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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

How to Engage Low-Literacy and Limited-English-Proficiency Populations in Transportation Decisionmaking

What are the best ways to contact low-literacy and limited-English-proficiency populations?

An individual who is low literate and/or limited English proficient often needs support services that others with better reading, writing, and comprehension skills in English may not need. Frequently, these services are federally funded; i.e., through USDA's Nutrition Assistance Program (including Food Stamps for groceries) or HUD's Housing Choice Vouchers (commonly known as Section 8 vouchers) for housing. Other times, a person's immigration status requires interaction with government agencies, attorneys, and ministerial associations. New citizens may seek help from ethnic cultural associations, elected officials, and faith-based organizations. Such programs are often identified by word of mouth.

Immigrants often depend on ethnic or mainstream radio and television for information because they may not read or cannot afford "fee for services." Such media and free ethnic newspapers provide excellent ways to give and receive information about a community. Radio and television call-in shows provide opportunities to exchange ideas or information via two-way communication.

Organizations and municipalities often prepare a calendar of events that identify happenings where people gather and project information can be dispersed. Piggybacking on a scheduled event takes advantage of the public already in attendance. Being a part of a civic, social, educational, or sporting event provides an opportunity to interact with people in a situation where they are comfortable and feel safe. It also provides an opportunity to leverage the trust that an organization may have already established with their community. While elected officials and organizational leaders are appropriate places to start getting information about a community, building relationships with community insiders can provide a more day-to-day picture of the community. School principals, bus drivers, and ESL Coordinators are especially helpful.

Watercolored photo of people sitting in a living room setting discussing a project.

Miami-Dade County (FL) MPO staff appeared on local Haitian television to discuss projects.

Students can be conduits to their parents and sources of information about when, where, and what time meetings could be held. They can also serve as beta-testers for surveys, newsletters, presentations, and displays.

Those with limited funds or who are just starting off in a new place often use Laundromats, discount stores like Wal-Mart, and grocery stores that accept Food Stamps and sell ethnic foods. They often depend on faith-based organizations for clothes, kitchenware, and furniture.

Each community has places where its members meet and interact. Often locating congregational places is as simple as driving through the community. Being in the community at various times of the day and night, and on weekdays and weekends is important because activities and varying travel patterns can turn an empty-area-during-the-week into a packed place on a weekend.

Watercolored photo of a woman pushing a shopping cart while receiving project information from a project staff member.

Wal-Mart allowed Tennessee DOT's consultant staff to distribute project information and conduct interviews within a store.

Explore websites, national publications, and local newspapers

Federal websites for programs targeted to low-income populations provide information about where these populations may live and shop. National publications that target minority populations provide information on the location of offices of minority health, radio stations, newspapers, faith-based organizations, cultural groups, and political leaders. These provide information about where and how information can be disseminated and collected, and where meetings might be held. Even the Yellow Pages and local newspapers can provide insight into communities and their representatives.

...Food Stamp program State field-office contacts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service field office website ( identifies each State's main field-office address, and phone and fax numbers. Each State's Officer in Charge administers the agency's Food Stamp program and can provide a list of businesses that accept Food Stamps, by zip code or county, with their address, phone number, type of business, and if they are open 24 hours or not. The Officer in Charge can also identify the period when the Electronic Benefits Transfer takes place in that State. Each State has the authority to designate its own period. During this time period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture electronically transfers benefits to each recipient's Food Stamp credit card, which is the most likely time for recipients to shop.

Watercolored photo of shoppers paying for purchases at a grocery store.

Cashiers at a grocery store in Maysville, NC, placed project newsletters in each grocery bag.

...U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development websites ( and provide information on Public and Indian Housing. The first website, under "Map Your Community," provides thematic maps and detailed tabular information on multi-family complexes that accept Housing Choice Vouchers, on the elderly/disabled, and on the Internal Revenue Service Low-Income Housing Tax-Credit properties. The tabular information provides the property names, addresses, number of units, and number of Section 8 units. The second website provides a list by county, city, and zip code of all subsidized apartments; for example, those accepting Section 8 vouchers. It also provides a name and address for each complex, the complex manager's phone number, and the type of complex (elderly, disabled, or family). Contact the complex manager about posting project information on the bulletin board and holding a meeting in the clubhouse. Using facilities in the complex eliminates the need for personal transportation, and makes it convenient and safe for residents to attend meetings.

