Academic journal article URISA Journal

Engaging Vulnerable Populations Using Participatory Mapping: Lessons Learned and Guidelines for Community Advocates and Transportation Planners

Academic journal article URISA Journal

Engaging Vulnerable Populations Using Participatory Mapping: Lessons Learned and Guidelines for Community Advocates and Transportation Planners

Article excerpt


Individual travel behavior shapes every aspect of transportation planning, ranging from the development and maintenance of key infrastructure to the routine management of transportation operations. The research that frames this paper takes the position that contemporary transportation planning models and decision frameworks do not directly address the travel needs of low-income people for two main reasons: first, because the travel behavior of low-income people is not well understood; and second, the exclusive focus on the journey-to-work does not effectively capture the lived transportation experience of many economically vulnerable populations.

The research study is built on three major assumptions: (1) that transportation planners and policy makers can become more effective in their efforts if they better understood the complexity of the lived experiences of low-income populations; (2) that a Web-based tool with a visual interface can help to gather relevant data quickly and effectively without reducing data complexity; and (3) that local community-based organizations can use standardized data-collection and visualization methods to become more effective advocates for innovative and affordable transportation alternatives.

This paper describes the implementation of a pilot project set in Newark, New Jersey, that explored the feasibility of using qualitative data-collection methods (semistructured interviews and participatory mapping) to develop a holistic understanding of the transportation experiences of low-income populations. The research identified an effective participatory approach to gather data about the entirety of people's lives, rather than exclusively focusing on their journey-to-work trips. The data gathered from a small sample of participants (n = 44) then was used to build a Web-based application that could be used to facilitate and streamline large-scale data-collection processes.

The second section describes the theoretical frameworks that shaped the study. Subsequent sections discuss the data-collection approaches that were tested and the development/description of the Web-based application. The concluding section discusses some guidelines for community advocates and transportation planners who want to engage vulnerable populations in planning issues.


The complexity of the travel needs and behavior of low-income and vulnerable populations is not well understood and continues to be a subject of inquiry (Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) 2008). Scholars have tended to focus their investigations on poor individuals' commutes from their usual places of residence to their usual places of work, addressing either the spatial challenges of distance (the difficulties involved in getting to work using public transportation) or the social factors that prevent individuals from finding work (such as lack of information about jobs, racial discrimination, lack of job skills) (Wilson 1996, Gilbert 1998, Johnson 2004). The emergent policies that strive to make jobs accessible through the provision of public transportation deal with the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing first articulated by Kain (1968). Proponents of this thesis observe that low-income individuals often are residents of inner cities while the jobs they seek are located in the outer suburbs, not easily accessible using public transport (Kain 1968, 1992; Ihlanfeldt and Sjoquist 1998). To ameliorate the problem, the federal government created the Jobs Access/Reverse Commute (JARC) program to fund projects that transport welfare recipients and other low-income workers from their homes to their jobs (Federal Transit Administration 2014). This approach has found favor across all sides of the political spectrum because stable employment is viewed as one of the key stepping-stones to prosperity.

The success of JARC programs has been mixed, depending on the level of institutional support and grassroots support available in the different communities where such programs have been implemented (Sandoval et al. …

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