The importance of early community involvement in transport project design

Placing the customer at the centre of everything is the stated mantra of Transport for NSW. Think like a passenger is the strapline of an international transport operator here in Australia. Are these just catchy straplines for media releases or are we seeing a genuine culture shift away from transport solutions that are primarily designed around engineering requirements, to an environment where the customer and community views are genuinely heeded?

There are still a few organisations out there that regard stakeholder engagement and feedback as a "tick box" exercise that has to be completed, but in our work, I am increasingly coming across clients that are front-loading their engagement effort to devise their solutions.

Traditionally, an infrastructure contractor would outline a program of works for a project and we as community engagement experts would have a chance to comment and advise the client on issues of concern. We would basically tweak a few activities here and there. A few weeks ago, however, I was struck by the emphasis that a major client placed upon stakeholder engagement for a forthcoming project in Western Sydney. This client was at pains to point out that the program of works is currently a blank page and that the advice given through the stakeholder and community plan will shape the nature and method of their construction delivery program.  

Last year we worked with a major public transport operator that was looking to overhaul the route network and timetable of a public transport network they had acquired. We worked with the operator to convene citizen’s juries and community leader’s panels where the operator could brief groups about their tentative plans and reshape them based on  feedback from the group. The operator was able to implement their plans in the confidence that they had been tested with a representative sample of the local community.

Early consultation is becoming a feature in certain international markets. For example, the High Speed 2 (HS2) strategic adviser commented this week that early engagement is key and that consultation only works when we build a project that reflects community feedback. Even opponents of projects can acquiesce if you can present them with evidence (i.e. community feedback) that supports your solution. I was amazed to learn that HS2 currently employs more media staff than engineers, which probably highlights where their emphasis is being placed.  This attitude to community engagement in the UK bodes well for us at KJA as we look to move into that market later this year.

So is there a change in culture around transport projects? How big, how fast, how much, will always still be important. However, the "human factor", i.e. the customer view, does seem to be becoming an increasingly important pillar in shaping major transport project planning. We at KJA already operate in this space and because of this emerging change in culture, I think our role in the future will increasingly change from responding to the community concerns about the project to shaping the project through community feedback.