...Administration on Aging

The Administration on Aging website ( includes an eldercare locator that provides the name and location of the local agency on aging by State, county, and/or city of organizations. These local agencies can provide more detailed information on their individual websites; information such as, senior-daycare facilities, housing and long-term-care facilities, and senior centers as well as scheduled events that could offer "piggyback" opportunities. Often these centers have their own buses that take their people to meetings.

Watercolored photo of people sitting and standing and talking with each other.

Utah DOT staff visited a senior center to conduct interviews.

Shepherd's Centers, a national network of interfaith community-based organizations provides social services and learning opportunities. Their website ( provides location and contact information.

...targeted national publications

There are several national publications that target selected populations. These include, but are not limited to, the African American Yearbook, the Hispanic Yearbook, and the People of Color Environmental Groups. The African American Yearbook is available in paper form and its data online via "Search the Database" at It provides information about:

The Hispanic Yearbook is available in paper form and its data online via "Search the Database" at It provides information in English and Spanish about:

The People of Color Environmental Groups is available in paper form by ordering on the website ( under "Publications, browse" and "Special Publications" or for download online at It provides information about environmental groups at the State and city level.

...local agencies, organizations, and groups

There are often many local agencies, organizations, and groups that have inroads to all levels of a community. Some of these include:

Contact information for many of these local agencies, organizations, and groups can be found in the following places:

...local and regional newspapers

Reading the local and regional newspapers online provides a convenient and inexpensive way to monitor a project area. Copies of non-online newspapers can be obtained during site visits, and subscriptions can be placed for these newspapers. Through these news sources, a variety of local information can be gleaned about hot topics, local leaders, cultural activities, upcoming sports and special events, shopping locations, letters to the editor, project opinions, and multi-language services at faith-based organizations.

Talk to local officials and community insiders

While most projects begin with visits to formal leaders, such as elected or appointed officials, it is just as important to visit community insiders who have daily contact with the public. Information from these individuals should be verified for accuracy and used discretely to protect residents' privacy.

...elementary school principals

In Jones County, NC, principals at the two elementary schools within the project area said that a high percentage of their students were eligible for the Free and Reduced Price Meal programs and 35 to 40 percent of the students' parents could not read or write. This discovery changed the way information was presented and collected - from sole reliance on written materials to the addition of one-on-one oral interviews.

...English as a Second Language coordinators

Through a Cumming, GA, local school's English as a Second Language Coordinator, the Hispanic population was identified. This primarily Mexican population included many illegal aliens, but this was not an issue with the school staff since a high level of trust had been forged between the parents and the staff. Because members of the Hispanic community could be impacted by a transportation project, the Georgia DOT asked if they could "piggyback" on one of the school's regularly scheduled meetings and address the parents. The Georgia DOT also asked the ESL Coordinator to assist as an interpreter in addition to providing native Spanish speakers familiar with transportation and its language set. The trust between the school staff and the parents was evidenced by the question and answer exchanges. Parents were comfortable saying "I own my trailer. What will happen to me? I am not legal." Reaching these residents and being able to discuss an array of project issues with them was possible because of several factors, including:

Watercolored photo of woman behind desk conversing with another woman seated in front of the desk.

A school principal discussed the number of students eligible for the Free and Reduced Price Meal programs. bus drivers

While driving through a project area in Taylor County, KY, several school buses were sighted. The bus drivers' names and contact information were obtained through the County school system and they were contacted by telephone about the families along their routes. They were able to identify the race, ethnicity, and size of each household. In addition, they knew if the households were multigenerational, the approximate ages of those in the households, if any household members had physical disabilities or had special needs, and how long the residents had lived in their homes. Many of the older bus drivers who were long-term area residents knew family histories and were able to identify where members of the same family lived. This information was helpful in understanding the fabric of the community and the co-dependences that existed between households.

Watercolored photo of woman driving a bus.

A bus driver shared information about those living along her route.

