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Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.B - Changing a Meeting Approach
4.B.a - Improving Meeting Attendance
4.B.b - Role Playing
4.B.c - Site Visits
4.B.d - Non-Traditional Meeting Places and Events

4. Introduction
4.A
4.B
4.C
4.D

4.B.c - Site Visits

What are site visits?

Site visits are trips taken by community residents, officials, agencies, and consultants to proposed or actual project areas, corridors, impacted areas, or affected properties. They are also known as field visits or site tours.

Site visits are made in a variety of ways—by bus, train, taxi, private car, or on foot. Some involve long-distance trips by air.

Why are they useful?

Site visits show the physical environment of a proposal. They are used by local people to show engineers, agency personnel, and planners details and conditions they might have missed. Frequently, site visits are the best way to demonstrate a physical fact to either the community or agency personnel.

Site visits give participants a common frame of reference. They see conditions at the same time and under the same circumstances. The Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) organized a bus tour of New Haven’s Q Bridge area so the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) could see the existing bridge, potential new rights-of-way, and sensitive neighboring areas. The tour included agency staff, community people, and consultants.

Site visits help people understand each other’s point-of-view. Residents, officials, and agency staff stand on the street, observe where a proposed project would be, and locate it on a plan. This helps people understand how agency plans translate into reality. Site visits are valuable as a basis for repeated discussions and as details are developed.

Site visits help get people to participate who normally would not be involved or may be uncomfortable working with agencies. The field office personnel for Denver’s light rail transit project conducted walking tours of the corridor for neighborhood residents, many of whom had never been involved in a planning or construction project.

A site visit is a chance for agency staff to better understand a proposal and hear the perspective of others. Engineers and other staff find an informal, risk-free opportunity for communication with the community.

Site visits improve media coverage and accuracy of reporting, on occasions when the media are involved. A reporter who devotes several hours to a site visit is more likely to understand and write clearly about complex, subtle issues and planning details. (See Media Strategies.)

Site visits help gain credibility for the agency by going into the community. They help dispel the notion that agencies do not understand the area or people they will affect. They show that an agency is willing to listen to community concerns.

Do they have special uses?

Site visits help people understand a particular technology. Visits are made on buses, transit lines, roads, or other forms of transportation to illustrate the operations, problems, and advantages of a specific mode. In Denver, the transit agency put a light rail transit vehicle on display to let people see what it was like and walk through it.

Trips to the site are useful to address new questions as they arise. Participants helping to develop the Central Artery North Area project in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood had difficulty understanding the dimensions of a park proposed for the top of the depressed highway. Going to the site on a low-traffic morning, agency staff outlined the proposed new parcel on the ground with lime. With a rooftop view of the outlined space, participants were able to appreciate the new park’s size. The community newspaper carried a feature on the visit to help local people grasp the enormity of the parcel.

Site visits are sometimes tours to locations similar to the proposed site. Cities contemplating new rail systems have sent delegations to cities where such systems already exist. During these visits, meetings were arranged between the delegation and agency officials, community people, and the business community. For Denver’s light rail transit project, community groups visited light rail transit systems in Portland and Vancouver.

Who participates? And how?

Anyone can participate (as long as the site is accessible). Site visits are sometimes targeted to advisory committee representatives, elected officials, neighborhood activists and local residents, environmentalists, or the business community. People from the disability community may have difficulty visiting a site with rough topography. (See People with Disabilities.)

Site visits help local people make a particular point about a proposal, especially if they feel the agency does not understand the point. In Sioux City, Iowa, planning for Vision 2020 planning started with a citywide bus tour for its Task Force to provide an overview of the physical attributes of the city. Task Force members were able as a group to view issues in all parts of the city. Agency staff thought the trip was invaluable as an overview of local concerns.

Information about the site visit is distributed widely to potentially participants. Information is sent out in meeting notices or as fliers. Notices are mailed to active participants in the process and placed in local newspapers or on signs in local stores or activity centers. (See Public Information Materials.)

A special invitation helps draw specific participants. An agency may target certain people because of their concerns or issues. In these instances, a special written invitation or phone call helps. A follow-up letter or notice also helps draw special participants.

Tours can be organized. For Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel, the project offered a series of walking tours. Notices were sent to a variety of organizations, and the public was invited. Bus or train tours may be an appropriate way to include a large group. In special instances, air tours are useful. For people unable to attend, a video tour is a good alternative. Videos are also used in meetings to help participants remember site details. (See Video Techniques.)

Community residents request a site visit so they can point out specific issues and make sure the agency understands their concerns. A community coalition asked the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, the transit authority’s General Manager, and project planners to tour a corridor being studied for transit improvements.

How do agencies use site visits?

Site visits are useful to show how a facility or plan would operate or fit into its surroundings. In preparation for a major investment study, the Maryland Transit Authority used tours to show how its existing light rail line operates. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) took neighborhood associations on site visits to show that proposed technologies and operations were being used elsewhere. Inviting media representatives on site visits results in better-informed reporting and editorializing. (See Media Strategies.)

Agencies use site visits to better understand the physical environment, make better-informed decisions, and clarify conflicting positions on particular physical points, such as sources of background noise levels or distances between buildings and proposed tracks.

Who leads site visits?

