Public Involvement Techniques
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
- 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 communitys 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. Bostons 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 agencys
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
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 MBTAs 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.
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 projects
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 Franciscos 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 communitys
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
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 Organizations
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 Bostons 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
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 Roxburys 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
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 1530 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.
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
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. Bostons 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
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
|Arkansas Department of Transportation
|Colorado Department of Transportation, Denver, Colorado
|Denver Regional Transit District, Denver, Colorado
|Little Rock Metropolitan Planning Organization, Little Rock,
|Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Boston, Massachusetts
|Massachusetts Highway Department, Boston, Massachusetts
|Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Planning Organization
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).