By Chris McCahill
Transportation agencies at all levels are rethinking how they engage with the public and using feedback to make more meaningful investments. Public perception can be skewed, however, especially when certain groups are excluded from the conversation. Two new studies highlight some of ways perceptions can vary and potentially lead decision-makers astray.
One recent study of six small towns in Central Texas compared locations that were considered “high-risk” by survey respondents to actual crash data. Overall, only around half of the locations that were perceived as risky matched locations with a high observed crash risk. Respondents making more than $100,000 matched around 38% of locations, while respondents with lower incomes matched around 60%. Those with less income were more likely to capture the full range of safety concerns. Additionally, those without a driver’s license matched 70% of the high-risk locations. The authors attribute this to their being more sensitive to real traffic risks.
Another study looked at satisfaction among nearly 20,000 transit riders in nine cities across the U.S. Again, high-income respondents—those making more than $75,000—were generally much more satisfied with transit service. This is logical, according to the researchers, “given that high-income riders are likely to have more travel options and would not take transit if they were not satisfied.” Those riders were mostly concerned with reliability, customer service, and comfort.
Riders with lower incomes, however, were much more interested in travel times. So were those who identify as women. Interestingly, male respondents seem more interested in safety concerns, to which the authors note: “it is possible that there are women who are so deeply concerned about their safety that they do not take transit at all,” and therefore would not have been included in the survey. There were some differences among races, but those patterns were less consistent.
Neither study included any findings related to physical or cognitive ability, which are also extremely important to consider. But the important takeaway stands: relying on one or two demographic groups, especially those who are often the most likely to engage in the public process, can lead agencies to miss important issues and prioritize the wrong things. It takes a concerted effort to bring to the table those who are the most reliant on or the most negatively impacted by our transportation systems, and therefore have important insights to shape policy.