By Krystel Green
Have you ever met a fascinating person who engages you with probing questions, thoughtful commentary and interesting facts? The two of you then embark on a lively conversation where you might gain or give a different perspective and learn something new. When parting ways, you’ve probably said, “Let’s keep in touch” and exchanged contact information. This is the dynamic that the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) looks to create with the public.
We see community engagement as more than presenting facts to citizens and hoping they’ll agree with the ideas given. It starts long before we put the first train on the tracks or bus on the road. It starts when the idea is in its infancy. In November 2007, CATS began operating the LYNX Blue Line, the first light rail line in North Carolina. It has been wildly successful. The 9.6-mile alignment has attracted billions of private development investment along the line and that has served to strengthen the community. Today, CATS is currently expanding the line over nine miles with the LYNX Blue Line Extension (BLE) project, which is scheduled to open in August 2017. With the success of the first line, some may think there is no need for extensive community engagement. However, working closely with the community that will live, work, shop, and attend school near the alignment is always a priority for our organization.
Our team will talk to anyone at any time about the BLE or any other CATS project. That’s a literal statement. We’ve conducted a media event at 10:30 p.m. to update citizens on the progress of the erection of a bridge over a major thoroughfare for the BLE. We’ve also held a media event at 2:00 a.m. to show the CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar operating in mixed traffic for the first time since the 1930s. We’ve learned the importance of keeping in touch with the community, no matter the day or time.
It starts with understanding the different audiences you must reach. Elected officials are in touch with their respective communities and understand their greatest interests and concerns. Business owners can give you the bottom line on how you’re affecting their livelihood. Community leaders can assist you with bringing citizens together. All of these community stakeholders play significant roles and may require different outreach methods, from one-on-one interactions to attending neighborhood festivals to holding public meetings or workshops. Whatever the contact, the dialogue should be open and on-going.
CATS provides various platforms for citizens to learn about projects and their progress and to give input. Many times the feedback is positive and constructive. However, we hear negative comments, too. We welcome those as much as the positive remarks. All citizen feedback is valuable and lets us know if we’re on the right track or where gaps might exist.
Community engagement is a cornerstone in building a strong transit system. CATS recognizes that we must involve the community if we want to provide a system they will ride. In the end, it’s all about the people we serve.
Krystel Green is a guest blogger and CATS Public & Community Relations Manager