Governments tap public input

Technology is providing public officials with new ways to solicit public input for transportation and development plans.

Internet surveys, Web-based policy simulations and audience response systems are tools that regional planners can use to gain greater public participation, according to panelists at a session of the Transportation Research Board's annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Relying on public meetings usually does not generate enough turnout to gauge community opinion accurately. "The problem isn't with the citizens but with typical meeting formats," said Lisa Beever, a researcher with the Charlotte County-Punta Gorda Metropolitan Planning Organization in Florida. "Why would an average citizen come to a tedious public meeting where they have limited opportunity to participate?"

To help that, planner Tom Phillips created TownMeetingDirect.com. The Seattle-based company uses visual surveys over the Internet to help communities develop more accurate readings of public preferences.

The customized questionnaires show pictures of various types of street improvements, housing, open space and mass transit. "Before" and "after" slides help people see the impact of their choices.

Denton, Texas, used TownMeetingDirect.com to develop zoning regulations. About 1 percent of the city's 80,000 residents took the survey on the city's Web site. To maximize participation, the city heavily promoted the survey and offered weekly prizes, the most popular of which was a free year of garbage pickup.

Las Vegas, Nev., and Hillsborough, N.J., also used Phillips' system, which incorporates product research methodology, to help develop comprehensive plans and main street plans.

Phillips said his approach does not ensure a representative sample, but said it is a way to "reach beyond the vocal minority."

"It's more like an election than it is a random survey," he said.

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