Videos and other virtual public involvement techniques are effective ways to draw people into transportation planning and project development processes. Using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to capture video footage enhances agency efforts to tell compelling visual stories and garner public support for infrastructure improvements.
The Washington State Department of Transportation’s Visual Engineering Resource Group (VERG), which helps the agency communicate about infrastructure projects through visual media, uses aerial video in many of its products. WSDOT credits UAS with reducing lead time and cost on video production.
“UAS are the way to go for aerial visual acquisition,” said Kurt Stiles, VERG manager. The price of a UAS system can be similar to the cost of a few hours of helicopter rental, and the UAS provides years of service. VERG uses UAS to recreate cinematic shots and effects in its visual storytelling of a project.
To support public involvement for one of the most complex projects in WSDOT’s history, VERG used drones to capture footage of key stages of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. The project included replacing the viaduct, an elevated section of State Route 99 in Seattle, with a 2-mile-long tunnel under the city, removing a seismically vulnerable structure from the road network and clearing the way for new public space on the downtown waterfront.
The agency used UAS footage to provide updates through web links, public meetings, and social media, including its online video channel. One video, “View from a drone inside the SR 99 tunnel,” takes viewers on a 4-minute tour of the tunnel under construction, showing where a tunnel-boring machine installed the curved concrete segments that make up the tunnel walls and crews built the double-deck road inside the circle. The video of the tunnel, which opened to traffic in 2019, received nearly 250,000 online views.
From planning and communication to design and construction, VERG products such as videos are vital to project success, said Stiles. “With virtual public involvement and conducting your visual communication effort virtually, you will win,” said Stiles. “You will find a lot more yeses. You will gain a lot more consent. At the end of the day, if you’re saving time, you’re saving money, and our infrastructure and our public deserve it.”
The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) used an informational video, captured in part by UAS, to educate the public and gain buy-in on its plan to use roundabout intersection designs to enhance safety and reduce congestion. NCDOT reports that the video was critical in helping the public become comfortable with the design concept and changing the minds of some who did not like the idea of using roundabouts. The bird’s-eye perspective of the drone footage helped those unfamiliar with roundabouts understand how they work and demonstrated the safety benefit offered by keeping traffic flowing.
“Watching a short video is easier than reading through a plan or report,” said Jamille Robbins, NCDOT’s public involvement and community studies group leader. “The greater utility of these types of videos is that they can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—far beyond the timeframe of a traditional public meeting.”
Virtual public involvement and UAS also came together on a project where a roundabout was proposed in the city of Bingen, WA. The Bingen Point Access project, now in the design phase, will construct intersection improvements along SR 14 to enhance safety and mobility in an area of planned economic expansion. WSDOT’s VERG combined aerial video with three-dimensional modeling to create a combined view of what the completed project would look like. This visualization helped explain the project to stakeholders, including local government officials and businesses, which helped generate support for the project while avoiding potential delays.