Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The Department of Transportation releases a plain-language toolkit to help citizens weigh in on all kinds of projects—so they can thwart the bad ones.
So, let’s say your state department of transportation wants to widen the highway in your neighborhood. It’s a horrendous idea—more noise, more pollution, and a bigger tear through city streets.
But how do you tell them so? The project’s draft analysis is thousands of pages long, full of technical verbiage you’d need degrees to understand. The public forums are cage fights between cranky neighbors and engineers with jargon-studded retorts for every possible complaint. Besides, what’s the point? The highway’s coming, whether you pipe up or not. That’s what always happens. Right?
Ideally, no. Today the U.S. Department of Transportation released a “Transportation Toolkit,” a plain-language citizen’s guide to the government’s process for major infrastructure undertakings, and how to get involved. Along with approachable graphics and flowcharts, the kit goes over the basic timelines that road, rail, bridge, and aviation projects usually follow, crucial concepts, entities, and laws that inform those processes, and the best strategies to make citizen voices heard. Think of this as everything you wanted to know about transportation planning, but were afraid to ask.
Pro tips include: Get involved "upstream"—earlier in the planning process, when “you are more likely to be able to make changes.” If you’re trying to advocate for an alternative solution to a transportation problem, try to think like you’re the decision-maker and ask yourself questions about cost, safety, and examples of where it’s been done before.
Also: Get to know your local media. Attracting publicity “can alert the public” and “put pressure on decision-makers.”
This is pretty progressive stuff coming from an agency that that not long ago plowed superhighways through cities, despite the objections of those in the way. The lives of transportation decision-makers at federal and state levels would still be a lot easier if they didn’t factor in the human consequences of traffic engineering. But in recent years, the DOT has placed more emphasis on remedying the ills of 20th century transportation policies, which often “excluded or divided communities… particularly for transit-dependent populations in minority and low-income neighborhoods,” the toolkit states. Under Secretary Anthony Foxx, the DOT has developed special design challenges, leadership academies, and grant programs aimed at bridging those gaps. This guide helps citizens play a role.
“We need to hear from them,” says DOT Chief Opportunities Officer Stephanie Jones. “We need their involvement. They shouldn’t be discouraged because they don’t know the process.”
An outgrowth of the DOT’s Ladders of Opportunity Initiative, the toolkit will not magically unclog everything that stymies effective public engagement. For one, it’s yet not available in any language other than English. And folks in public offices have learning to do, too, if they’re going to embrace the value of community input while keeping the planning process as economical as possible—an extremely tall order.
But for citizens discontented with the status quo, there’s a lot to be said for learning the language of the enemy, as it were. Even if there is no street-widening imperiling your front yard at the moment, the toolkit is worth a read for planning nerds who’ve lost sleep trying to remember why a FONSI is never a ROD. (You know who you are.)
The release of this document is significant for another reason: It represents something that the incoming administration cannot undo. Elaine Chao, who is expected to be Secretary of Transportation under President-elect Donald Trump, is likely to place less of an emphasis on transportation equity than Foxx has. Grants and programs targeted at righting historic wrongs could easily go away.
But citizens can—and will—still fight to advance transportation justice. As history has occasionally shown, they can succeed if they know how to play their cards right. The toolkit is one small empowerment.