Form alliances with existing organizations Forming alliances with existing organizations eliminates starting from scratch and provides an opportunity to leverage trust that these organizations have already established in their communities. These organizations can be helpful in identifying important individuals, being an intermediary between other organizations, and acting as a cosponsor for the project. In addition, these organizations can help distribute project information through their own membership.

...bus drivers' unions

In Cincinnati, OH, interviewers rode the buses. They talked to riders and completed questionnaires with them while on the buses. Both the bus drivers and their union were involved in the process and allowed "tear-off" sheets with meeting times and places to be hung on the fare box. The bus drivers also assisted by telling their riders about the importance of planned meetings in terms of improving service, and often attended the meetings themselves.

...Native American tribal organizations

In Alaska, the Association of Village Presidents is an important liaison to the State's 287 federally recognized tribes. This group provides an understanding of the culture, knows the best times for meetings, and identifies the importance of oral communications. This group has led public involvement, set up meetings, brought people to the meetings, and provided interpreters where necessary.

A watercolored phot of a group of people in a presentation setting with one person standing in front of them addressing them.

An Inupiat interpreter facilitates a public-involvement meeting for Alaska DOT. and faith-based organizations

Going through health-care organizations and personnel proved to be another successful way of accessing migrant farm workers, as did using faith-based organizations that provided them with housing, clothing, and food. These organizations served as intermediaries, delivering messages between the agency and the farm workers. This was important because the farm workers generally were unable to attend meetings during the day. They did not have "sick" or "vacation" days and could not take time off from work to attend meetings without fear of losing their jobs. This population had a great deal of fear in meeting with any "official" organization that was associated with the Federal or State government. By utilizing faith-based, health-care, and legal-aid workers to assist in meeting with migrant workers, a level of trust was developed. In several instances, the legal-aid workers actually conducted the interviews and reported the results back to the project consultants. In addition, migrant-worker fairs were used to pass out information in Spanish and English to this population. organizations

At California DOT, a variety of community-based organizations were retained to help organize community meetings. Each of these organizations was familiar with their target communities and had connections within the communities that were respected by others. This respect chain opened many doors that might have been difficult to open otherwise. The community-based organizations reviewed all information that would be sent to the communities to determine its effectiveness, and disseminated information in writing and verbally through their community networks.

Watercolored photo of two men sitting in a church pew conversing.

Faith-based organizations often assist in meeting hard-to-reach populations.

Attend scheduled and special events

Being a part of scheduled and special events, and fairs provides an opportunity for exposure to a broader cross-section of the public and a larger number of people. In urban and rural areas, local school sporting events draw large, diverse crowds. In addition swap meets, rummage sales, flea markets, and farmers' markets are effective places to rent space and conduct interviews.

...downtown weekly concerts

The website for the city of Mebane, NC, provided a schedule of their Friday night downtown weekly summer concert series. The City Manager was contacted and gave the project team permission to pass out project information across the street from the bandstand. A table was set up and a map of the alternatives was taped to the side of a building. As citizens walked toward or away from the bandstand, they were given a fact sheet and project newsletter, and asked to provide their names and addresses for the project's mailing list. Local business owners and the general public reviewed the alternatives' map, asked questions, and completed interviews. In addition, a local newspaper reporter stopped by, interviewed the project team, and wrote an article about the project.

...Mid-State fairs

For the California Statewide Transportation Plan, California DOT and AMTRAK formed a partnership. They set up an information booth at the Mid-State Fair in San Luis Obispo and raffled off an AMTRAK round-trip ticket from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. To be eligible for the raffle, the public had to fill out a questionnaire. As a result, 450 people completed the California Statewide Transportation Plan questionnaire. In addition, California DOT took pictures of children wearing a hardhat and orange vest, and gave these to them.

Watercolored photo of people viewing a project map attached to the exterior wall of a building.

A map of the alternatives was taped to a wall near the bandstand before the concert.

...voter polling places

During the week of the 2000 presidential election, the project team was in the field in Maysville, NC. The county Voter Registrar was contacted and identified three polling places in the project area. During the previous election more than 70 percent of those eligible to vote had voted in each of these polling places. At each polling place, a staff member was positioned at a table with chairs, project signs, maps of alternatives, newsletters, and questionnaires. For those completing questionnaires, cookies and soft drinks were provided. In addition, information was also distributed about the dates and time for upcoming meetings. At one of the polling places, members of the National Black Caucus directed voters to visit the project table. More than 80 interviews were conducted that day.

