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Cities Struggle With the Dark Side of Community Engagement

Transportation and housing advocates are becoming fed up with the review process, which can easily delay or kill a project. They say it puts too much power in the hands of a few privileged citizens.

Rush hour traffic heading into Manhattan from Brooklyn. Congestion pricing is designed to put a dent into the heavy traffic flow into New York City's business district and raise funds for mass transit. But first, the project must get through 16 months of public review.
(Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock)
After years of debate, delay and political wrangling, New York City will finally get a congestion pricing program — in 2023.

The mid-August announcement of the lengthy schedule by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is leading the effort, was met by incredulity from many of the organizations and politicians who have come to support a congestion fee. It is the result of a U.S. Department of Transportation request that the policy go through a 16-month environmental review process focused on community engagement.

“I’d like to meet the person who thinks 16 months is expedited; that’s ridiculous,” said New York Mayor Bill De Blasio “If they want to know the environmental impact, I’ll tell them: It will reduce congestion, it will reduce pollution.”

Congestion pricing is a policy that has been enacted in a handful of the world’s leading cities, including London, Singapore and Milan. It reduces the ills of traffic by charging cars to enter a dense urban area. This lowers the number of automobiles and raises funds for alternative forms of transportation. In New York, it would charge drivers for entering the busiest sections of Manhattan, from Battery Park in the south to the bottom of Central Park at 60th Street.

While advocates expressed frustration at the delay, academics say that the long lag time is a common feature of local housing and transportation policymaking in already populated areas. Everything from individual housing projects to bike lanes to major new infrastructure like subway lines is subject to rigorous community engagement programs.

Too Deferential to Upper-Class Citizens?

These kinds of requirements were put in place in the 1960s and 1970s to defend against the kind of top-down urban renewal and developer-centric projects that displaced thousands of American families.

But critics say that America’s insistence on intensive public engagement usually only empowers a specific and privileged slice of the population. Policymakers have gone from being overly solicitous to big developers and master builders to being overly deferential to upper middle-class homeowners and drivers.

“These processes are very much biased in favor of making it take a really long time to get anything done,” says Katherine Levine Einstein, professor of political science at Boston University. “You might say it's good to be careful about public policies. The problem is when we delay things, we make them super expensive and it has real environmental consequences.”

With her colleagues at Boston University, Einstein conducted research around participation in community meetings about housing and zoning. They studied dozens of meetings in the Boston metropolitan area and found that attendees were not remotely representative of their communities. They were more likely to be white, even in areas with small white populations, and they were even more likely to be older than the average resident and far more likely to be homeowners.

A super majority of attendees were opposed to the housing projects and zoning changes under review, with only 15 percent speaking in favor.

Their research only focuses on housing and zoning, not transportation projects like bike lanes — let alone congestion pricing, which has never been enacted anywhere in the United States. It’s worth noting that not all public meetings have been found to suffer such distorted attendance. There is research that finds meetings about policing tend to involve more engagement from renters.

But Einstein says that meetings about infrastructure and transportation projects are likely to have similarly distorted results as those about housing and zoning. Environmental reviews in particular are their own beast, and she points to research that shows California’s Environmental Quality Act has been weaponized by white homeowners to delay neighboring development to death. Notoriously, hundreds of miles of bike lanes in California were never created because of CEQA lawsuits.

Einstein says that many environmental review requirements were often written around the concerns of the 1970s, which are still valid, but don’t take into account the overwhelming urgency of addressing climate change and the huge role that a car-centric development and policy have played in warming the planet.

“Environmental reviews have been identified as a really big problem from the perspective of producing more sustainable development,” says Einstein. “These processes don't fully capture the environmental benefits of fewer people in cars because of sustainable infill development or congestion pricing.”

Representatives for the MTA insist that this is the wrong way to think about the 16-month environmental review of congestion pricing — or the larger question of community engagement.

“In some other countries, you don't always have a full public process: Decisions are made and they're just done,” says Allison C. de Cerreño, the MTA’s deputy chief operating officer. “In the U.S., historically, that [kind of thing] happened many years ago and in some cases, it wasn't for the better of the communities. That's why [we have] to ensure that those voices are heard.”

