Consumer Participation in Transportation Planning: the Elderly, the Poor and Special Interests

Daniel J. Brown, Oregon State University
Philip B. Schary, Oregon State University
ABSTRACT - Participation in the transportation planning process provides an opportunity for transportation consumers to influence decisions which create the systems they will use. This paper examines potential biases introduced into the decision making process because disadvantaged groups are underrepresented and special interests are overrepresented.
[ to cite ]:
Daniel J. Brown and Philip B. Schary (1977) ,"Consumer Participation in Transportation Planning: the Elderly, the Poor and Special Interests", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 138-141.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 138-141


Daniel J. Brown, Oregon State University

Philip B. Schary, Oregon State University

[The authors wish to thank the Oregon Department of Transportation for making the original data for the study available.]


Participation in the transportation planning process provides an opportunity for transportation consumers to influence decisions which create the systems they will use. This paper examines potential biases introduced into the decision making process because disadvantaged groups are underrepresented and special interests are overrepresented.


For several years the consumer of transportation service has been invited to participate in the planning process for new facilities. Beginning with the Federal Highway Act of 1970, public input has been required by law. This requirement has been extended by a steady stream of subsequent legislation and administrative orders emanating from the U.S. Department of Transportation which have been echoed in the various states. The voice of the transportation consumer and others who are affected by transportation plans and programs has been heard in opposition to freeways and in favor of mass transit as well as other alternatives to the automobile. At the same time behavior indicates an unwillingness to give up the private automobile. The dilemma for the planner is that the consumer provides a mixed signal, one that is difficult to interpret.

Broadly based participation is necessary for both philosophical and practical reasons. Under a democratic perspective, the power to make decisions would be taken from the hands of the technical bureaucrat, and from special interests such as highway contractors, to be placed in the grip of the actual consumers who will ultimately pay for and use new transportation systems. In theory, every consumer should have the opportunity to express an opinion, and collectively these opinions should shape the final decision. Prom a more practical standpoint, broad participation is necessary to encourage transportation consumers to use the system once it has been created. The optimal system in the eyes of the transportation planner may not be "best" according to the personal criteria of the potential system users. Further, even under conditions of a partially democratic process, a system created in response to pressures and preferences of a limited but militant segment of t-he population may have little appeal to other segments. Finally, there may be pressures created by vocal minorities to impose standards of behavior on less vocal groups.

The precise form of participation in transportation planning process is not specified in final form by law. The Oregon Department of Transportation Action Plan (1975), for example, calls for a representative group to act as a contributing body without specifying how the representation is to be achieved. In most cases, participation becomes project-specific, channeled primarily through the mechanism of public hearings focused on individual freeway construction and transit system modifications. Because of self selection of the participants, such input is partisan and lacks continuity from one project to the next. As a contrast, the Oregon DOT Action Plan seeks to provide more continuity through the mechanism of public advisory groups.

The danger in participation mechanisms goes further than the issue of continuity. Planners may be satisfying the letter of the law without satisfying its intent. Uneven response to appeals for participation creates distorted inputs. Overrepresentation by partisan segments as well as simultaneous underrepresentation of non-vocal segments can result in biased decisions. Later, unanticipated patterns of use can create overloads, congestion, or conversely, complete rejection as several instances of urban freeway abandonment have demonstrated.

The problem of bias in participation is very much a marketing problem. The "market" can be segmented into groups with distinctly different attributes and responses. Bias is indicated if we note that some segments are more willing to participate than others or that some segments are reluctant to participate at all.

Some segments of the population respond more enthusiastically because of their unique interest in specific problems, such as a desire to patronize particular new forms of transportation. Others will respond actively because of their social position or because of attitudes about public responsibility. At the same time, there may be others with special demands on the system who characteristically do not speak out at all. Disadvantaged groups such as elderly or low income consumers may be in this latter category (Verba and Nie, 1972) even though both groups have unique transportation problems (Golant, 1972; Pignataro and Palcocohio, 1974). In short, the implication is that those with a specific set of attitudes or with an axe to grind are more likely to participate in the planning process. On the other hand, those who may have the most at stake in the planning process may be the least involved.


Opportunity to probe the issue of consumer participation was made possible through a state-wide survey by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Approximately 2,400 respondents were asked a series of questions concerning their activities and views on specific topics in transportation. Among these was a question which asked if the respondent would be willing to serve on a state transportation advisory committee which would require two evening meetings per month. The specific form of the question focused on two aspects of the participation issue. First, it related not to a specific project but to a general on-going activity. At the same time, it described the implications of participation in terms of the opportunity cost of the time involved. It thus avoided eliciting a vaguely worded sentiment about respondents feeling they "ought" to participate.