...mud sales

In Pennsylvania, "mud sales" are events that attract farmers and local citizens. This is a colloquial description for auctions that are typically held in the spring during mud season to benefit the local fire companies. The project was assigned a booth right next to a farmer selling horse manure. Project maps were displayed, a little banner was hung, and team members talked to attendees about the project. In addition, project articles were sent to the Amish newspaper and to local organizations that had their own newsletters.

Watercolored photo of two people sitting across a table from one another conducting a interview.

Residents were interviewed outside of the polling places after they voted.

Visit Laundromats, grocery stores that accept Food Stamps, and discount stores. Low-income populations often shop at discount stores and grocery stores that accept Food Stamps, and do their wash at coin-operated Laundromats. Wal-Mart has a history of being community-oriented and has been willing to work with local groups. Non-franchised national chains and independently owned local grocery stores also have a history of being civic minded.


As part of the project's reconnaissance, the only Laundromat in Mebane, NC, was identified. On Saturday morning, team members visited the Laundromat to conduct interviews. Because of the length of the wash and dry cycles, everyone had time to be interviewed. As the day wore on, the customer base began changing from English-speaking Whites to Spanish-speaking Hispanics. This was unexpected since the Census information had not identified any Hispanic population. Having no interpreter present and no translated materials, the team was unable to interview any of the Hispanic customers. However, the English-speaking customers identified several mobile home parks where Hispanics lived and described a growing Hispanic presence.

...Independent Grocery Association stores

A survey of the project area revealed that the Independent Grocery Association store in Maysville, NC, was the only grocery store that accepted Food Stamps. The manager was familiar with his customers' shopping habits, and identified both the days and actual times of the month when Food Stamp recipients generally shopped. He provided a table and chairs, and allowed staff members to display and hand out project information just inside the store's entrance near the produce section. This location insured that almost all of the store's customers would pass by the display table.

Watercolored photo of a woman interviewing another woman at a laundromat.

Residents at a Laundromat were interviewed as they waited for their clothes to wash.

Some customers had children waiting outside in the car or someone at home waiting for a meal and did not have time to complete questionnaires. However, most of them did have the time to answer a few questions. It was possible to determine who had received the project newsletter and whether or not they had heard of the project. Many of the elder shoppers took the time to be interviewed. Staff members were able to hand out information about an upcoming meeting, add names to the mailing list, and schedule times for one-on one interviews. In addition, the store manager agreed to place a project newsletter in every customer's bag. He also asked for a project map and displayed it on the wall outside his office at the store's other entrance.

...major discount stores

Wal-Mart allowed Missouri DOT to place a questionnaire on a kiosk in front of a store. The kiosk received 1,000 hits per week during the 2 months it was in operation. One of the questions asked was how had the person heard about the project. Almost every single person who responded said they had not heard about the project before filling out the questionnaire. Using Wal-Mart's huge drawing power provided an opportunity to introduce a large number of people to the project.

Watercolored photo of a woman interviewing another woman at a grocery store.

Project information was distributed and interviews conducted in a local grocery store that accepted Food Stamps.

Use word of mouth, radio, television, and newspapers

The effectiveness of word of mouth is greatly underestimated. In communities where low literacy and limited English proficiency are common, the trust associated with the carrier of the news is transferred to the news itself. Public-awareness programs and public-service announcements on local mainstream and ethnic radio, television, and cable-access channels are also major news sources

....announcements from the pulpit

Local pastors in Denver, CO, announced from their pulpits that project staff would be visiting the schools, coming through the neighborhoods, and wearing yellow shirts and name badges with "I-70" stamped on them. Special emphasis was placed on recognition of the "I-70" logo because many community residents could not read. The ministers beckoned their congregations to open their doors and complete interviews. reading services for the blind

Radio reading services, while they initially targeted the visually impaired, also serve those who cannot read and are a source of information dissemination. These services can be identified by searching on-line with the key words "reading services for the blind." directories

Public relations companies, such as Gebbie Press (, sell annual State media directories that provide information on print media (all daily, weekly, African American, and Hispanic newspapers) and broadcast media (all radio, TV, African American and Hispanic radio) by format. Also, a variety of online services provide free media directories, including:

Watercolored photo of a cameraman covering a public hearing for a project.

