Transport planning and participation: The rhetoric and realities of public involvement

Bickerstaff, K., Tolley, R., & Walker, G. (2002). Transport planning and participation: The rhetoric and realities of public involvement. Journal of Transport Geography, 10, 61–73.

The authors question the role of public participation in transport planning processes. The authors aim to evaluate the inclusion of public participation in transportation planning on the local level, especially when central government advises for the inclusion of public participation. In this study, they engage with this question through content analysis of provisional local transport plan documents (PLTP) and a survey of British highway authorities. Bickerstaff also identify four key participation principles in their analysis: inclusivity, transparency, interactivity, and continuity. According to the authors, “Public participation is widely interpreted as involvement in decision-making with the purpose of influencing the choice(s) being made (Renn et al., 1995 ctd. In Bickerstaff, 2002, pg. 62). Like many planning researchers, the authors cite Arnstein (1969) as offering a guiding approach to citizen participation.

In the results of their study, Bickerstaff et al. found that 96% of English highway authorities claimed to use participation exercises in the process of their provisional transport plans. In their content analysis, the authors found that 89% of authorities had documented their involvement of the public in their approaches (as required by the central government). However, the majority of plans provided few, if any, details on exactly who had been included in the processes, how, when, and why. Furthermore, “overall plans failed to demonstrate a commitment to policy transparency” (pg. 71). Also stated by the authors, “the results of our analysis do raise uncertainties and doubts about the efficacy of current participatory approaches being developed within local transport planning” (pg. 71).

Despite these findings, the authors strangely seem to take a view that sides with the way that most transportation planning projects use participatory methods, finding them innovative. They also oppose the majority of urban planning literature that states how public participation is a good thing. For instance, the authors state that special interest groups (i.e., composed of minority groups only) can lead to decisions that are only in favor of that group. These views, especially in spite of the overwhelming literature that points to issues in public participation in British planning, seem in line with most planning researchers. Including the public can seem like a hindrance to many planners and planning researchers, but a blatant resistance to the data is telling about the values of planners and their view of the public. This article is especially useful because it identifies how planners have very different views about citizens and democracy than rhetoricians.