Transportation leadership education can empower community members

US Representative Earl Blumenauer lecturing at PSU in 2007. Blumenauer first called for a traffic and transportation class to be taught in Portland in 1987.

The latest report released by NITC offers a unique tool for communities: a guide to broadening residents’ knowledge about their transportation system and how to effect the changes they want to see.

Community involvement and outreach is an important part of any planning effort, but as planners often find, many times the conversation is a difficult one to carry on. Residents may lack the technical knowledge to understand the intricacies of the system, or they may show skepticism toward the planning process in general.

“Transportation Leadership Education,” a project by Portland State University research associate Nathan McNeil, offers a startup kit for communities to stimulate the development of a more involved, educated citizenry.

“One of the conventions has been that public involvement is based around a specific plan or a specific project. This approach is more proactive; it recognizes the value in having informed citizens... building up the civic infrastructure of people, knowledge and connections,” McNeil said.

For the past 24 years, the City of Portland and Portland State University have teamed up to offer a ten-week transportation education course, free of charge to community members.

The Portland Traffic and Transportation Course, first taught in the fall of 1991, has been taken by around 1,200 Portland residents since that time. Its reputation has grown as a popular and effective tool for people to learn about the way the Portland transportation system works.

McNeil's report describes the course’s history and methods in a detailed case study aimed at helping other cities around the country to create similar courses, either at urban universities like PSU or in other educational settings.

The value of PSU’s participation is twofold, according to McNeil. First, it connects the knowledge and expertise within city agencies to that of PSU professors and researchers. Second, the university provides a neutral setting for information exchange, without the learning process being centered around a potentially divisive issue.

The Portland Traffic and Transportation Course is built around the idea of connecting course participants directly with decision-makers in their community. The course is structured as a series of guest lectures, with top-level transportation officials coming in each week to talk to the students. Currently, guest lecturers in the Portland course include the city commissioner, the director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and directors of Metro and TriMet, among others.

The participation of these high-level officials, McNeil points out, is essential to the success of the class. For anyone interested in developing a community course like this, he advises that the first thing they should do is start building a coalition of support around it. High-level support for the course is essential to convincing the city transportation decision makers to come in and give their time.

Achieving this top-level buy-in may be the most essential step, but it may not be the most difficult. Citizen involvement is often already a goal of many cities, and an educational approach can have far-reaching effects.

“One of the more remarkable outcomes that I observed is how many projects from the class end up actually making a difference in the community,” McNeil said. Out of 68 survey respondents who completed the class project at PSU, 28 of them saw the implementation of the solution they proposed.

The City of Surrey, B.C., emulating the Portland model, began offering a similar transportation course in 2010. To aid other cities interested in beginning the process, McNeil created a curriculum guide.

The “Citizen Transportation Academy: Course Curriculum and Implementation Handbook” is available as a free tool for anyone wishing to initiate this education effort in their own community.

“Each city has very different transportation system issues and problems. If a city were to adopt the class, it would require work to make it appropriate and fit their local situation,” McNeil said. “The handbook is meant to provide the framework and the structure to help them do that.”

McNeil gave a free webinar about this project on November 17, 2015. To watch that video presentation, click here.

For more information, visit the project page or download the final report.

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