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How Groundbreaking Technology Is Enhancing Grass Roots Communication, Fostering Greater Community Understanding on Transit Project

How Groundbreaking Technology Is Enhancing Grass Roots Communication, Fostering Greater Community Understanding on Transit Project

How virtual reality helped WSP engineers describe how a major San Antonio transit project will benefit historically disadvantaged neighborhoods

By Lawson Picasso

As the San Antonio lead for communications and public involvement at WSP USA, one of my primary goals is to find ways to help our engineers and project managers engage effectively and effortlessly with the community and educate them about our projects.

This is especially critical during a project’s preliminary design phase, when there may be a natural inclination for people to worry about the disruption the project may have on their lives– either during construction or after it is completed. At this stage, it can be hard for them to visualize what is planned and how they may benefit. So, I am always looking for effective ways for our team to help the community overcome its apprehension.

And one of the best ways I’ve been able to help our team achieve this is through creative use of virtual reality (VR) technology for in-person community meetings.

A recent example of how this works involved community outreach for the Advanced Rapid Transit (ART) project for San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit agency. This project is the first of its kind in San Antonio, and it’s exciting because it’s the largest local infrastructure project outside of the Texas Department of Transportation. It is a project close to my heart since it is going to bring more services to underserved communities and connect people to some of the larger transportation hubs within San Antonio.

With Oculus VR equipment, folks were able to put on the headset, take the controls and virtually walk-through conceptual designs for the different ART stations in an interactive way that was easier to visualize and explain than could be achieved with a sketch alone. This immersive experience allowed people to grasp a better understanding of the vehicle’s transition from one type of station to the next as well as understanding the potential facility amenities such as advanced ticket technology. 

Combining elements of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) into communities where a majority of households may not have access to this technology was so important for me, and a significant benefit to our team. This was a new experience for the people in attendance, as we weren’t just telling them what the project was going to be — we were creating an experience that helped them visualize the impacts and benefits. They still had concerns, but as we listened to what still worried them, it was clear they were now coming from a higher level of understanding and the resulting conversation was mutually productive and collaborative.

It’s understandable why major infrastructure projects like this can be met with some apprehension. The city of San Antonio seeks to remedy the residual impacts remaining from its historic redlining as seen on the City of San Antonio’s Equity Atlas. When looking at the City from this perspective, deep pockets of inequity are unmistakable — disadvantaged communities on the east and west side are divided by a thriving downtown. In these areas it’s not uncommon to see three generations of a family living in the same house. 

Understanding this dynamic made it critical to find better ways to show people living in these communities how this project will offer families more opportunities right at the curb of their street. It’s essential for the continued growth in San Antonio, especially in these neighborhoods.

My role with the VIA ART project and with our WSP team is to serve as the liaison between VIA’s planning group and public engagement group, and work with them to provide guidance on new opportunities for public outreach and engagement. I provide my WSP group with background details about what is different about San Antonio’s makeup and communities, because successful outcomes in one place is no guarantee that it will work elsewhere. 

Grass-root engagement — knocking on doors, getting into communities, and embedding yourself completely — is important to San Antonians, due to a digital divide we are still addressing in these impacted neighborhoods. For VIA, I am creating strategic approaches and coordinating outreach initiatives, including grass roots and media opportunities, as well as stakeholder engagement, training, and messaging.

As an adopted San Antonian, to work with and support VIA — an agency I believe is vital to the growth and well-being of our community — is truly rewarding. I am grateful that WSP has earned the opportunity to partner with VIA on such an important project; one that supports San Antonio and VIA’s promise to provide sustainability and opportunity to our neighbors, family, and friends.

I love working with people, even when they are frustrated. Their honesty is critical to what we are trying to accomplish. They are the benchmarks that we need, and they really help shape our work. It’s important for all of us to take the puzzle pieces that we have in our hand and put it together to make a beautiful piece of mosaic art, but to do that we need to listen to each other. 

It is important to have these conversations, understand where they’re coming from and then take that input to our engineers to help shape the design of a project in ways that address and adhere to the unique needs of the community. A resident’s first line of defense is local government and local agencies, and by working with a local transit agency, you are able to see and understand just how vital their services are to people. 

That’s why I am grateful that our team provides me with the space to be creative and thoughtful in how we engage the community, to try new technology like VR to facilitate that engagement, and that they appreciate how the results have impacted their responsibilities and added value to their already critical role in making life better for so many people.