Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

by Jan 19, 2021Mobility

Ray Atkinson, Transportation Systems Analyst, Clackamas Community College

Ray Atkinson is the Transportation Systems Analyst at Clackamas Community College, which has three suburban campuses south of Portland, OR. He manages existing, planned, and proposed transportation demand management (TDM) programs for all three campuses. He has a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree with a Transportation Specialization from Portland State University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. You can read more of Ray's writing on his Transportation Blog.


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I am concerned about how many planning processes during COVID-19 have depended solely on Zoom meetings to conduct public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.

Thankfully, I started thinking creatively about how I could conduct on-the-ground public engagement after I calmed down. Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I have attended webinars and read articles about how to more effectively conduct virtual public engagement, I believe it is impossible to use Zoom to engage people who do not own a computer or have internet access.

Oregon has a huge digital divide, especially between urban and rural areas. COVID-19 has exacerbated this digital divide because people likely accessed a computer and internet access before COVID-19 at the public library. Due to computer labs in the public library being closed during COVID-19, I doubt these people can access a computer or internet access anywhere else. Yes, Clackamas County has created free public hot spots but people still need to have computer access to participate in Zoom meetings. As this video shows, CCC has been providing students with Chromebooks so they can access their online classes.

While providing students with Chromebooks is great for accessing online classes, Clackamas County’s shuttle projects are in specific geographic areas near all three of CCC’s suburban campuses. These campuses are located south of Portland in Oregon City, Milwaukie, and Wilsonville. Three of the shuttle projects are being planned to solve first- and last-mile transportation issues. The remaining shuttle is being planned as a commuter shuttle.

I want to return to why it is important to remember that the shuttle projects are in specific geographic areas. I would need to make sure all students in these areas have reliable computer and internet access. Since I believe this approach is not feasible for conducting public outreach, I am preparing to conduct on-the-ground public engagement. I hope fellow planners use the below case study to conduct on-the-ground public engagement in their historically marginalized communities during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Case Study: Philadelphia’s On-The-Ground Public Engagement

It was easier to find this case study because I actually worked on launching Philadelphia’s bikeshare system when I was a Transportation Planning Intern at Toole Design Group in 2014. While I did not work on public engagement for this project because I was hired to work on GIS analysis, I was aware of Philadelphia’s public engagement process. As the below photo from this article shows, Philadelphia used sidewalk decals and an embedded texting survey to engage the public about where to install 85 bikeshare stations. I plan to use similar sidewalk decals and an embedded texting survey to engage the public about where to route and add stops for new shuttles in Clackamas County. Since I believe Zoom and other online meeting formats have been overused during COVID, I am excited to try this new on-the-ground tool.

“We’re the first bike-share system in the country to take this approach to public outreach,” said Andrew Stober, chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. “We really wanted to do this in a way that would be much more active in … engaging the public.”

“We really can bridge these income, age, and ethnic divides in a way that public meetings don’t currently do and even online participation struggles with,” said Textizen cofounder Michelle Lee, who will be collecting feedback over the next four weeks.

“This is a first for bike-share,” she added. “It’s a really good fit, because … so much of bike-share’s success or failure hinges on placement of stations.”

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer

On-The-Ground Public Engagement for Clackamas County Shuttle Planning

Planning the route and stops for the Milwaukie Industrial Area Shuttle is my top priority because I have until Spring 2021 to decide which route and stops will benefit CCC students the most. Assuming my first attempt at using the sidewalk decals and embedded texting survey is successful, I plan to use a similar approach in Summer 2021 to prioritize stops for the new Oregon City and Clackamas Industrial Area Shuttles, which are launching in early 2021. These shuttles will start service with no designated stops in residential areas, so I am partnering with Clackamas County staff to prioritize where designated stops should be created in residential areas. As the below map shows, many CCC students live in areas with limited or no transit service. The new shuttles will improve transit access for these students.

Since I am the only full-time employee in CCC’s Transportation Office, I applied to host at least one University of Oregon student through the new Student Recovery Corps program in Summer 2021 to help me with the shuttle planning projects. I should find out in January 2021 whether I will be hosting at least one University of Oregon student.

Southern Oregon City currently lacks transit access. Source: CCC and Remix

Since I cannot improve transit access for all CCC students at the same time, I am using an equity lens to prioritize where to improve transit access first. I do not have demographic data for all students (many students decline to provide this data), so Metro’s below map provides me with the most accurate approach to identifying historically marginalized communities in the Portland region. All of my shuttle planning areas have at least one census track with a historically marginalized community, which Metro defines as exceeding regional rates for low-income, people of color or limited English proficiency (LEP), or exceeding regional rates for under 18 and over 65 years of age.

Source: https://www.oregonmetro.gov/sites/default/files/2017/05/25/03a-HMC_20170421_binary.pdf

I look forward to updating you in a future post on my progress to use on-the-ground public engagement for Clackamas County shuttle planning. Hopefully, COVID-19 and the associated restrictions will be over soon so people feel safe enough to ride transit again. I miss doing in-person student engagement and talking with students on the CCC Xpress Shuttle about their transportation needs. I also miss seeing my friends in person, so I hope it is safe enough to visit friends again in 2021. The end to COVID-19 and the associated restrictions cannot come soon enough!

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