E before I: Why engagement needs to come first in planning infrastructure

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When it comes to delivering essential infrastructure, experts tend to discuss what are perceived as the difficult issues, such as planning, financing, and construction techniques. Engaging with stakeholders and the public is not always mentioned—and if it is, it’s way down the list. That job often gets farmed out to a public-affairs firm that may or may not have expertise in the specific subject.

Engagement is emphatically not a fringe issue. Across the world, failure to consult before digging has delayed or undermined projects that businesses and governments have set their hearts on building. Once the public gets wind of the plans, it’s back to the drawing board. The result is that deadlines are missed and costs rise. Sometimes, the plans are scuttled entirely. For example, a new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in France has failed to move forward amid strong opposition from lobby groups.

The rise of social media has complicated matters, transforming the way much of the public gets its information. Without effective engagement, negative perceptions of a new project can spread quickly, even without help from traditional media. A citizen-led Internet campaign forced the British government to scrap plans for nationwide road pricing in 2007 and 2008. Social media is forcing everyone to think hard about how they inform the public—and increasing the risks of failing to do so.

As London’s deputy mayor for transport, I have learned this firsthand. London has more than eight million people, all of whom seem to have strong opinions about our infrastructure plans. Every decision, from the £15 billion Crossrail project to extend and improve rail travel to the repainting of a local road junction, is a matter of intense public interest. We hear from stakeholders and lobby groups of all kinds—and we listen to them. As we seek to make our money go further, these discussions must be an early and integral part of project development.

This is about far more than appeasing the critics; there is real insight and benefit to be gained. Consider London’s planned £1 billion in investment in cycling infrastructure. The number of Londoners cycling to work has more than doubled in the past decade, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is a high-profile cyclist. People therefore expected city authorities to deliver policies to make cycling safer and easier. And we are doing so. But instead of developing a strategy and hoping that cyclists would be grateful, we worked with residents to craft one from the bottom up.

Using social media, we reached out to influential cycling bloggers and commentators; together we came to a consensus that the city needed to undertake major upgrades to physical infrastructure to make cycling safer and more attractive. On that basis, we put together a program of action that we presented to London’s 32 boroughs for formal consultation. The result is a bigger program of investment in cycling over the next decade in London than in the rest of the United Kingdom combined. Measures such as a new east–west “Crossrail for the bike”—a dedicated cycle route and a network of joined-up, direct, dedicated cycle lanes—are being established. By 2015, we will be spending £145 million a year on cycling, or around £18 per person in London. By 2023, that figure is set to reach £913 million, more than three times the previously planned amount.

Early engagement can also work for larger-scale, higher-cost programs. As we did with cycling, we consulted early and often to develop London’s road strategy. We put together a road task force with a wide variety of stakeholders, from truckers and motorists’ groups to businesses and cycling and walking groups. Despite their different (and sometimes competing interests, members of the task force agreed on a £30 billion action plan over the next 20 years. The consultation actually helped to break the logjam of policy constraints, proving that wide engagement does not mean sacrificing clarity of purpose.

Voices on Infrastructure 2016

Voices on Infrastructure, Number 3

Our biggest transport project is Crossrail; in fact, this is the biggest construction project in Europe. Crossrail is designed to transform rail travel in Britain’s southeast and will include more than 60 miles of new track and ten new stations. Two-thirds of the funding comes from the public sector, and half of that is from the central government. Given budget constraints, future megaprojects will not be able to rely on such high levels of public funding. Here again, better engagement can help.

The mayor has proposed the Crossrail 2 project, a new railway (with an estimated cost of £12 billion) connecting southwest to northeast London through the center. The stated goal is that “at least half of the project’s cost can be paid for through private, or non-Exchequer, sources,” and the Crossrail 2 task force has identified ways to do so.1 For example, by talking to businesses and property developers, we have been able to fine-tune the route to take advantage of areas where land values are expected to rise the most. That increases the potential revenue stream provided by contributions from developers; they can be asked to contribute grant funding toward the cost of constructing nearby stations on the basis that a new station will increase the potential and value of their holdings. By engaging early, then, we put ourselves in a position to accrue substantial additional financial benefits.

There is still a lot to learn about how to make the most of opportunities from engagement. One area we are looking at is how to manage demand to make better use of existing infrastructure assets. We have already begun giving transport users better information about peak demand times—for instance, creating heat maps of demand at London Underground stations so that people can plan their trips better by avoiding congestion. The data are interactive in the sense that passengers can use them to change how they travel. Deeper engagement, in the form of harnessing the viral potential and the capabilities of social media, will be at the heart of meeting this and other challenges. People respond to online engagement; so far, however, public authorities have not mastered when and how to engage digitally.

London has an ambitious 20-year pipeline of transport projects. By putting engagement at the heart of policy, we believe we will deliver better projects, tighter budgets, and clearer benefits.

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