Collaborative Mobility: Democratizing Transit for the 21st Century

September 14, 2016

We have entered an era of unprecedented citizen participation in transportation planning. Officials at the USDOT are tearing down the federalist insulation that long separated layman from bureaucrat, encouraging citizens of all skillsets and backgrounds to participate in the design of America’s transportation infrastructure.

This year alone, the USDOT has welcomed tech-savvy Americans into its world by:

  • Co-hosting the “Celebrating Cities – Hack the Last Mile” hackathon with Uber
  • Releasing a highly-detailed open data set on the car collisions that resulted in 35,092 deaths in 2015, and a call to action for private citizens to help by proposing solutions
  • Producing the National Transit Map, an unprecedented geospatial database of almost 200 transit agencies that provides open data about their routes, stops, and schedules

This reaches well beyond techies, especially as USDOT prepares to launch its Every Place Counts Leadership Academy. Geared towards private citizens without experience in the sector, this program is designed to prepare future community leaders to contribute to local transportation decisions.

Attendees will learn how to decode the lingo and alphabet soup that often saturate transportation policy discussions and make planning discussions inaccessible to the layman (e.g. Categorical Exclusion, Transportation Demand Management, EIS, MPO). The Leadership Academy will also provide instruction on how members of every community, particularly those that are historically underrepresented, can participate in the planning process.

In order to convey the benefits of the Leadership Academy to the rest of the general public, attendees will also be among the first to formally review the Transportation Toolkit, which will use simple, accessible language to empower every American to participate in local transportation decision making.

According to USDOT, Transportation Toolkit will be released at the end of the year for community leaders to download and use for hosting their own local Leadership Academies.

Obama’s Administration Citizen Engagement

This is just the tip of the iceberg of USDOT’s ongoing citizen engagement mission, as outlined in its agency-wide Open Government plan in 2014. While this culture of innovative collaboration has thrived, the facets of this project have grown from the original six branches:

  • Expediting Infrastructure Delivery: USDOT focused on streamlining coordination across all levels of government through eNEPA, which was originally developed by the Federal Highway Administration. The platform allows government entities to participate in simultaneous and transparent coordination to ensure compliance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.
  • Data Release and Visualization: Following the lead of the President Obama’s Open Government initiative, USDOT has began in earnest to release open data sets that ensure the maximum amount of citizen participation and collaboration with USDOT. This was particularly evident with the release of NHTSA collision report data and public transportation data in the past month.
  • Fostering Collaboration, Engagement and Transparency:       Following an employee’s suggestion, USDOT now operates IdeaHub, an online community where employees share ideas, vote on innovative concepts, and collaborate on issues affecting the entire department.
  • State Transportation Scorecards: By aggregating multimodal data from each state, the USDOT publishes sustainability and energy scorecards that track greenhouse gas emissions, water usage reduction, and the amount of renewable energy use. In turn, this is used to inform the Department’s annual priorities.
  • Innovative Financing Program Transparency: USDOT pledged to provide greater transparency in innovative financing programs like the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) and Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF). However, it must be noted that the scoring and selection process for competitive TIGER and FASTLANE grants remains far from transparent.
  • Delivering National Action Plan Commitments: Seeking to prevent PR disasters before they start, DOT committed to protecting whistleblowers and advance proactive disclosure policies.

Democratic Planning in Practice

At the local and regional levels, planning discussions are typically wide open to the community through public hearings, the ballot box, and – most recently – interactive websites that allow people to view new projects and share their thoughts.

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, for example, now accommodates citizen input on 4 modes (highway, bicycle, pedestrian, and public transportation/rail) on its website.


And this summer, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) Subway Vision initiative allowed residents to draw their own proposed Muni and BART routes throughout the Bay Area.


This will now be considered in developing the 50 year plan for subways, even though some3 users may have had a little too much fun with it. (See right.)

Collaborative Mobility

Transportation is an inherently personal affair. How one travels from place to place impacts their health, happiness, and even where they can work.

The unprecedented scale and speed of innovation in mobility means that people now have the ability to travel faster, cheaper, and smarter. At the same time, metropolitan areas are welcoming a surge of young urbanites who are abandoning their cars for bikes, shoes, and public transit (all safer options).

It is more important than ever that people are able to engage with government leaders – whether by traditional petitioning or conducting high-tech analyses – in order to influence transportation planning in their communities.

One of the strongest examples is Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis that is struggling to balance its aspirations to dramatically expand public transit offerings with a consciousness of how such activities may exacerbate the impacts of gentrification.

This is why USDOT is hosting the Leadership Academy to teach historically underrepresented citizens how to influence transportation decisions, and why UCLA and UC Berkeley are mapping gentrification data: to encourage government-citizen collaboration – across all skill sets and social standings – that enables democratic and informed mobility decisions.


In most cases, it will be the voters – whether they are engaged by technology or conscious outreach and training by government entities – who decide if they want to fund cities of highways and off-ramps, or bike paths and sidewalks.

And if they disagree with their city, they already know how to vote with their feet.

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