which public engagement can be used to create a more equitable public transit system:
Addressing Disparities: Public engagement is crucial for identifying and addressing historical and systemic disparities in transit access. Low public transit usage typically stems from long wait times, inefficient routes, and reliability and accessibility issues. These barriers can be felt by individuals regardless of socioeconomic status.
When I engage community members to solicit feedback on improving transit options in their neighborhoods, I transfer that feedback to government agencies so that they can acknowledge and address these barriers to improve transit options and increase future use by all community members. By actively involving underserved communities, which typically have the most to gain from improved transit options, transit agencies can work towards dismantling barriers and creating solutions that help strengthen and heal communities.
Fostering Transparency and Community Buy-In: Improving access to transit has the potential to correct past injustices by connecting communities to better jobs, limiting displacement, and improving a neighborhood’s economic conditions. However, public transit decisions are never built solely on feedback from involved stakeholders. Instead, transit agencies should ensure that the community understands the benefits, risks, limitations and how their feedback guides ultimate decisions. Establish a continuous feedback loop that allows the community to provide input on ongoing projects. Demonstrate how past feedback has influenced decisions and emphasize the importance of continued involvement. This helps maintain a sense of community engagement and ensures that the public sees their input as an ongoing and impactful process.
When the public is informed about transit initiatives, projects, and decision-making processes, it fosters a sense of ownership and accountability. When the community is recognized as a co-creator in the future of public transit in their locality, it limits zero-sum thinking. It helps build buy-ins for future utilization of the system.
Localizing Your Messaging: Messaging to the public should be easy to understand and local to the transit system’s population. Messaging should emphasize how transit can connect specific communities to jobs, healthcare, leisure activities, and other opportunities. Community members are more likely to participate when they see that outreach efforts directly relate to their community’s values and concerns.
Localized messaging increases the chances of community members attending events, providing feedback, and actively engaging in promoted initiatives. Addressing local concerns with solutions responsive to the local population’s concerns helps build trust in a process that will help shape the future of these communities.
Utilizing Creative Outreach Efforts: Many underserved and under-engaged communities remain the least involved in public engagement efforts because of various barriers, including transit, language, socioeconomic status, and levels of government distrust, among other reasons. Improving transit options in the public engagement process presents an excellent opportunity to utilize creative tactics to increase participation.
Organizers can leverage diverse communication channels, including social media, local newspapers, community bulletin boards, and radio, to reach various demographics. It’s crucial to ensure that the information is comprehensible and accessible in multiple languages to cater to a broader audience. In collaboration with team members, planners can explore innovative approaches to enhance and convey messages to the public. One such strategy involves introducing a family-friendly brand ambassador or mascot, providing a unique and captivating means of delivering messages to the community. Additionally, community engagement is essential. For instance, Fairfax County, Virginia, organized a Santa Bus, a free community event. This provided an opportunity for residents to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and served as an informative platform for the community to learn more about Fairfax Connector, the largest local bus system in Northern Virginia.
In my role, I have found it effective to hold meetings in community centers, utilize online platforms, and engage community members through local events. Meeting people where they are creating a more welcoming and accessible space for dialogue, ensuring that the lived experiences and insights of the entire community can help shape a locality’s transit initiatives.
As we continue to observe Transit Equity Day, we should recognize the pivotal role of public engagement in achieving equitable and accessible public transit. At Avid Core, I have an opportunity to play a role in addressing these challenges through outreach, collaboration, and various partnerships. By actively engaging with transit agencies, policymakers, and fellow community members, we can collectively build a transit system that truly reflects the needs and aspirations of all – a system that brings us closer to the vision of transit equity. Together, let’s bridge the gap and pave the way to a more inclusive and accessible future.