Change Leader Full Interview: Use Familiar Tools to Achieve Public Support
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Doug Taylor is the vice president and transportation practice leader for Stewart, an engineering, design and planning firm located in Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, N.C.
V1 Media: Can you describe your education and career before Stewart Engineering?
Taylor: In 1983, I graduated from Asheville–Buncombe Technical College with an Associate’s of Applied Science Degree in Civil Engineering, and answered an ad in the newspaper for jobs here in Raleigh with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). I had three interviews and ended up selecting a position with the Roadway Design Unit. I was with NCDOT for 30 years in various positions; I started out as an engineering technician and moved up through the ranks, and the last five years with NCDOT, I was the assistant state roadway design engineer.
At that time, my focus was the western part of the state, which was Divisions 10 through 14, that went from Charlotte west to Murphy. After I retired from DOT in 2014, I had the opportunity to come work for Stewart Engineering, and I was hired to lead the transportation practice.
I’ve been with Stewart now for five years and been leading the transportation practice during that time.
V1 Media: Could you describe the North Carolina DOT Fairview Road extension project and how you created a video to achieve public acceptance of the roundabouts in that design?
Taylor: When we developed this roundabout video, we developed it for three interchange reconfigurations we did in Burke County prior to the Fairview Road extension. They were all interchanges on I-40 heading toward the Asheville area.
All three of those interchange configurations had roundabouts on them at the ramp termini. The terrain in this area was very difficult, and as we were developing our concepts and our functional designs, we were guided toward using roundabouts because that design that was able to keep us somewhat within the existent footprints and kept us from getting into too much of that difficult terrain. So because of that, we ended up with roundabout designs on all three of those interchange configurations. But there weren’t many roundabouts in that area, so Division 13 asked us, “What can you do to sell these roundabout designs?” They were concerned about the public not being familiar with them and not having the kind of support they needed.
So we put our heads together and came up with an idea to produce a roundabout video using drone and GoPro camera footage, so we could pull together a video that provided guidance on how to traverse through the roundabouts, not just from the vehicles, but also for bicycles and pedestrians. So we developed that video and used it at the public meeting for those Division 13 interchanges. We set up a separate roundabout station that had two TVs looping the video, so people could sit down and watch it before they came to the maps and talked to us.
A lot feedback we were getting was that the video really helped them have a basic understanding of how roundabouts worked, and allowed them to be able to ask more-specific questions. Because of that, we made Division 12 aware of the roundabout video before we had a public meeting on the Fairview Road extension, and they asked us to set up that same type of station, so people attending the public meeting could watch it before they asked questions.
So although this video was developed specifically for the Division 13 interchanges in Burke County, we used it on the Fairview Road extension, and it’s also been used on some other projects. I believe the repeated use of this video shows the value of this type of educational tool.
V1 Media: So the video came before the work on these projects and helped lead to that work?
Taylor: The video came about because of the Division 13 interchange projects, which were before the Fairview road project. We were working on the Fairview Road project, but the video wasn’t done specifically for that. But because it worked so well in Burke County, we’ve been using it at other public meetings we’ve been having. Specifically, the one on Fairview Road was the most-recent project, where we’re extending Fairview Road over I-77 and connecting it to Alcove Road to provide another route for travelers on the east side to be able to get across I-77 and go into the town of Mooresville without having to go through the Williamson Road interchange area at I-77, because that’s a very congested area. Due to the amount of traffic going through that interchange, we were tasked with providing an alternate route with the extension over I-77.
As we developed that widening of Alcove Road, the design led us to use roundabouts. The traffic forecast recommended roundabouts to keep traffic flow moving, so we ended up with four roundabouts on that project. One of them being a “turbo roundabout” that developed two lanes before you go into the roundabout, so the outside lane continues on through, and the inside lane takes you around to make those left movements. It’s a little more complex roundabout than some of the basic one-lane ones that you see most often in the state.
V1 Media: What is Division 13?
Taylor: Division 13 is the Asheville area. It includes some of the surrounding areas such as Morganton and Valdes, and these projects I’m talking about on I-40 were in the Morganton-Valdes area.
V1 Media: So these divisions are a geographic area?
Taylor: Yes. NCDOT has the state broken up into 14 different divisions, and each division represents a certain geographic area. Usually it’s about four or five counties that make up each division. They’re numbered from east to west.
V1 Media: You mentioned NCDOT was concerned ahead of time about the public, concerned about roundabouts. Do you know why that they had these initial concerns?