Three hypotheses were tested with the use of this question in conjunction with other data gathered in the survey. (1) The null hypothesis proposed that participation would be the same for all groups. This is an implicit assumption behind many of the participation devices now being used. Sloan (1974), however, commented that in his study of the Boston freeway planning process that unknown biases existed because of the self-selecting nature of participation. (2) One alternative hypothesis suggested that disadvantaged groups would be less likely to participate than other segments of the survey population. (3) Another alternative hypothesis suggested that those with special interests in transportation would be more likely to participate than those without special interests. Rejection of the null hypothesis would take on different meanings, depending on which of the alternative hypotheses is involved; however, in any case, the view that planners would obtain biased inputs through the process of public participation would be supported.

The methods of analysis included simple cross tabulation and a computerized data analysis known as "Automatic Interaction Detector" (AID). AID is designed to separate predictor variables into subgroups in order to explain the variance of a criterion variable. The variables are split on the basis of maximizing the between-group sum of squares while minimizing the within-group sum of squares for each predictor. Each candidate predictor variable is then scanned to select the variable with the largest between-group sum of squares. For a variable to be selected, it must contain a minimum percentage of the original sum of squares and a minimum number of cases, both of which are specified by the investigator. Following the selection of the best predictor variable, the scanning process is repeated and the next best variable is selected. The process continues until the selection criteria specified by the investigator can no longer be met (Sonquist and Morgan, 1964). In this particular analysis, the minimum acceptable percentage of the sum of squares for a variable to be included was 2 percent and the minimum number of cases in any one cell was set at 9.


The average rate of willingness to participate was 31.1% for the entire sample; however, this average is not representative of all segments of the survey. Some groups substantially exceeded this figure, and others fell far below it.

Cross tabulation of the willingness to participate with demographic measures of income, age and education described in Table 1 gave some examples of groups with very low participation rates. Those with less than a high school education exhibited the lowest response rate, 13.2%. Those aged 60 and older showed a rate of 16.1%, while those with incomes of $5,000 or less demonstrated a rate of 23.8%. These results relate to an evaluation of disadvantaged consumers where "disadvantaged" is operationalized as "low income," annual incomes of $5,000 or less, and as "elderly," 60 years of age or older. Both the elderly and those with Low incomes were significantly less willing to participate. Thus, the null hypothesis that participation would be the same for all groups was rejected generally in favor of the alternative hypothesis that disadvantaged groups would be less likely to participate than other segments of the survey population.

Consumers with special interests in transportation were expected to participate more willingly than others. In the present study, "special transportation interests" were operationalized in terms of two classes of variables: behavior patterns and attitudes.



Special transportation interests defined as behavior patterns were considered in Table 2. Consumer and nonuser groups were identified for a number of transportation modes and analyzed in terms of willingness to participate. The participation rate of inter-city bus riders was highest (46.0%), followed by bicyclists (42.7%), carpool members (41.6%), motorcyclists (39.9%), and intra-city mass transit passengers (38.0%). Only airplane users were not significantly different from the rest of the sample. Thus, when special interest is taken to mean consumption of alternatives to the private automobile, the null hypothesis is rejected in most cases. It would seem that regular use of these modes is associated with an awareness of transportation policies, policies which have emphasized the automobile in the past.



The survey also asked about desires to use expanded service on two specific modes: intra-state air service and inter-city bus. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they would use these modes on a three point scale ranging from "not likely" to "very likely." As was expected, Table 3 showed that those with the greatest interest in using the new systems also showed the strongest interest in participation. As before, interest in non-automobile transportation led to a rejection of the null hypothesis.

In addition to behavioral and intention variables, attitudinal differences were expected to he related to participation. For example, respondents were given a list of problem areas affecting the state and were asked to indicate the most important through rank ordering. These problems varied from crime and inflation to land-use and transportation. However, the relationship was statistically significant only in the case of land-use planning where those who ranked this problem to he most important were also more willing to participate.



Respondents were also asked questions about the performance of the Oregon DOT, first, in its job on highways and airports, and second, in respect to protecting the environment. As an analogue to consumerism in the private sector, these questions asked how good the product was that the Oregon DOT was providing, both in terms of specific product benefits and indirect benefits through the environment. The relationship shown in Table 4 is U-shaped. Those who felt most strongly either in favor of or against the quality of the environmental job were more willing to participate than those in the more indifferent middle ground.



