Issues in Transportation Planning #5: The Public and the Media

The relationship that transportation planners have with the public and media is an essential part of the job. But it is a relationship that can be strained by conflict.

It doesn’t matter if a transportation planner works in the public sector or the private sector, in the end taxpayers have to pay.

Researchers, like Zahavi, have found that people spend about an hour a day travelling.  Given how directly people are affected by transportation, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that transportation planners are subjected a lot of public scrutiny. Needless to say, this can lead to conflict.

In my experience, everyone has an opinion about transportation and everyone thinks they are an expert. They may completely misunderstand what a transportation planner does, but since they pay the bills, you need to be diplomatic in your response. The customer is always right.

When I was in graduate school I read an article about public participation. That was 35 years ago, so I don’t have the reference. The article talked about the difficulty that planners had with public input to long range plans. Usually the people who showed up for public meetings would have more immediate concerns and had no real opinion on what should happen 20 or 30 years later.

More generally, when transportation planners meets with the public, people are often not interested in the issue that the transportation planner has been assigned. They may be interested in problems elsewhere, sometimes not even transportation related. I had a character in The Gladstone Barrier who was interested in sewers, but who glommed onto the transportation engineer to solve his problem.

I heard a story about a transportation planner who had a project where he expected several of the options to be highly controversial and get the public angry. While he was supposed to do all his evaluation under public scrutiny, he wanted to do preliminary analysis of these options before he went public. He thought that if he could eliminate the controversial options for technical reasons before he went public, he could make his life much easier.

The transportation planner’s relationship with the media is another potential source of conflict. I took media training once and I think most of the time the conflict in this relationship can be avoided. People in the media have tight deadlines, so they will be open to a cooperative planner who can make their job easier. That isn’t always the case. Good stories need some conflict, so media people look for the conflict in a situation. Some may even try to create conflict.

I must admit that I am tempted to make the public and media into the villains in a story. After all, that is often the way it feels to a transportation planner. I suspect that people in the public and in the media often see transportation planners as the villains. However, I believe that a more nuanced relationship where both sides show good and bad traits would make for a better story.


This post is a part of a series. The other posts are:

Issues in Transportation Planning #1: What I Want to Say

Issues in Transportation Planning #2: The Limitations of Models

Issues in Transportation Planning #3: Political Interference

Issues in Transportation Planning #4: It’s All Bad News

Issues in Transportation Planning #6: The Stick and The Map

I have several other posts that are closely related:

Transportation Planning Movies and Stories

Transportation Infrastructure as Status Symbol

Transportation Planning Humour

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