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Public Involvement Techniques

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Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

3. Getting Feedback from Participants skip page navigation

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3.A - Establishing Places People Can Find Information and Interact
3.A.a - Project Websites
3.A.b - Hotlines
3.A.c - Drop-in Centers

3. Introduction
3.A
3.B
3.C

3.A.c - Drop-In Centers

What is a drop-in center?

A drop-in center is a place for give-and-take exchange of transportation information within a neighborhood or community. An easy-to-find location on home turf makes it convenient and easy for people to get information on a program or plan and to express their concerns and issues. A drop-in center offers informal, continuing contact with the community. It can have other names: field office, site office, or clearinghouse.

A drop-in center has the following characteristics:

  • It is visible to the community—an office, storefront, or trailer in any visible, accessible, and convenient location within a project area or corridor.
  • It can be mobile, using a van or trailer, to maximize contact with various stakeholders.
  • It is open during specific, regular hours, not just occasionally or sporadically.
  • It is usually in existence for a designated period of time, such as during the planning or construction phase of a project.
  • It is usually staffed by planning, project, and/or liaison personnel knowledgeable about the area and the issues.

Why is it useful?

A drop-in center provides easy, convenient access to information for people who might not otherwise participate in a planning process, particularly if doing so requires a long trip to an unfamiliar location. Informal, day-to-day contact between agency representatives and members of a community is easier and more likely if a drop-in center is established in a highly-visible area. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) rented storefronts in shopping malls and maintained them from pre-scoping periods through construction of rapid transit lines.

An agency makes a visible commitment to communication to and from the community by going to the trouble and expense of establishing a drop-in center. Establishing a drop-in center may help convince the community that an agency wants to involve people in planning or project development. Sioux City, Iowa, set up a drop-in center in a downtown storefront and two malls for two weeks during its Vision 2020 planning process. The “design workshops” made it easy for people to talk to planners and designers about physical issues in the city and contribute ideas for change.

Staff gets first-hand knowledge of the community’s needs and concerns. In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) established a drop-in center in Dudley Square—a transit node/shopping district—for a study of ways to improve transit services to that community and others. Planners and engineers were able to see and experience the concerns of residents and transit users and have regular, close contact with area residents and businesses.

A drop-in center provides low-risk access for community residents to get answers and make comments about a process and project. Many people are not comfortable asking questions at public meetings, and some do not want to make statements of support or rejection in front of their peers. (See Public Meetings/Hearings.) A drop-in center offers a low-key, easy way to ask questions or make comments.

Does it have special uses?

A drop-in center is often used during high-visibility, controversial projects with major impacts. In Colorado, the Department of Transportation (DOT) opened a drop-in center as part of a controversial highway project on State Highway 82. Input from it led to significant revisions over the three years of planning and environmental work.

A drop-in center provides continuity and historical reference in long-term, comprehensive projects. Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project set up drop-in centers in three neighborhoods affected by the project. Established during planning and design, these offices will remain open through the ten years of construction.

Drop-in centers help when an agency is based far from a project site. A drop-in center is a cost-effective way to learn about a community and its concerns. It also gives the community better access to the agency. District offices that reach out and interact with community residents are good examples of permanent drop-in centers. The Arizona DOT set up a Tucson District Office as a drop-in center for the Department as a whole—thus enabling it to reach local constituents, monitor consultants, and improve its ability to communicate with local residents and businesses.

A drop-in center in a seasonal community helps get stakeholders involved. Tourists and other seasonal people often need more incentive and assistance to get involved.

A drop-in center is used to break down barriers between agencies and communities. A drop-in center in a neighborhood that is racially, ethnically, or economically different from an agency’s home base helps show that the agency is serious about addressing community concerns. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.) In Denver, Colorado, the Regional Transit District (RTD) established a drop-in center in a low-income community through which a light rail line was being built. By being involved with the community and walking along the corridor regularly, the RTD staff was able to answer questions and reduce anxiety about the construction.

Who participates? And how?

Any member of a community, particularly residents and businesses, can use a drop-in center. An office located, for instance, on the first floor in an area with heavy foot traffic draws passers-by off the street.

Neighborhood groups, other agencies, and consultants benefit if the office is well-situated and well-supplied with materials and equipment. Sharing space for public purposes is cost-effective. A transit project drop-in center in San Francisco was shared with a community policing effort. The two groups provided visitors for each other, and the community policing unit provided security for the drop-in center.

People stop by for information. A sign or display in the window encourages people to walk in and give or get information. An all-day public forum in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the U.S. 67/167 major investment study featured information booths and exhibits in a storefront drop-in center. Although not permanent, the storefront location was well-publicized and highly visible.

Meetings are held at the drop-in center. Community groups can use it for their own meetings. This draws people to the center and introduces them to its resources. It also brings other agency representatives, elected officials, and interest groups into the neighborhood to help them understand its people and their issues. The MBTA’s site office in Dudley Square was used for weekly Friday morning community/agency meetings for the duration of Phase I of the Replacement/ Transit Improvement Study.