The relationship among demographic characteristics, behavior and attitudes is brought into a more integrated focus through the AID analyses presented in Figures 1 and 2 which deal with the elderly and low income consumers in turn. The AID results are shown as trees of conditional probability. Each box on the branch is dependent upon being identified with the category which precedes it to the left.

The criterion variable, willingness to participate, is expressed dichotomously as 0.0 for a negative and 1.0 for a positive response. Therefore, the proportion of positive response which appears in each cell represents the probability of participation. The independent variables included all of the demographic, behavioral and attitudinal variables included above. Response figures for the AID analysis depart slightly from the cross tabulation results because some observations used in cross tabulation did not have complete information in every measure used in the AID algorithm.

Considering only those respondents who were 60 years of age or older, the first variable which divided the group was education. For those elderly with less than a high school education, the proportion of participants dropped to 9.0%. For those elderly with at least a high school education, it seemed that the most important subsequent variables involved the use of specialized transportation: bicycles, air service, or mass transit. These variables coupled with education of at least a high school level raised the participation rate to a level in the neighborhood of the survey mean.



The results shown in Table 1 demonstrated that the null hypothesis could be generally rejected in favor of the alternative hypothesis that the elderly as a disadvantaged group were less likely to participate than other groups. However, this statement holds only under specific circumstances as shown by the AID analysis.

Considering only t-hose with incomes of $5,000 or less, the first independent variable to split the group was age. The elderly who composed a large part of the low income group began to divide as they did in Figure 1. For those with low incomes under 60 years of age, the proportion started at a relatively high 39.0%. From this point the probability of participation increased with the use of various transportation modes: bicycles, inter-city bus, and the likely use of air service. The highest probability of participation was registered for those with low incomes who were under 60, and were interested in inter-city air service, and used the existing inter-city bus, and gave a good or excellent rating to the Oregon DOT on environmental protection (70.0%).



Results shown in Table 1 indicated that the null hypothesis generally could be rejected in favor of the alternative hypothesis that low income people as a disadvantaged group were less likely to participate than others. However, the AID analysis seemed to indicate that this result would only hold when Low income was mixed with advanced age. In fact, low income people under 60 years of age appeared to be activists in some cases. The important variable was clearly age and not income. Thus expectations about the low income group received only qualified support.


Transportation planning determines, for years to come, the travel alternatives from which consumers can choose. At the same time, the inclusion of public inputs into the planning process provides a real opportunity to exercise consumer sovereignty. However, differential rates of participation among different segments of the population will cause biased decisions unless participation is balanced.

Overrepresentation would seem to be a problem in the ease of those who seek alternatives to the private automobile for transportation. In light of the energy shortage, this bias might seem desirable; however, by not obtaining commensurate input from other groups, transportation systems designed with such a bias may be unacceptable to a large proportion of the population.

Underrepresentation would seem to be the problem in the case of the elderly. Advanced age reduces willingness to participate, due perhaps to changes in health, energy levels, or attitudes. The problem of bias is critical in this case because of the special transportation needs which accrue to the aged.

Both overrepresentation and underrepresentation are end points on a single problem spectrum, the securing of unbiased inputs from a widely diverse set of consumer groups. The objective is to eliminate bias so that the needs of all segments are evaluated in a consistent manner. We need to consider other input devices in addition to planning committees. Surveys of the entire population are useful in providing a needed channel of communication for non-participants as well as weighting the responses of activists. However, even here, the generation of hypotheses to test becomes a privilege of a minority. There still remains a need to find what the non-responsive elements would choose, even before the survey questions are asked. The problem demands a marketing solution, in the sense that individual market segments must be identified, along with their values, before meaningful answers to questions about future direction for transportation can be obtained. Single organizational devices for consumer input do not appear to be t-he answer at this point.


Stephen M. Golant, The Residential Location and Spatial Behavior of the Elderly, Department of Geography Research Paper No. 143 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1972).

Oregon Department of Transportation Action Plans (Salem, Oregon: Oregon Department of Transportation, 1975).

Louis V. Pignataro and John C. Palcocohio, "Transportation Needs of Low Income Families," Traffic Quarterly, 23(October, 1969), 505-525.

Allan K. Sloan, Citizen Participation in Transportation Planning: The Boston Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1974).

John A. Sonquist and James N. Morgan, The Detection of Interaction Effects, Monograph No. 35 (Ann Arbor: Survey Research Center, University of Michigan, 1964).

Sidney Verba and Norman H. Nie, Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).