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Letting the Public Lead the Way: How--and Why--Austin's Capital Metro Incorporates Extensive Public Feedback Into System Planning

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority President/CEO
Austin, TX

Contrary to what some people may think, we transit agencies don’t design services on a whim, nor do we do it in a vacuum. And statistical data, for all of its scientific validity and concrete value, can only provide us with a portion of the information we need to make smart planning decisions. The rest has to come from those we serve—our community.

At Capital Metro, we put a lot of stock into community involvement. It’s not just a check-the-box activity for us; we really want to know what the public thinks. And we really do use that feedback in our decision-making process to improve service. We want to hear from everyone—those who ride frequently, occasional transit users, even drivers who love their cars and would never even think of taking the bus!

For starters, here are some of the basic things we’re curious about:

* What do you like or dislike about our services?
* What would make you ride more often?
* What could induce you to ride for the first time?
* What would it take to make that behavior stick?

Getting answers is not as simple as it seems, however. For one thing, there’s a lot of clutter and noise out there, with so many things competing for people’s attention. So sometimes people don’t know we’re asking the questions. Many others don’t have the time or inclination to come to public meetings, no matter how convenient you make them.

Sure, we all have our “regulars” who seem to attend these, but they’re usually the ones with something to advocate for or who simply have the time on their hands to attend. And while their opinions absolutely matter, their voices represent only a small portion of the community at-large.

Go Where Riders Are

Getting feedback from all the others takes creativity, flexibility and good old-fashioned determination. For one thing, we have to be willing to go to where people are—rather than hope they seek us out. But where are they?

Unfortunately, that’s a moving target. In Austin, the rapid rise of property values and resulting changes in many of our neighborhoods have shifted demographics. New waves of immigrants from as close as Mexico and Central America to as far away as Bangladesh add language and cultural dimensions to the challenge. On top of that, it takes a lot of human resources to go where people are. It can get expensive and is very taxing on staff.

For Connections 2025, Capital Metro’s big bus service redesign, we did our best to maximize our reach without overburdening our resources. We identified community events and gathering spots all over the city that were likely to draw large crowds. These ranged from the Chinese New Year Festival to the city’s iconic Kite Festival in Zilker Park.

We dedicated a branded “engagement bus” to create a presence at those events and used the bus for meeting people at places like bus and rail stations and farmers’ markets as well. Using this approach, we had more than 2,700 in-person conversations and received more than 6,000 surveys submitted in person and online.

Lessons Learned
Along the way, we learned a lot of useful lessons. Even when you catch people where they are, it has to be in a context where they’re in the right frame of mind to give you feedback.

The Austin Marathon, for example, attracts thousands of spectators who line the streets around town. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to intercept people from all over the city to gather input on Connections 2025. We quickly learned, though, that people didn’t want to be distracted from watching their friends and family members running in the race. So although we came up nearly empty-handed on that one, it informed our next attempts, which proved to be more successful.

Another surefire tactic we employ is to always show up at big events with plenty of swag. After all, everyone loves free stuff, right? But while we know that giveaways work wonders to attract ­people, it’s easy to run out too quickly. At the Kite Festival, which attracted more than 10,000 visitors this year, we learned to use our freebies wisely. Instead of giving them out to just anyone who stopped by our booth, we used it to reward people who were willing to talk to us. We managed to get meaningful feedback from more than 300 people that day.

Trial and error is just part of good community involvement. You have to be willing to fail. And when you do, you have to regroup and try something else. The point is to keep trying.

Will the same strategies work for every initiative? Of course not. Like I said, public opinion is a moving target. But it’s definitely one worth chasing.

Before joining Capital Metro in August 2010, Watson was chief executive officer, Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, Orlando; general manager, ­Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority; and assistant general manager, Fort Worth Transpor­tation Authority.

For more news about Capital Metro in this issue, see the “Meet the Member” ­profile on Beverly Silas, vice chair.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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