People use a drop-in center as a library/resource center to review documents and plans and to get information. A drop-in center should be well-stocked with information pieces to give away, plans to review, documents to read and photocopy, and other materials explaining aspects of the project or process.

How do agencies use it?

A drop-in center gives agencies opportunities for broader outreach and communication. With more frequent contact with the community through a drop-in center, an agency is in a better position to listen, address concerns, and counter misinformation. The Portland, Oregon, Tri-Met used a rehabilitated city bus in its planning for systemwide fare changes. The bus was driven to schools, business areas, and grocery stores, staying as long as a week in each location. Trained fare collectors ran the “Bus School,” explaining the new fare information to the 150,000 people who used it. A video about the fare changes was also available.

Agencies use drop-in centers to communicate one-on-one with people. Specific abutter concerns or particular issues raised by interest groups are often easier to respond to face-to-face rather than at a public meeting.

Who leads?

Staffing patterns vary with the nature of a project. Some drop-in centers are staffed by three or four people, while others have just one. To a large extent, staffing depends on the project’s scale or the degree of controversy it engenders. It also varies with the level of participants’ use.

Drop-in center staff members must be knowledgeable about the area and about technical issues and programs. They must be good listeners and be aware of and involved in community concerns. Drop-in centers set up by San Francisco’s BART are generally staffed by one person from Community Services. Several times a week throughout a planning process, personnel from the design, engineering, and other technical sections staff the office to learn about the community’s concerns first-hand.

The staff must communicate concerns, questions, and sentiments of the community to other project personnel. Staff members must be good communicators for liaison between the community and project officials. They should also be friendly and personable, not confrontational or defensive. Sometimes, drop-in centers are staffed by community members who provide local knowledge, input, and contacts. In Colorado, the staff in a drop-in center for the State Highway 82 Corridor Study included a municipal planner/liaison who assisted the DOT staff engineer.

A drop-in center can be staffed by an existing neighborhood agency familiar with the issues. If possible, that agency should be involved in transportation and able to answer questions about a proposal or direct people to a knowledgeable person.

A drop-in center can function primarily as exhibit space with no staff on hand other than a security guard or caretaker to protect the displays. However, most drop-in centers are professionally staffed, because interaction between staff and visitors is key to a successful planning process.

What are the costs?

The cost to establish and maintain a drop-in center can be high. Assembling an office staff, renting space, installing a telephone, and supplying office equipment can be expensive, especially if the office is in existence for a long time. Creating an inviting, friendly atmosphere and maintaining a comfortable environment can also be expensive. Costs are partially allayed when unpaid public involvement volunteers help staff a center. (See Speakers’ Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers.)

A mobile drop-in center such as a trailer is somewhat cheaper. A mobile center can be moved to different sites to reach more people. It can also be used on more than one project, if necessary. The Arkansas DOT has used trailers as drop-in centers for the past decade. During the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Planning Organization’s visioning process, a “vision van” visited numerous neighborhoods, gathering and giving information. For minority areas (Spanish ethnic, African-American poor, elderly poor, and ethnically-mixed areas), the van was customized with visual, easy-to-read signs and displays.

Large quantities of handout materials may be necessary. The potentially high volume of visitors to a drop-in center requires multiple copies of many documents. Encouraging interest in a project leads to requests for more detail or different types of information.

How are drop-in centers organized?

A drop-in center can be established at the beginning of a planning process when an agency needs to build relationships with the community. It is also used when interest in a process is at a peak. Peak interest may be generated as a project advances or media coverage increases. It can also arise in response to an issue or problem related to construction.

A drop-in center can follow up through design and construction phases of a project. A long-term center provides continuous contact with project personnel after a planning phase. For a $300 million highway project affecting Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, a drop-in center set up during the planning phase continued through construction. The center linked a highly-interactive planning and design process with the construction phase.

The drop-in center must be easy to find and visible from the street. Storefronts with first-floor access are ideal. A drop-in center must be an inviting and active place that welcomes the community. It must have adequate space for exhibits, reading tables, and a small project library. It should have room and chairs for small-group meetings.

A drop-in center must have convenient hours. It should not confine its hours to between 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., for most people are not able to visit during those hours. Opening on weekends and evenings maximizes opportunities for community visits. Shorter weekday accessibility combined with some Saturday time keeps hours to 40 or under per week. The MBTA maintained a 40-hour-per-week drop-in center in Roxbury’s Dudley Square during design and construction of a new transit station. The center was open during business hours, but because the area—a major shopping node adjacent to a large public housing development—is very busy all day long, many people visited. The center was used frequently for night meetings as well.

