Transportation planning? Start with a community needs assessment

Residents and project team members sitting around a table and talkingAt TransForm, we understand the importance of authentic community engagement that amplifies community voices — particularly in communities that are often overlooked or ignored — in decision-making that will affect them. Our team’s experience conducting a community transportation needs assessment for our Mobility Hubs in Affordable Housing pilot project taught us once again the importance of starting a local transportation project by listening to the people you’re trying to serve.

TransForm, in partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC), just published a Community Transportation Needs Assessment Report about this project, which is funded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Ours was the first in-depth needs assessment of its kind funded by CARB, which is now funding and requiring needs assessments for all of their Clean Mobility Options projects. This policy is in line with the lessons learned from CARB’s SB 350 Low-Income Barriers Report, which highlighted assessment as a critical first step. We’re very proud that the early experience detailed in our report helped inform this approach.

When TransForm was awarded funding to design three mobility hubs at affordable housing developments in the Bay Area communities of Oakland, Richmond and San Jose, we wanted the approach to be guided by residents in order to meet their unique transportation needs. There are many new clean mobility technologies available to help people get around, but the people who may need them the most — in low-income communities and communities of color — often have the least access. Determining the mix of mobility options (electric car-sharing, transit passes, bike share, e-scooters, etc) for each community had to be done by and with each community. Learn more about this pilot project and these three communities.

Before sharing more about what we learned from this community needs assessment, we want to acknowledge the key partners who helped make the process successful.

On‐site partners:

  • East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC)
  • First Community Housing (FCH)
  • Richmond Community Foundation (RCF)
  • The City of Richmond

Project Advisory Committee members:

  • AC Transit
  • Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD)
  • Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
  • The Greenlining Institute
  • GRID Alternatives
  • The City of Oakland
  • The City of San Jose
  • The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)

We especially would like to thank the residents who took the time to shape and participate in the needs assessment process. That includes residents serving on a Site Level Team (SLT), conducting outreach, performing data entry, completing the survey, and participating in a focus group or individual interview. Residents will continue to provide ongoing input on the project.

Conducting a needs assessment empowers residents to shape the investments happening in their communities. This is a key step for pilot project design and an approach that can be used in other communities for a range of transportation and mobility projects.

This particular needs assessment was designed to help the project team meet a number of goals.

  • Understand residents’ current transportation habits and needs.
  • Understand challenges faced by residents in accessing and utilizing various mobility options for themselves and their family.
  • Gauge residents’ current knowledge and interest in learning about and using new shared mobility options located at an on-site mobility hub.
  • Understand the demographic profile of the residents.
  • Collect baseline data to measure progress on project goals, e.g. access to destinations, modeshift, and car ownership.

Following a successful outreach effort led by on‐site staff and resident surveyors, a total of 583 paper surveys were completed by residents and 36 residents participated in focus groups or individual interviews across the three sites. The results include several key findings, some of which are highlighted below with potential actions (support for these findings are detailed in the “Results” section of the Needs Assessment report):

Key findings from the needs assessment have significantly impacted the project team’s implementation approach moving forward.

In surveying residents at all three sites, we found that residents are most interested in Clipper cash, AC Transit EasyPasses, and Lyft/Uber rides through the mobility hubs project (Fig. 1). Residents are less interested in bike share and e-scooter share, but also reported very low familiarity with those services. Based on these findings, the project team will prioritize time and funding for residents’ top interests. We will also deploy bike and e-scooter share with outreach and engagement to build awareness about those services.

Some residents were unsure how car sharing services work, while others may not be aware of the transit discounts they qualify for. In response, the project team will create a robust multi-lingual outreach and education program, encompassing a range of topics including car sharing and low-income transit discounts.

A significant number of residents are unbanked or do not regularly use a bank account, debit card, credit card, or prepaid debit card (Fig.2). The project team is committed to ensuring all residents have equal access to mobility hub services and will explore cash payment methods and other alternative payment strategies.

In addition to the key findings highlighted above from the survey results, we have detailed lessons learned from developing and administering the needs assessment that may help others with similar efforts.

  • Present draft survey materials to residents, with time to incorporate feedback, before conducting surveys. We made several important changes to the survey and related materials in response to feedback that eventually made our surveying efforts much more successful than they otherwise might have been.
  • In-person survey outreach is invaluable as it allows Community Surveyors and Site Coordinators to answer questions and address any concerns residents shared about the survey or the mobility hubs project. Overall, the needs assessment process was well received by survey respondents and that is largely due to the level of engagement and in-person survey outreach.
  • Paper surveys require significantly more time and staff resources than electronic surveys, but were most suitable for our audiences. Site Coordinators at all three sites indicated that paper surveys present the fewest barriers for completion and would yield a more representative sample of the residents.\
  • Compensate community members to help lead and inform your efforts. Paid part-time site coordinators brought enormous value to the process. The entire project benefited from having team members who are connected to the community uplift and incorporate residents’ voices throughout the process.

Now that the needs assessment is complete, our project team is focused on implementing customized mobility hubs at each site. Our Site Level Teams and Site Coordinators continue to shape and strengthen the project. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we have been piloting alternative methods of resident engagement in order to comply with safe social-distancing practices and ensure the safety of site residents, TransForm staff, and site partners. In April, we hosted a Zoom meeting with residents from the Nystrom neighborhood (Richmond) and were able to provide both simultaneous Spanish translation and childcare services in a virtual setting.

In various ways across all the issues we work on, TransForm works to end one-size-fits-all approaches to planning, where outside institutions prescribe a “solution” for a community they don’t belong to. Community needs assessments are a vital tool for that paradigm shift. They should take different forms and methods for different projects and communities, but many of the principles and lessons we detail in our report are applicable to other contexts and approaches. We’re thrilled that CARB's Clean Mobility Options program is now funding and requiring needs assessments for their projects, and hope other state and regional programs follow suit.

 

 

Car Sharing and Mobility Hubs in Affordable Housing is funded by California Climate Investments (CCI), a statewide initiative that puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment—particularly in disadvantaged communities.

 
 

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.