Tech Tools Will Aid Public Input To Transit In NDSU Research

Tools like iPads, Facebook, and Twitter will be used to gather public input on transit in the Fargo-Moorhead area as part of a research project at North Dakota State University.

The project is part of a nationwide effort by the Federal Transit Administration explore innovative ways to improve public participation in transportation planning. “NDSU’s project is unique in its emphasis on technology. Our hope is that these technologies will help overcome some of the barriers that prevent individuals from providing input related to service and planning,” notes NDSU researcher David Ripplinger.

In the project, researchers will help Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Area Transit (MAT) use social networking sites, blogs and other techniques to solicit input on transit. Social networking tools will be used to expand the reach of public participation efforts. They will be used to notify individuals of opportunities to participate and will serve as a vehicle for distributing planning documents. Ripplinger has already helped MAT develop strategies for using Twitter to communicate with riders.

Tools like iPads will be used to conduct surveys on transit vehicles to increase the speed of surveys and enhance accuracy by eliminating the need to input data from written forms. Other surveys will use more typical paper forms along with electronic devices to gain broader participation. The surveys will provide insight into current ridership issues and generate information for a five-year transit development plan.
“We are always looking for ways to improve communication with our customers,” says Lori Van Beek, Moorhead Transit Manager. “More than 50 percent of our riders are college students. They are very used to technology and electronic communication, so this should be a good fit.”

Technology will assist in gathering input from other audiences as well, notes Ripplinger, a researcher with the Small Urban and Rural Transit Agency, a part of NDSU’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute. Translation software will help engage immigrant populations in the Fargo-Moorhead area who frequently rely on mass transit for mobility. One-on-one surveys will continue to be employed to gather information from transit riders and others, but portable technology like iPads may help improve consistency and accuracy.

The NDSU study is one of 60 across the country designed to test new approaches to facilitating public involvement. Ripplinger says barriers typically cited as a reason not to participate in public meetings and forums include language and cultural barriers, physical and mental disabilities, scheduling issues, and limited resources for soliciting public input.

“Anytime we can find a way to engage even one more person, that’s good,” notes Michael Kunza, transportation coordinator with the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments. “Relying more on the web or on video seems to make sense. People are so busy, that anything that makes it more convenient to communicate with them or help them provide input into the planning process is a plus.”
“We are hoping that we can get a more accurate view of how people see transit in the community,” says Jim Gilmour, director of planning and development for the City of Fargo. “Often we only hear from people when things go wrong. Being able to reach out to people is really important when things are running well and when there is a problem.”

Along with Kunza and Van Beek, Gilmour serves as an advisory to Ripplinger on the year-long project. He notes that traditional public meetings used to collect input typically are sparsely attended and may attract individuals with specific concerns and complaints. “You sometimes get a very narrow perspective. Using technology and surveys gives us ways to reach out in a quick and efficient manner to get a broader impression of what people think.”

“In the future, meetings may no longer be the way we collect information,” Kunza adds. “Technology opens up opportunities for use to gain input from a broader cross section of the community.”
“Unfortunately, many people don’t see the value in providing input to us, they think they don’t have any influence, Van Beek says. “But when we hear from people about what we’re doing or what they’d like us to do, it has a large impact. We need that input to make good decisions.”