By Mike Spack, PE, PTOE
Traffic is often a scapegoat used by neighbors at public hearings to try to kill a proposed development project. It is a favorite tactic used by those opposed to new Walmart stores (at least the couple of dozen public hearings I have attended for my Walmart traffic studies). We see this at all levels of public meetings, from informational neighborhood meetings to County Boards.
I attended an emotional public hearing with a developer for his proposed strip mall/gas station development where traffic issues were raised. Through a lot of practice, I have honed my presentation skills so I am ready to speak up for my clients at public hearings and we were able to get the project approved despite the opposition.
Two big lessons I’ve learned over twenty years of testifying at public hearings:
- Tell stories to make the statistics easier to digest.
- Know when to stop talking.
Be brief, only answer the question being asked, and then stop talking. That seems pretty easy for engineers to understand. Telling stories isn’t quite as easy for us, but it’s just as important to disarming emotion in a public hearing and helping your client with your testimony.
In Chapter 5 of Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath write about research done that proves people will donate more to a single person than to an entire cause. Bear with me – this is highly relevant to how we can disarm a hostile public hearing.
The researchers at Carnegie Mellon set up a donation letter asking people to donate to Save the Children, a charity that helps kids in Africa. A second letter described a little girl in Africa named Rokia and then asked for donations for Rokia. The average donations for the Rokia letter were more than double that of the Save the Children letter.
The Carnegie Mellon researchers did a subset analysis with the Rokia letter. They asked half of a group, “If an object travels at five feet per minute, then by your calculations how many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?” The other half of the group was asked, “Please write down one word to describe how you feel when you hear the word ‘baby’.” Then they gave everyone in the group the Rokia letter and asked for donations.
The “baby” group gave about the same amount as the previous Rokia letter donators. Those who did the math gave about half the amount of the previous Rokia letter donators.
Here is the conclusion from the Heath’s, “These results are shocking. The mere act of calculation reduced people’s charity. Once we put on our analytical hat, we react to emotional appeals differently. We hinder our ability to feel.”
TAKEAWAY – emotion is the enemy of a traffic engineer making a presentation at a public hearing. You should always open up your presentation with the equivalent of “we have a 100 homes that will generate approximately 10 vehicle trips per day which equals the development generating 1,000 total vehicles per day entering/exiting the development.” This will snap the elected officials out of an emotional state and put them into a logical state where you want them.
Pro-tip: do simple calculations as often as possible when answering questions in a public hearing to continually try to diffuse rising emotions.
Good point, Mike. As you know, folks can express a lot of emotion on the stand, and it can be an uphill battle for a traffic engineer/safety expert. I have provided testimony in a number of hearings for closing railroad crossings, and the opposition typically ranges from “we always use that route” to “I don’t know how long it will take me to go another route” to “we know it is unsafe, but we know when the trains are coming.”
“Warming them up” with a discussion about safety issues/crash information and then working into the hard data like the existing geometrics, average travel times and volumes does seem to work better. It is really a tough battle when there is no previous crash history at the location.