Live coverage of a public hearings generated larger crowds than expected. call-in shows

During a field visit to a Maysville, NC, project area, a staff member was approached by the owner of a local African American radio station and asked if the project manager would participate in a call-in show. The project manager agreed, and the station owner initiated a conference call with the project manager located more than 2 hours away. The call-in show provided an opportunity to reach a focused audience, answer questions, discuss issues, dispel rumors, and provide information about upcoming events.

Watercolored photo of two men and two women sitting around a round table with microphones.

Involve school students

School students can serve as information conduits to their parents who may not be able to read in any language or speak English. In addition, their involvement in a project often spurs their parents' interest to participate and builds community support. art contest for bridge designs

Through the Great American Teach-in event, Florida DOT asked two art classes from a Tampa high school for help in designing the aesthetics for a new roadway and bridge so it would reflect their community. The students provided 40 out-of-the-box ideas and the project engineer selected the top eight ideas based on concept. The Florida DOT's local district landscape architect and structural engineer then selected the four top designs based on the constructability and maintainability. The four student designers met with the Mayor of Tampa, who awarded a $100 gift certificate to the grand-prize winner. As a result of the design contest, community support for the project was created.

...survey design

In Bowling Green, KY, the local Kentucky Transportation Cabinet district office asked a third-grade class to beta-test a survey. The class included a number of students from low-income households, and recent Hispanic and Bosnianimmigrants. They were told about the project and given a test survey to see if they could understand it. The survey was revised to incorporate their comments. Then, they were asked to take the survey home and interview adults, such as their parents or grandparents. The next day the students returned the interviews and were shown how their information would be used in the project. Later in the process, the students were asked to conduct a second interview to verify the project was on track. The student interviews increased parent interest in the project, the number of visits to project office, and the project mailing list.

Watercolored photo of a man in front of a children's classroom.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet staff asked third graders to beta-test a survey before it was given to their parents.

...yearly calendar design

Each year the Chicago Area Transportation Study produces a calendar illustrated with student artwork. A theme is identified, and a letter is sent to every elementary and middle school in the six-county area asking them to provide a picture that could be used for one of the months. Additional materials are sent to the schools including a transportation teaching unit and an offer to speak to a class.

..."Where Do Roads Come From?"

The principal asked the project team to make a presentation to the fourth and fifth graders as a civics lesson in how roads are planned and located. A PowerPoint presentation called Where Do Roads Come From? Was created and tested for clarity using one 11-year old. The presentation addressed three topics: the variety of professions involved, the impact categories examined, and the Federal laws that governed. At the end of the presentation, each student was given a homework assignment. They were asked to take home a map of their hometown, Pollocksville, NC, with all its environmentally sensitive areas identified, and talk to their parents about where the road should go. The next day, almost all the students returned the maps. In exchange, a certificate as a "junior environmentalist" was given to each student. This created the possibility of writing the project newsletter at the fifth-grade reading level so the students could read it to their parents if their parents could not read.

Watercolored photo of a woman in front of a children's classroom.

Third graders were asked to find out where their parents thought the road should go as a homework assignment.

Let the public choose the meeting time, place, and size

In order to have well attended meetings, a myriad of cultural, social, employment, marital, and psychological considerations must be undertaken. Rather than assume when, where, what size, and what type of meetings to have-ask the residents!

...just ask

The Chicago Area Transportation Study has found that using people from the area was effective in reaching out to other people in the area. Listening to the public simplified their information-gathering process and kept the agency from choosing the wrong venue, the wrong time, and the wrong mechanism for public involvement. The agency let communities tailor the type of public involvement they wanted by asking them three questions: organizations

When updating their long-range plan, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, CA, gave community-based organizations grants to help design meetings that were appropriate for low-income and minority communities. They advised translating project materials, using large print, and teaching staff how to recognize when someone could not read. In addition, they recommended a number of techniques on how to recognize when someone could not read. They also recommended a number of techniques on how to invite people to come to a meeting. Some went door-to-door, while others distributed leaflets, used the media, issued press releases, and tried to get on community calendars. Those with active, large memberships just worked within their organizations. In addition, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission relied on their elderly, disabled, and minority/low-income advisory committees for ideas and oversight.

