Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Students recommend improvements to transit system’s outreach

Rob StuparRob Stupar

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The report “Public Participation: Madison Metro Transit” is available online.

The City of Madison has new ways to consider for gathering and incorporating public input into transit planning, as outlined in a new study from the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

The authors, students in the spring Workshop in Public Affairs taught by Donald Moynihan, interviewed transit employees, resident groups, transit advocates, peer transit systems and volunteer mobile app developers. The recommendations shift the current process from one that is reactive to one that proactively engages community stakeholders.

“One of the valuable things about this report is that the students who wrote it haven’t been gathering input one way for a long time, and so they were able to take the time to come at public participation from a different perspective,” says Metro Transit General Manager Chuck Kamp. “This report can help us look at making changes in how we try to gather feedback from customers on various aspects of service.”

Federal regulations require Metro Transit to prioritize equitable service in the community, but Metro Transit has a limited budget to meet these regulations, maintain its operations and create a robust public participation process, says Rob Stupar, one of the authors. “Residents have complained that Metro Transit has developed proposals without adequate public consultation. We analyzed the current public participation process and recommends ways to improve it and become more proactive. Lower participation barriers can increase the legitimacy of public participation by making it more accessible, less intimidating, more convenient, and more inclusive.”

Moynihan notes that every public organization struggles with how to incorporate the perspective of the people it serves. “Public participation provides a form of democratic legitimacy, and it may provide substantive knowledge on public preferences about services,” Moynihan says. “But there are many different ways to engage in participation, with information technology offering new options. In some cases, non-representative groups may dominate participation forums, plus organizing participation is not costless.”

Stupar wrote the report with Andrew Behm, Katy Petershack, Matthew Manes, Patrick Proctor-Brown and John Staskunas. They recommend that Metro Transit improve accessibility of the Transit and Parking Commission meetings, upgrade the website and mobile apps, and engage in neighborhood outreach.

The students’ “what if” approach is another benefit of the report, Kamp says, adding that although all city agencies, including Metro Transit, have to work with the resources on hand, these recommendations open up new possibilities. “What if we had the money, time and staff to do things differently?” Kamp asks. “These are recommendations that could really work. Although we can’t implement everything all at once, perhaps we could use these recommendations on a smaller scale to take a different approach now, and work on implementing others as resources allow.”

“As the students learned, participation can occur in many ways to inform basic public services like public transportation,” Moynihan says. “These can range from traditional public meetings to better use of information technology to capture passenger perceptions. Throughout the project, the students helped Madison Metro to move from an approach that goes beyond all federal requirements for public participation, but is very traditional and somewhat reactive, to an approach that is much more proactive using a mixture of traditional and new forms of participation.”

The report’s findings may benefit more than Metro Transit, which will use the analysis to inform ongoing updates of federal reports such as the Public Participation Plan required by the Federal Transit Administration, Kamp says. “We will share the report with other city agencies through the Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative Core Team. As the city works toward greater racial equity in city operations, creative ways to encourage input from all groups, particularly communities of color, will be needed. Representatives from other city agencies can take these recommendations back to their agencies and see what might work for them.”