After the New York state Legislature finally passed the bill allowing congestion pricing in 2019, it went to the federal Department of Transportation for final approval. The MTA heard nothing for 20 months, until Joe Biden became president. Within two months they had direction from federal regulators, who called for an environmental assessment with robust public outreach. Since then, the two institutions — along with city and state counterparts — have been working closely to determine the scope and details of the engagement campaign.

The MTA is opening its campaign with 10 webinar meetings from late September through early October. Then they will hold a meeting for “environmental justice communities” for each state in the region: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. There will also be an Environmental Justice Technical Advisory Group, which will hold a series of meetings after this initial round of outreach, which will allow members to review the early results of feedback. There will be a separate Environmental Justice Stakeholder Working Group open to the general public. (There will be a further round of meetings, the exact details to be determined, after the environmental assessment is published next year.)

The MTA has a phone line, a website and other feedback mechanisms where people can leave comments. C. de Cerreño says the agency already received 300 comments and that they’ve been overwhelmingly positive in support of congestion pricing.

Tech Helps, But Only So Much

The innovations in public outreach during the pandemic may have reshaped some of the inequities of public engagement, says C. de Cerreño. Having events online means that many more people can participate, and that those who cannot leave home to attend a hearing can show up online. She points to the virtual fare and toll increase hearings the MTA held last year, which saw 2,100 comments — triple the number from 2018. (There are 22 million people in the tri-state area who the MTA considers potentially affected by the congestion fee.)

But Einstein says that Zoom and webinars have not changed who attends public meetings, at least in the case of Boston metropolitan area zoning meetings. She and her colleagues replicated their research between March and September 2020 to see if demographics changed. They didn’t.

“It’s a sobering result,” says Einstein. “Turns out it’s still a very weird subset of people who show up to a three-hour planning board meeting.”

But the MTA says it is doing a lot of intentional outreach and working with affected stakeholder groups to ensure that isn’t the case with congestion pricing. Einstein says that participation does seem to be different when there are organized groups that work to speak in favor of something, a forceful counterbalance to the usual status quo voices that get represented. That’s probably why the MTA has overwhelmingly seen positive feedback so far.

But some advocates argue that during the many years of battles over the policy, both in New York City and Albany, the views of such organizations have been thoroughly vetted.

“Plenty of environmental justice advocates urge swift climate action: Would those communities prefer a 16-month public process, or would they like to see this thing take effect,” says Daniel Pearlstein, policy and communications director with the Riders Alliance. “Did anyone ask environmental communities if they want what is perceived as a drawn-out public process? Or do they want rapid implementation? Because those two things are mutually exclusive.”

Pearlstein can definitively say that no one asked transit riders and their organized representatives. Congestion pricing is meant to pay for long delayed upgrades to the subway’s signal system, much of which dates to the 1930s and frequently breaks down. Now the funds won’t start flowing until 2023.

“It's one thing for DOT to go to a community board on bus or bike lanes and talk to local people who are very familiar with hyper local conditions on their streets,” says Pearlstein. “But congestion pricing is quite different. It's regionwide in its impact, and it's the product of legislation that was already voted on. The people's representatives have spoken in New York.”

There is not an easy answer to the question of how to balance community input against the cost of delay, especially as the need to fight climate change becomes ever more imperative. The perils of the urban renewal era are self-evident. But the drawbacks of the laws that came in reaction to it are becoming progressively evident too. The United States’ commitment to direct — though not necessarily representative — democracy in these cases has been increasingly linked to the sky-high costs of infrastructure. 

Einstein says there are ways to reform public meetings, to some extent. When it comes to zoning, for example, give people input on the whole code but not necessarily on the zoning that occurs just on their block. The outreach public officials do to solicit community voices needs to be re-thought too, such as focus groups for only renters or transit-dependent people. She also says that local democracy changes should be enacted to make politicians more accountable, like having them the same year as presidential races where turnout is higher. Voting often ensures more representative outcomes than turnout to a three-hour meeting on a weeknight.

But in the final analysis, she is not hopeful about resolving the internal contradictions of community engagement.

“There's a whole lot of legal, ethical, political reasons we can't do away with public meetings,” says Einstein. “But fundamentally, by their structure, public meetings will always attract an unrepresentative group of people with intense preferences. So, we're just kind of screwed.”

*This story was updated to reflect that the congestion fee bill passed the New York State legislature in 2019.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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