Watercolored photo of a man interviewing another man in front of a dwelling. The man being interviewed is sitting on the front steps of the dwelling.

Door-to-door interviews identified handicapped residents and their need for transportation to a meeting.

...locational bias

On a project in Augusta, the Maine DOT held its first meeting at City Hall. It was not well attended. Citizens were asked why attendance had been poor. Several answered that people only went to City Hall to buy a dog license, pay taxes, or get a permit; but they did not go to meetings there. Upon further questioning of the public, the Maine DOT discovered that the poor attendance at the first meeting was because many residents opposed construction of the City Hall, still harbored resentment that their taxes had been used to build it, and refused to go there. Rather than have one second meeting, two meetings were held - neither was at City Hall. One meeting was on the east side of Augusta at a local elementary school and the other was on the west side of Augusta at another local elementary school. Both were well attended. Many of those who attended the second meetings had either attended these schools, or their children had attended these schools.

Watercolored photo of two men (sitting) and a woman (standing) conducting a survey outdoors.
Surveys included questions on where and when to hold public meetings.

...dangerous locations

The first meeting was held at Town Hall in Calhoun Falls, SC, a small town that was 50-percent African American and 50-percent White. Only about 18 of the 90 people who attended were African American, although one of the alternatives went through the African American community. After the meeting, the Mayor, who was African American, said the Ku Klux Klan was still active in the area. While everyone knew where Town Hall was, it was in the middle of a White neighborhood and African Americans were afraid to go through a White neighborhood after dark. The Mayor said there was a community center in the African American community where a meeting could be held. Two weeks later, on the Monday after Easter, a meeting was held in the African American community and more than 90 African Americans attended. In addition, four Whites attended. The attendance showed the African American residents were very interested in the project; however, they were not willing to put their lives at risk to attend a meeting at Town Hall.

...childcare availability

Childcare, under the supervision of a licensed and bonded caregiver, was provided at the I-70 meetings in Denver, CO, so people could attend and bring their children. The childcare director had the children write short, one-act plays they performed at the end of the meetings. The children had such fun they encouraged their parents to take them to the corridor-wide meeting so they might do it again. By starting the meetings at 6:00 p.m. and providing a meal, the parents could leave work and pick up their children on the way to the meeting without having to stop and get supper. The meetings were over by 8:00 p.m. so the children could get home in time for bed. If childcare had not been provided, many single parents would not have been able to attend the meeting.

Watercolored photo of a group of people standing around a table viewing a project map.

Meetings held in a safe location like the community center increased participation.

...Sunday after services

In Clemson, SC, when project staff asked to address the congregation at the Wednesday prayer meeting, the minister suggested a better time would be on Sunday after the morning service, when every family brought a covered dish and ate together. and/or small meetings

During a 2-year study in Milwaukee, WI, approximately 200 one-on-one conversations and small meetings; and four, large, formal public-involvement meetings were held at various times of the day and night. The most productive meetings were the one-on-one and small meetings with neighborhood groups around the community. These were held in their churches or local offices, at whatever time was convenient for them, whether it was day or night.

...small neighborhood meetings

Approximately 60 small meetings were held on the I-70 project in Denver, CO, because many residents were uncomfortable voicing their opinions in front of others at large meetings. These small meetings were attended by 8 to 12 residents, were held in the neighborhoods, and provided the opportunity to address issues and concerns in detail.

Watercolored photo of a group of prople sitting around a table.

Small meetings with neighborhood groups were held in a community church.

Use interpreters and translated materials

Interpreting and translating apply not only to languages but also to concepts, such as noise attenuation.

...dueling blenders

In Denver, CO, at a community meeting on the I-70 project, noise levels were explained using blenders and noise meters. In a silent room, first, everyone was asked to look at the meter readings. Then, one blender was turned on and the meters were re-examined. Following that, a second blender was turned on and the meters were again re-examined. The residents saw the noise levels did not double although the number of blenders did. To demonstrate the effect that distance from a noise source makes, the blenders were moved away from the noise meters at different intervals and the meters examined at each interval. The last experiment moved the blenders behind a blackboard to show the effect of a noise wall on noise reduction.