A site visit must be led by experienced, knowledgeable staff who know the area and the issues. The staff must communicate the issues in a non-judgmental and open-minded way, so that participants feel the trip is a worthwhile learning experience.

A community representative can lead a site visit. The leader should not be biased or present only one side of the story. Since other community groups have different perspectives, such bias could be divisive.

A high agency official or an elected official may lead a site visit, particularly for high-profile, controversial projects. Community members may feel that top officials are the most appropriate leaders for such projects.

What are the costs?

Costs vary. Transportation costs are high for long-distance visits requiring extensive arrangements. Costs were a significant factor when community representatives from Burlington, Vermont, along with agency staff, considered traveling by air to see the Portland, Oregon, light rail installation.

The costs of staff time vary. Staff time costs relatively little for local site visits but could involve several days for more distant trips.

Agencies can provide food, especially if the visit is lengthy or if extended discussion is planned. Light snacks and beverages convey an informal message and encourage people to stay and ask questions. In Dallas, DART always feeds participants during site visits.

Site visits can be photographed or taped. A camera records information such as how close a building is to the street. Photos or videos of the gathering are informative for other people, the staff, or the media. A video camera helps record the details raised by local people, as well as interchanges between community members and agency personnel.

How are site visits organized?

Agency staff contacts community group leaders to see if there is interest in a site visit. If there is, staff should ask for names of potential invitees and compile an invitation list. If the list is short, the agency can ask invitees if they feel comfortable opening the visit to a wider audience by listing it in local newspapers, posting notices in public places, or sending a notice to an entire mailing list.

Community people can ask an agency to conduct a site visit. Agency staff inquires about the goals of the visit, the agency personnel who should be present, and others who should attend. It is important to work together in setting an appropriate date, time, and other logistics to demonstrate cooperation and assure participation.

Site visits are held at convenient times, such as evenings or weekends. These times should be selected in conjunction with the community. They should also be selected so that site conditions are not obscured by equipment or bad lighting. It is preferable to hold a site visit during the time the site is most active or when the site represents a condition that people are concerned about.

A meeting can be added to a site visit if the logistics are feasible. It is helpful to discuss what people saw while impressions are fresh. A formal meeting on-site requires distinctive planning. Details such as chairs, lights, and weather must be considered. If an agency wants an on-site meeting, it should get agreement from the community.

The agency supplies transportation, if required. It is important that the vehicle be comfortable. People should be able to hear the leader or any discussions clearly.

Descriptive materials are provided before the visit, including a summary of the proposal, the purpose of the visit, specific characteristics to look for, etc. Maps and materials may be needed to explain major elements of the proposal. In Dallas, DART shows a site video beforehand and provides written materials in advance.

Generally, participants gather in one location and leave together for the site. Occasionally, participants gather at the site itself. A definite arrival time is set, since an opening explanation is crucial and helps the group work together; the informality of learning together helps break down factions within the group.

The organizer of the visit may lead it. It can be conducted as a walk or drive around the site. The visit should be narrated, so that participants are aware of where the proposal affects the land. Time should be allowed for discussion of each area and for a question-and-answer period as the group goes along and at the end of the site visit.

Viewpoints from all participants are heard during the visit. The agency makes sure each participant can view and react to the site and the proposal. Direct input is solicited.

Summing-up should be done promptly. Participants may gather and discuss what they experienced. A written record should be prepared, including a list of participants, items to investigate further, and areas in which there was agreement and disagreement.

How are they used with other techniques?

CACs are good candidates for site visits. CAC members can be selected from visit participants. (See Civic Advisory Committees.) The San Francisco Citizens’ Planning Committee took site visits to joint developments in other communities. During the Hudson waterfront transit alternatives analysis in New Jersey, CAC members toured potential air quality monitoring sites.

A site visit can be a first step in another technique such as a charrette. (See Charrettes.) Computer simulations are more accurate and credible if site visits are incorporated. (See Computer Presentations and Simulations.)

Site visits with media involved are important parts of media strategies. Newsletter articles highlighting site visits and incorporating photos and diagrams demonstrate agency efforts in public involvement by reporting the trip to many people. (See Media Strategies; Public Information Materials.)

What are the drawbacks?

Organizing a visit and getting appropriate people there is a challenge. Coordinating schedules, weather, and transportation requires considerable effort and staff time.

Site visits may need to be repeated several times for a large project. Despite careful planning, they may fall flat due to weather or other conditions over which the staff has no control. A trip to a proposed site may cause later problems in recollection if viewed on a day when weather is an aberration or if part of the site is inaccessible.

A site visit fails if staff cannot answer questions or are poorly prepared. The community may feel its time is wasted if it seems the agency is not listening or is defensive.

The costs of a visit to a distant location are often prohibitive. Airplane, train, or bus group travel to other cities may be beyond an agency’s budget.

For further information:

Bay Area Rapid Transit District, San Francisco, California (510) 464-6172
Burlington, Vermont (801) 658-3004
Central Artery North Area Project, Massachusetts Highway Department (617) 973-7000
Connecticut DOT, Newington, Connecticut (860) 594-2000
Dallas Area Regional Transit, Dallas, Texas (214) 749-2581
Denver Regional Transit District, Denver, Colorado (303) 299-2401
Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Committee, Sioux City, Iowa (712) 279-6344

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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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