Geography of Public Participation: Using Geographic Information Systems to Evaluate Public Outreach Program of Transportation Planning Studies

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

planning - signage/information, planning - environmental impact, land use - planning, policy - environment, technology - geographic information systems


Transportation planning, Stakeholders, Public participation, Public involvement, Outreach programs, Local participation, GIS, Geographic information systems, Geocoding, Environmental justice, Environmental impact statements, Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project, Citizen participation


How effective are public involvement programs in reaching a representative and sufficient sampling of public input for a planning study? While evaluations of public involvement programs are traditionally qualitative, this paper shows how geographic information systems (GIS) can provide an appropriate and productive means of quantitatively evaluating the effectiveness of an agency’s outreach program. This study used both mailing list and comment data from the Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project Environmental Impact Statement of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to evaluate the agency’s outreach program. The data were analyzed to determine the project’s effectiveness in informing and receiving feedback from potential stakeholders. The analysis showed that 50% of the mailing list members lived within 1/2 mi of the proposed project. “Inclusion rates” were calculated, with household participation rates in census block groups near the project ranging from 0 to 82%. The Tysons Corner segment of the project, where the proposed rail line would be closest to residences, on average had the highest inclusion rates, with 16.5% of households within 1/2 mi of the proposed stations participating. Of the six block groups meeting the project’s environmental justice thresholds, half had an inclusion rate below 5%. Analysis of commenters showed that those closest to the project were most likely to comment on the study and to express opposition to the project in their comments. This study reinforces many traditional stereotypes in public participation, but, more important, it demonstrates a method by which deficiencies in outreach efforts can be identified and measures taken to improve participation. By using the GIS-generated maps, agencies can readily identify geographic areas that may be affected by the project, yet have low participation rates, and use this information to develop additional outreach tools to target these populations.