...language paddles and "fare box Spanish"

At TriMet, the public transit agency in Portland, OR, their bus and light-rail operators work alongside outreach workers from the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization to educate newly arrived immigrants on how to use transit services. Operators also receive on-going Spanish language tips called "fare box Spanish." The tips include phrases that operators might use daily; such as, answering fare questions, providing directions, encouraging safe behavior, and informing customers of transfer points. In addition, operators are provided with a language paddle that provides key transit phrases in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Customers are also encouraged to use the Customer Service Call Center, where operators work alongside a contracted local interpretation agency to provide second-language services in 17 different languages.

Watercolored photo of a group of people standing around a table looking at a blender.

Blenders were used to explain and demonstrate the effect of distance on noise levels. English proficiency

California DOT asked the California Department of Education to identify the largest student groups of limited-English-proficient students Statewide. Using this information, the California Statewide Transportation Plan's tri-fold brochure was translated into Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

...local interpreters

The New Mexico DOT has one of their information centers in a local business that is off a reservation, but on the main road. The business owner speaks English and the native language, and is known by the locals. When residents come into the store to buy their food, they receive project information from a trusted source in their own language at the same time.

...bilingual staff

One of the New Mexico DOT Regional Transportation Districts is located where Spanish is the predominant language, so all the staff members speak Spanish. Everything they do is in Spanish and in English. Being bilingual enables them to go out into the community, attend local meetings, and get to know the residents.

Watercolored photo of a group of people sitting at a meeting.

Bilingual staff were able to conduct meetings in both Spanish and English communities.

Play a public-involvement game Games that minimize the use of written material and give each participant the same influence provide a level playing field for everyone.

..."Strings and Ribbons"

The Volusia County (FL) Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) used "Strings and Ribbons" as their main public-involvement tool for their Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). This game offered a number of advantages over traditional public involvement, such as:

The MPO displayed each map by session on their website ( Adobe PDF), took the improvements identified by the public, prioritized them based on how many times an improvement was listed. The MPO defined the

Watercolored photo of a group of people sitting around a table viewing a project map.

Volusia County (FL) MPO plays "Strings and Ribbons" during a Spanish Association scheduled meeting.

"Public's LRTP" by taking the LRTP budget and applying it to this prioritized improvement's list until the budget was expended. This list was then given to the MPO Board and modeled along with other plans. High school and college students, Hispanic associations, housing authority residents, emergency response personnel, bicycle and walking clubs, senior groups, faith-based organizations, visually impaired groups, and members of the general public have played. As a result, interest in the MPO process and participation at the MPO meetings have increased.


The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago, IL, utilizes Transopoly, a version of "Strings and Ribbons" played with ribbons and dots. It is a good process for identifying transportation infrastructure needs as part of the Long-Range Transportation Planning (LRTP) process. The game documents the public's LRTP; then it is sent to the Chicago Area Transportation Study, the area's MPO. One year, information was collected at each of 19 small group meetings held throughout the area. From this information, a series of small group reports was drafted and returned to the game players for them to verify that their vision, values, problems, and solutions had been correctly stated. Once public approval was obtained, an area plan was prepared. After all of the area plans were completed, one plan was created for the region. The game has been played with residents who cannot read, do not speak English, are deaf or hard of hearing, and are visually challenged.

Watercolored photo of a man standing in front of a group of people at a meeting.

The CNT's Transopoly game allows a player to explain his team's concept in sign language.

Incorporate magnets, color, and symbols Project magnets have lasting power, color can increase visibility and provide an element of protection, and symbols easily convey information.

...refrigerator magnets

Maine DOT created project refrigerator magnets and passed these out at public advisory committee, scoping, and public information meetings. On the magnets were the Maine DOT logo, the project name and website address, and the project manager's division telephone number. The magnets proved effective because people kept them and displayed them in an area they see every time the refrigerator is opened.

...colored T-shirts

The mayor asked each of the team members to wear a plain bright green T-shirt to the project's first series of public-involvement meetings. She anticipated a large crowd and wanted to make it easy for anyone to identify a team member, even from across the room. Although more than 250 residents packed the gymnasium, the public could pick out the team members without having to get close enough to see a name tag.

