Public outreach and gathering input from the community has long been a value for planners. But collaboration and feedback from multiple stakeholders within and across agencies have never been more important. Transportation departments are increasingly tasked with tackling citywide goals of improving the community’s safety, sustainability, and equity outcomes. With such lofty goals, transportation planning becomes inherently interdisciplinary, making a planner’s role dependent on widespread and timely collaboration.
The interdisciplinary nature of transportation planning is evidenced in the planning processes, which have been refined over the years. Every planner, for example, is familiar with a “design charrette”, a type of participatory planning process that assembles an interdisciplinary team -- often a team of engineers, housing experts, construction managers, parks and recreation officials, etc. -- to create a design and implementation plan for cross-cutting projects. Such planning activities are so essential to the role that when we visualize the planner, many of us see her pointing at a large plotted printout of a plan laid out on a table, while she guides her team through a tactical collaborative activity. In fact, “planners pointing” is such an old meme, that it was a meme before memes existed. Of course, now due to COVID, design charrettes and other similar collaborative exercises are in limbo.
Formal design charrette aside, in the pre-COVID world, planners could often get the face-to-face input and discussion they needed through casual chats or walking up to a colleague’s desk. Now, input and feedback have moved online, scattered across different tools, like email, text, office messaging programs, just to name a few. Keeping track of it all is difficult.
COVID has accelerated the need to have a better collaborative process online.
Back in April, shortly after many states enacted shelter-in-place orders, Remix hosted a webinar titled, “Virtual Planning and Collaboration: the Good, the Bad, the Weird”, and over 200 planners across time zones tuned in. Many wrote in to tell us that they were most interested in learning about “tools that help them stay connected to their stakeholders” or learning how “city teams organize and continue transit and transportation planning projects while working remotely”, and in general “how to collaborate in the new normal.” People were still trying to find a process that worked for them.
Since then, we’ve seen a huge shift. Local governments have opened up and fully adapted to new forums of collaboration that were not typically used at agencies prior to the COVID crisis. We’ve seen more agencies implement Microsoft Teams across departments, or agencies become expert Slack users - tools that, prior to the pandemic, were mainly affiliated with private organizations, particularly tech companies. But now those tools are making inroads in all sectors where real-time collaboration and problem solving are key. For example, after Transpo Talk (a free, private Slack community for public sector transportation professionals) launched back in May 2020, we’ve seen membership grow from a smattering of transportation professionals to over 625 members in less than 6 months.
The shift is exciting to see, and will be a lasting trend. In fact, even before COVID, there was a strong desire for more web-based collaborative tools with our customer base, as evidenced by research conducted earlier this year.
Early in 2020, before the pandemic, I put together a cross functional team of two technologists and two urban planners to conduct research to inform the direction of software development.
The team interviewed 34 individuals across 18 organizations in two stages of research:
It’s the communication among different players who are involved in the project that is the most frustrating, and I hope that there’s something out there that can make this easier for higher level planning. Email communication is redundant and doesn’t always get the point across. - Research Participant
Of the transportation planners surveyed, at least 31 answered that “Collaborative Mapping” would “solve a significant problem for me” or that they would “advocate strongly to have Collaborative Mapping at their agency.” Though the adoption of virtual collaboration tools grew quickly during the pandemic, the research showed that this was a clear need in the industry even before COVID.
Our research pointed to something we’ve suspected for a long time: as cities increasingly turn to transportation projects to advance citywide goals, improving the collaborative environment for transportation decision-making is a must. We also believe that the collaborative environment must be cloud-based, easy to use for people of all backgrounds, and most importantly, map-based.
That’s why we are thrilled to soon announce new updates that focus on the collaborative aspects of the Remix platform. Want to get a sneak peek of them? Reach out at remix.com/demo and we’ll show you.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Via and Remix organized the Women in TransitTech Summit 2021, featuring an all-female panel of transportation technology innovators. They share their key insights here.