Including 17,000 residents in a discussion about traffic congestion
Anyone who has ever been to Metro Vancouver knows that traffic is a problem. The Mobility Pricing Independent Commission was established in 2017 to try and fix that problem by exploring how the mobility pricing model would look in Metro Vancouver. The commission contracted Argyle PR (formerly known as Context Research) to implement its public education and engagement program, known as the It’s Time project. Argyle chose Ethelo as the online platform to meet its goal of engaging a broad cross-section of residents and commuters. The commission knew that the idea of paying to use roads would be contentious, so they wanted to ensure the project was done with transparency and included diverse viewpoints. With Ethelo, more than 17,000 people shared 5,000 comments in four different languages. The Argyle team could see where people were polarized on the issue and use that data to report back to the commission about areas of support and disagreement.
Anyone who has ever been to Metro Vancouver knows that traffic is a problem. In fact, nearly 90 per cent of residents surveyed in a public opinion poll expressed frustration at traffic delays, and more than 80 per cent said those delays resulted in lost time every week.
In 2017, the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission was established to explore how mobility pricing could look in Metro Vancouver. They knew the way forward would be impossible to find without public input. The Commission worked with Argyle PR to implement a variety of public engagement strategies to reach a broad cross-section of residents and commuters.
The It’s Time project was the public education and engagement program of the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission. The program’s goal was to explore how to reduce traffic congestion throughout Metro Vancouver using a tool known as mobility pricing, and particularly, a decongestion charge. This model has been used in London, Singapore, Sweden, and is being studied in other major cities around the world.
The Commission recognized that the idea of paying to use the roads was going to be a contentious issue in Metro Vancouver, and wanted to make sure the It’s Time project was done with transparency and heard from diverse viewpoints.
They hired Argyle to design and deliver the integrated communications and engagement program. And Argyle Senior Consultant Miranda Eng chose Ethelo as the best platform to educate and engage with Metro Vancouver residents online.
“We were drawn to Ethelo because of our shared commitment to meaningful engagement, and transparency,” Eng says. “We want people to understand and trust our engagement process and we knew Ethelo could help us do that.”
Letting people be heard
The It’s Time project was split into two phases. Phase One introduced the concept of mobility pricing and asked Vancouver residents and other stakeholders about where traffic congestion affected their lives and how the concept of fairness should be applied to mobility pricing.
Phase Two used input from the first phase to get feedback on how Metro Vancouver could apply a decongestion charge to solve problems identified, including changing the fuel tax or introducing a distance-based charge or congestion point change.
Because public transportation can be a controversial subject, Eng and her team wanted the engagement process to be as open and transparent as possible. The Ethelo consultation was available in English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Punjabi—the most commonly spoken languages in the Metro Vancouver area.
Beyond the information collected online, the project team also distributed paper surveys to residents who may have had less access to computers or less familiarity using them. Responses from the paper surveys were entered into Ethelo and combined with the rest of the feedback as part of the overall results.
While the translation and the paper survey initiative required extra time and energy, Eng said it was crucial and well worth the effort to include perspectives from all parts of the community.
“People could participate whenever and wherever they wanted, including populations who are often underrepresented in public engagement,” Eng explains. “We were committed to democratic processes and wanted voices to be heard on processes that impact them.”
Eng and her team monitored the comments and removed any that contained offensive language, but otherwise, let the discussion play out.
“We don’t want to sway the conversation. Instead, we want to lean into both sides,” Eng says. “We don’t control the conversation or the narrative. We just let people be heard.”
Finding polarization and areas of support
With Ethelo, the Argyle team heard from 17,000 Metro Vancouver residents over both phases. As evidenced by the total of 5,000 comments, participants had a lively discussion about what the future of transportation in Vancouver should look like.
The comments showed significant polarization, with participants describing the mobility pricing effort as everything from “just another money grab” to “another tool to encourage more sustainable modes of transportation.”
Ethelo let the Argyle team see these areas of disagreement and also learn what people agreed on. They used that data in their report to the commission to show where polarization existed and what areas would likely see widespread support.
“We weren’t scared of criticism, which helped build trust in the engagement process,” Eng says. “We reported back what we heard transparently and truthfully and were able to provide insight into the levels of support and polarity based on the demographics of the people who participated.”
The Mobility Pricing Independent Commission used the insights from Argyle and Ethelo to create their final report.
The report used language taken directly from the Ethelo comments to address some of the biggest concerns about the mobility pricing initiative:
“It is easy to characterize a decongestion charge as a ‘money grab’ or ‘just another tax,’ the report states. “The paradox is that the less you charge, the more it would be just that. The charge needs to be set at a level sufficient to unlock the considerable benefits of reduced congestion and more efficient mobility.”
Eng said she was happy with the results and her collaboration with the Ethelo team on the project.
“Using Ethelo as the tool for our digital engagement program was crucial. We closely worked with Ethelo to design and deliver two phases of the It’s Time project’s interactive online engagement in four languages. The experience welcomed frank and polarizing public input and dialogue on mobility pricing. Ethelo’s real-time report back and social interactive commenting features helped to earn public trust in the Commission, ultimately working to ensure credibility in the Commission’s final report and recommendations.” Miranda Eng — Argyle PR