...visual protection

Everyone going into the Denver, CO, neighborhoods to conduct interviews wore a yellow shirt with the I-70 logo and a picture identification card around their neck. This was done to protect both those conducting the interviews and those being interviewed. Yellow was chosen because it was easy to spot and could be seen from a distance. For additional safety, two-person teams were used and each team had a walkie-talkie. The 10 or more teams stayed together and moved through the neighborhood block by block. Seeing a large number of yellow-shirted interviewers in their block made it easier for residents to feel safe about opening their doors. It peaked their interest and made them want to know what was going on in their neighborhood. If team members were invited into a home, a project bag was hung on the outside of the front door to let the project manager know their location. All teams waited until everyone was present until moving on to the next block. This strategy kept all the teams in sight of each other and provided a way to keep the length of the interviews within a reasonable time limit.

Watercolored photo of people at a meeting.

Staff wore green T-shirts so they could be identified without the public having to read a name tag.

...squares of paper with pictures

On a small neighborhood project, 2- by 2-inch squares of paper with pictures of stop signs, landscaping, sidewalks, potholes, a speeding car, and water standing in the road were used in place of questionnaires. Street names were written on the neighborhood map because most people knew how to read and write their address. Residents were asked for their address and shown where they lived. Staff members engaged the public in conversation about neighborhood problems and possible solutions. The meaning of each square was identified, and residents were asked to tape the squares on the map where they thought improvements should be made. Staff also offered to place the squares on the map for residents. Blank squares were also available to illustrate any other problems the residents identified.

Watercolored photo of a woman and a man conducting an interview on the steps of a dwelling.

Team members wore yellow shirts to identify themselves while out in the neighborhoods, and at all project functions.

Use photographs, 3D animations, and videos

Pictures are worth a thousand words in any language. They can quickly simplify the most complex concept.

...color-coded roadway alternatives

While people might not be able to read the word yellow, most know it by sight. Rather than label roadway alternatives with written descriptions, each was shown in a different color. Care was taken to make sure colorblind individuals could
distinguish the colors used. Each alternative's color was also shown on the corresponding cross-section view that the driver sees. If the red and yellow alternatives were used, then the broad stripes of red and yellow would be shown under that cross-section view. To make the cross-section views look realistic, trees, grass, people, sidewalks, and cars were included.

...before-and-after photos, morphs, and 3D animations

Depending upon the size and complexity of a project, a combination of visual techniques may be used. If the project is a simple widening, before-and-after photos are used. One photo shows the existing conditions and a photographic rendering shows the "after" conditions. This technique provides a relatively inexpensive way to show several widening alternatives at the same location and/or at different locations.

Project map showing different alternatives in a variety of colors.

Each alternative was identified by using a different color, rather than a different name.

If the project is a more complex widening, either before-and-after photos or a computer-generated series of different pictures (a morph) are used. The morph presentation starts out as a still photograph and then slowly adds features; such as, additional lanes, a planted median, bike lanes, sidewalks, or bus pull offs. This presentation is repeated in 30-second cycles.

If the project is a new multi-lane road, a computer-animated "3D drive through" can be used. This shows what it would be like to drive the new facility.

...looped videos at public hearings

Mississippi DOT's in-house video group produces videos for approximately 85 percent of their public hearings. For most projects, a 10- to 12-minute, continuously running, loop video is prepared. However, larger, more complex projects require longer videos. The video begins with the DOT's Executive Director welcoming citizens to the meeting and providing an introduction to the project. The environmental and project-development processes are described, project-specific issues are identified, and the project's purpose and need are discussed. Footage of the project corridor is shown from a driver's perspective, and environmentally sensitive areas are highlighted. The video provides the public with background information before they proceed into the next part of the public hearing, with the viewing of aerial photographs, cross-section views, and the alternatives. To date, the videos have been in English only, although it would be easy to provide voice tracks in other languages.

Watercolored photo of people attending a meeting and watching a video.

Mississippi DOT uses a continuously running, looped video at public hearings to welcome residents, introduce the project, and describe the process.

Updated: 10/20/2015
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