ITE Journal - May 2021 - 20

Alise Leslie

| inside the industry

Community volunteers paint a curb extension in the east Durham neighborhood.

In addition to responding to the pandemic with the
Shared Streets program, staff adapted pre-pandemic
equity strategies to continue work on larger-scale projects such as the Durham Transit Plan. For Aidil Ortiz,
" connecting with people who have primary relationships
with a community " is an essential component of a strong
engagement strategy. Durham's Engagement Ambassador program, which offers residents training and a
stipend to help city staff reach communities that are
often excluded from the planning process, helped the city
to leverage relationships to reach historically marginalized communities during the height of the pandemic.
In 2019, the city launched the Engagement Ambassadors program to support updates to the Comprehensive
Plan and Transit Plan. Before the pandemic, Ambassadors hosted events in their homes to solicit feedback on
the city's behalf. During the pandemic, staff contracted
with Ortiz to manage the Ambassador program and
supported her efforts to shift the program online.
Although there were concerns about whether the program would work in a virtual space, Ortiz and city staff
20

May 2021

i te j o urnal

were pleased that Ambassadors were still able to connect
with their networks virtually. During the most recent
round of engagement for the Transit Plan, 36 Ambassadors held virtual events and conversations where they
solicited feedback from more than 170 residents.
The residents that Ambassadors spoke to were
different from residents who took a widely promoted
online survey for the Transit Plan. While only nine
percent of those who took the online survey self-described as having a disability, 20 percent of residents
reached by Ambassadors reported having a disability.
Further, while 68 percent of online survey participants
identified as white, 71 percent of residents reached by
Ambassadors identified as Black/African American.
Residents engaged by Ambassadors were much more
representative of existing transit riders-67 percent of
whom identify as Black/African American-than those
who took the online survey.
Differences in feedback from the online survey and
the Ambassadors sessions drive home the importance
of making sure that engagement effectively reaches
those who are most affected by a project. Online survey
participants supported priorities such as a proposed
commuter rail project and improving regional transit
access, while those engaged by Ambassadors supported
prioritizing paratransit, improved local bus service,
and better access to bus stops. Work on the Transit
Plan is still underway, but the project team hopes that
a commitment to equitable engagement throughout
the planning process and listening to the needs of
traditionally marginalized residents will lead to a more
equitable final plan.
Staff is forthcoming about the challenges of
incorporating equity into project planning and implementation. " There is no magic system or process... it
really is building those relationships, " Judge says. Yet
planners, engineers, and consultants maintained that
Durham's emphasis on equity has resulted in better
projects in recent years. " There have been challenging
situations through the years, but they have made our
designs better. They have made the way we think about
our process better, " says Senior Engineering Manager
Pete Nicholas. Staff knows that Durham still has a long
way to go to ensure that outcomes, as well as processes,
are equitable. Yet, the city's work during the pandemic
has shown that a focus on equity is not only possible
during difficult circumstances, but crucial to better
serving the residents who are most affected by our work
as transportation planners and engineers. itej



ITE Journal - May 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of ITE Journal - May 2021

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