Like most Vancouverites, Thuy Nguyen has never sat through a city-council meeting, been to the park board, or attended a school-board meeting.
“I’m busy and I don’t know what I need there, or what they are talking about,” Nguyen told the Georgia Straight outside her workplace in the West End.
Although Nguyen hasn’t been to these public meetings, the frequent transit rider does have a few ideas about how to improve transportation in Metro Vancouver.
“In Coquitlam, there aren’t too many SkyTrain stations,” Nguyen explained. “Sometimes I want to go to Coquitlam, but it’s quite far on the bus and a long time to wait from Vancouver.”
That’s an example of the kind of comments University of British Columbia researcher Susanna Haas Lyons heard from people last year as she studied the future of transportation in Vancouver. Haas Lyons turned to Facebook to help the Greenest City Conversations research project find out how residents and commuters want to travel around the city heading into 2040.
Over 750 people joined the Facebook group Exploring Vancouver’s Transportation Future and participated in online discussions on key transportation issues. This allowed Haas Lyons to compile a report for the City of Vancouver detailing where the municipal government should focus in terms of public transit, cycling, driving, and other commuting issues.
“What we heard from participants was that they very much appreciated the opportunity to be able to participate when and where they wanted, rather than have to go to a public meeting,” Haas Lyons told the Straight over the phone.
According to Haas Lyons, the Facebook forum was particularly popular with women between the ages of 24 and 35. This is a demographic the city has trouble getting out to traditional meetings.
“People 55-plus were overrepresented in face-to-face events,” Haas Lyons said. “Online engagement is an important complementary tool to the public consultation. It is not meant to be a replacement, because you skew towards certain populations in the online environment as much as you skew towards other populations in the face-to-face environment.”
People surveyed through the Facebook group prompted 19 specialized recommendations to the city. Users prioritized making transit more accessible and adding routes for cyclists over finding more options for automobiles.
Haas Lyons says city staff are preparing for an additional phase of public consultation before they write a final report and submit it to council.
“There are a lot of possibilities, but really it’s unclear as to what the transportation future is,” Haas Lyons said. “And I think it is partially dependent on what residents and commuters want.”
In a report Haas Lyons delivered to the city, she notes there are some constraints to using Facebook as the only tool for outreach, but people who were involved in the exercise felt their ideas were heard.
“When you see your post on the screen.…there is a sense of ‘Hey, it doesn’t just disappear into the ether. It is out there as a record,’ ” Haas Lyons explained. “People respond to it. They have some dialogue with city officials, and when they are asking questions, then they have emails from the city totheir inboxes.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer credits Greenest City Conversations—which continues to study online engagement and sustainability policies—for spawning the city’s first Facebook page and Twitter account. Now, 17 city departments and programs have their own social-media accounts.
“Social media is exploding. Policy should never explode,” Reimer told the Straight over the phone. “Policy by its nature should be thoughtful; it should not be reactionary. It should look to the future and be big enough to grow into wherever you think that policy might be going. Not that you can predict the future, but you should be at least thoughtful and think ahead.”
Reimer agrees that social media is a powerful tool for getting people engaged with their community, but says the city needs to make sure it doesn’t depend solely on the technology.
“There was lots of good government before social media,” Reimer said. “There are lots of things about engagement, discussion, dialogue, and inclusion in community that existed before social media existed.
“It’s not really a question of either/or,” she added. “It’s about what can social media add to those discussions. It’s about thinking about social media as a network of conversation and how you can contribute.”
Although Reimer doesn’t want to be pushy, she admitted it would be nice if online engagement spurred more people to interact face to face with the city.
“I hope that one day those connections lead to them going to a school-board, park-board, library-board, or city-council meeting or whatever,” Reimer said. “But if they don’t, that’s fine too.”