“UBC researcher Susanna Haas Lyons turned to social networking to help the Greenest City Conversations project get residents’ input on transportation,” is the photo caption on a recent Georgia Straight article about my research.
Over 750 people joined the Facebook group Exploring Vancouver’s Transportation Future and participated in online discussions on key transportation issues. This allowed Haas Lyons to compile a report for the City of Vancouver detailing where the municipal government should focus in terms of public transit, cycling, driving, and other commuting issues.
“What we heard from participants was that they very much appreciated the opportunity to be able to participate when and where they wanted, rather than have to go to a public meeting,” Haas Lyons told the Straight over the phone.
According to Haas Lyons, the Facebook forum was particularly popular with women between the ages of 24 and 35. This is a demographic the city has trouble getting out to traditional meetings.
“People 55-plus were overrepresented in face-to-face events,” Haas Lyons said. “Online engagement is an important complementary tool to the public consultation. It is not meant to be a replacement, because you skew towards certain populations in the online environment as much as you skew towards other populations in the face-to-face environment.”
People surveyed through the Facebook group prompted 19 specialized recommendations to the city. Users prioritized making transit more accessible and adding routes for cyclists over finding more options for automobiles.
Haas Lyons says city staff are preparing for an additional phase of public consultation before they write a final report and submit it to council.
“There are a lot of possibilities, but really it’s unclear as to what the transportation future is,” Haas Lyons said. “And I think it is partially dependent on what residents and commuters want.”
In a report Haas Lyons delivered to the city, she notes there are some constraints to using Facebook as the only tool for outreach, but people who were involved in the exercise felt their ideas were heard.
“When you see your post on the screen.…there is a sense of ‘Hey, it doesn’t just disappear into the ether. It is out there as a record,’ ” Haas Lyons explained. “People respond to it. They have some dialogue with city officials, and when they are asking questions, then they have emails from the city to their inboxes.”