The agency, its consultant, or members of the community can staff a drop-in center, in any combination. A professional staff person should be present at all times. Community people may want to play a role in the center and could be remunerated for their time, if resources permit. A disinterested caretaker can be employed for emergencies only and instructed carefully on how to greet visitors.

Preparation for opening day is essential. The community should have 15–30 days’ notice before a drop-in center is opened. The existence of a center must be publicized in many community publications and with signs in the windows. The office telephone must be operable, and its phone number must be publicized and accessible. A sufficient supply of materials (charts, maps, handouts, brochures, fact sheets) must be ready for the opening. On opening day the drop-in center can have a sign that is attractive and visible from a distance. Finally, opening day might include a special event to publicize the office and kick off the public involvement effort. (See Non-traditional Meeting Places and Events.)

How are they used with other techniques?

A drop-in center can become a locus of activities for public involvement. It is an ideal place for meetings and charrettes. (See Charrettes.) The center can host a hotline or other telephone techniques, such as voice mail for comments, fax-on-demand, and a menu system for project information. (See On-line Services.) Citizen training and coordinator-catalyst activities can be organized through a drop-in center. It often serves as a community planning center, clearinghouse, and location for open houses. (See Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses.) Teleconferencing centers can be set up at drop-in centers to allow people to communicate not only with the office staff but also with agency personnel in the main office. (See Teleconferencing.)

A drop-in center is a source for information pieces. Information is distributed via brochures, flyers, or posters, and displayed on computer terminals or interactive kiosks. (See Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks.) Information is augmented and detailed by staff. Public information materials include the address and telephone number of the drop-in center, so that people can call or stop by for additional information. (See Public Information Materials.)

What are the drawbacks?

Rental costs can be high. Renting a storefront is costly in a central, easily accessible area. Because a downtown, visible location in Basalt, Colorado, was so expensive, the Colorado DOT set up a drop-in center for the State Highway 82 Corridor Study in a suburban office park on the highway. An agency may be able to obtain donated space in the community.

A drop-in center requires a commitment to keep it open for a specified time period or as needed. This commitment includes staffing and running the office carefully to make it successful.

Staffing needs can be daunting. One or two full-time people may be needed over a significant period of time. The cost effectiveness should be explored before an agency makes a commitment to a drop-in center. One way to hold down staffing needs is to make the drop-in center available for fewer hours per week. Another is to utilize public involvement volunteers to help staff the center. (See Speakers’ Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers.)

A drop-in center can be poorly implemented, despite good intentions. An “exhibit”-type drop-in center, with graphic displays and little else, is less flexible and interactive than a staffed office. A lightly staffed, under-maintained office will not help an agency or a project. A community is alienated by an unattractive drop-in center and an uninformed staff. A field office must have updated materials, displays that are understandable to lay people, and an interested staff.

Location sometimes becomes an issue. A neighborhood can be angered and feel betrayed by placement of a drop-in center in an adjacent community. Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project avoided controversy by setting up three drop-in centers simultaneously, even though construction would affect the areas at different times.

The agency may want a high degree of control over information distribution at a drop-in center. For a center to be successful, staff needs to be able to give information relatively freely without having to go through channels at the main office. If access to information is restricted or unreasonably slow, credibility suffers and community activity at the center drops off.

Liability issues are a consideration. Maintaining a drop-in center of any type carries with it a responsibility that the office be safe and clean for neighborhood visitors.

Is a drop-in center flexible?

A drop-in center can be set up at any time during the process. However, once established, it should be maintained for the specified time frame and at a consistent level of staffing. Setting up a center is less cost-effective late in a project or planning process.

When is it used most effectively?

A drop-in center is effective in project development. Many State DOTs use drop-in centers at project locations to give information to people and obtain comments and opinions about the project as it is detailed and more fully developed by the agency.

A drop-in center is valuable as an introduction to the planning process. In Boston, the MBTA Replacement/Transit Improvement Study drop-in center was set up at the very beginning of the planning process.

A drop-in center is particularly useful where community residents are underrepresented in transportation planning or project development. In Denver, certain minority and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, unaccustomed to major construction work, were concerned about upcoming light rail construction. The drop-in center helped a committee of local residents monitor construction.

A drop-in center is used during design and construction stages to maintain contact and build trust within a community. Continuity from planning through design and construction phases is an asset to an agency in terms of working closely with a community.

For further information:

Arizona Department of Transportation, Tucson, Arizona (602) 255-7768
Arkansas Department of Transportation (501) 569-2281
Colorado Department of Transportation, Denver, Colorado (303) 757-9266
Denver Regional Transit District, Denver, Colorado (303) 299-2401
Little Rock Metropolitan Planning Organization, Little Rock, Arkansas (501) 372-3300
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Boston, Massachusetts (617) 222-3366
Massachusetts Highway Department, Boston, Massachusetts (617) 973-7000
Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Planning Organization (202) 962-3200

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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle Noch at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls at FTA (202-366-5362).

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