While everyone has been touched in some degree by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s crucial to remember everyone has been affected differently. This is especially important to keep in mind when we consider how we communicate with and engage communities around public transportation projects. Given the nature of these projects, funding or regulatory approvals often require community input, and this may take some adjusting to keep things moving in the current environment.
While a majority of bigger cities and metropolitan areas have experienced shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, some smaller towns and more remote areas have not experienced the same impacts, with many having been minimally affected. Residents of Kansas City, Missouri, for example, just recently came under a mandatory mask policy in public places, while parts of rural Missouri have been much less impacted.
Although in-person meetings and interactions have decreased in most cases, transportation project teams must continue to work hard at developing projects and plans while also connecting with and involving the public and key stakeholders.
We know how important it is to include community members in planning discussions from the beginning, developing projects with their vision in mind. During this unique time, we must be sure to adhere to local and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines as we keep the following top of mind:
- Depending on the area and how it has been affected by COVID-19, individuals you are engaging with will have different comfort levels with attending an in-person community meeting. Consider holding a virtual meeting or providing the content online in addition to or instead of an in-person meeting. Think about the social distancing space needed in the room if you are gathering in person.
- If you have an in-person meeting, consider the logistics and set up carefully. It’s common practice to have comment “stations” at public meetings, but it may not be appropriate now to ask people to share the same table and pen. Consider how areas will be sanitized and how those steps will be communicated to participants, along with the social distancing guidelines.
- When you communicate with community members and stakeholders, keep their different mindsets around the topic in mind, especially around COVID-19 discussions. Everyone has a different opinion, response and feeling about everything going on, and some may have COVID-19 “fatigue.” Be sensitive to your audience and the fact that each person is experiencing it differently.
- As an alternative to holding meetings, think about other ways to engage with the community. One option is to send out surveys. During this time, more people are available and have more time to engage and participate, creating higher response rates and return on your inquiry investment. Another idea is to host scheduled time periods for community members to call in to speak to a project representative directly.
We don’t have a crystal ball to see what the future holds. Things could ebb and flow dramatically during the coming weeks and months. But we do know how important it is for project teams to be prepared for all types planning needs and to consider the audience in every scenario.
With possible funding on the horizon from a federal stimulus package, now is the time to imagine the future we want and what infrastructure we will need to make it a reality.