Taylor: Primarily because in that area, there weren’t many roundabouts. Normally, whenever the public doesn’t understand how something works, their initial reaction is negative, so NCDOT wanted us to flip that narrative and do something that would keep us from having that negative initial reaction from the public on something they’re not familiar with.
They wanted us to provide some education to help things along, and it worked very well. As far as the Fairview Road project, we have two roundabouts together, so they were concerned about the public understanding how to go from one roundabout right into another roundabout. So part of their reason for wanting to use that video is to ease the public’s concern about how you traverse through those roundabouts, especially when you have a series of them and not just one.
That was the reason for using the video guide, but the roundabout designs themselves came about primarily because of the traffic capacity analysis.
V1 Media: So the video is preemptive to try and combat people’s fear of change, rather than some negative experiences they’ve already had with other roundabouts?
Taylor: Right. It was more lack of familiarity as opposed to having bad experiences. Most of the public just hadn’t been through a roundabout before.
V1 Media: You mentioned the traffic capacity analysis recommended roundabouts. Can you tell us why and perhaps your own personal opinion on roundabouts vs. other forms of intersections?
Taylor: NCDOT has a philosophy that roundabouts are a good alternative to a signalized intersection, because they allow a more continuous traffic flow with traffic yielding to enter the roundabout as opposed to stopping in signal ques at signalized intersections. You don’t have to come to a complete stop unless there are cars approaching you in the roundabout, so it leads to better traffic flow. Because of that, we’ve been using roundabouts more and more. The biggest factor in comparing roundabouts vs. signalized intersections is the fact that roundabouts take up more footprint, so we always have to look at those impacts and make sure the additional impacts of a roundabout can be justified vs. the cost of signalization. But in this case, those roundabouts helped us to tighten up the interchange designs to stay within the existing footprint.
V1 Media: Would you say that unless there are specific circumstances to make roundabouts impractical, that would be the preferred option in most cases?
Taylor: Yes. Roundabouts have a lot of advantages to them. They keep traffic moving, and research has shown that you have fewer crashes through roundabouts than you do with some of the conventional intersections.
V1 Media: But are some people still not supportive of roundabouts regardless of the research and expert opinions?
Taylor: There’s still some resistance, but I think it mostly comes from lack of knowledge, lack of education. That came out of the public meeting we had in Burke County; after the people in the public meeting were able to watch that video and understand how roundabouts worked, a lot of the feedback was “Now that I’ve seen it, I can see how it would work better, I can see how it would be safer.” We were getting very positive feedback from the public. Resistance wasn’t because they didn’t like it; it was because they just didn’t understand it and know how it worked.
That’s why it’s such a key and why we focus so much on the educational aspect of this video and how we could use it moving forward as an educational tool, because we saw the results from the public of how that video helped them understand how a roundabout worked.
V1 Media: For the industry in general, how important is trying to improve public education and opinion? Are engineering firms and DOTs doing as much as they need to, or is there room for improvement in getting more education for the public?
Taylor: I think there’s always room for improvement, but one thing I’ve seen–and this goes back to my 30 years with NCDOT and then my five years here at Stewart–is steady improvement over the years of NCDOT and their partners really focusing on public-education aspects of public meetings and looking for innovative ways to educate the public and make them better aware of the designs.
For so long, especially in my early years, I went to those public meetings, heard the resistance, heard people complaining about the designs, and a lot of it was because they just didn’t understand it. But as we implemented more ways to educate the public, I’ve seen a change in the impression we get from the public. Engineers can sometimes get too technical in their explanations to the public, so we have to think of innovative ways to educate.
It’s things like this video, but it’s also other things like visualization tools. At Stewart, we also do visualizations that take those designs and put them in a format that looks like a 3D rendering of the design. That generally helps the public see what it’s going to look like. We sometimes have 3D renderings of new and/or innovative design types so the public can better understand what the new roads are actually going to look like.
We recently had a public meeting in Belmont on a project that’s improving an intersection there, and we’re doing a “Michigan left” on that, which is taking the left turns out of the intersection itself, and moving them down into the U-turn movement about 800 feet away from the intersection. That particular design is somewhat new in North Carolina, so along with the public meeting maps, we created a 3D rendering and had that on display in the public meeting. We found that most people were gravitating toward that 3D rendering as opposed to the public meeting map itself, because they were able to understand it better. So we were spending more time at that rendering, explaining the project, than we did at the official public meeting map itself.
We’ve really seen the benefits of those innovative ways to educate the public. It’s led us to start looking for those opportunities on other projects, but not all projects need this. If it’s a more-basic design that’s easier to understand, you don’t have to go that extra route. But if projects have innovative or new types of designs, these extra measures go a long way in getting public buy-in for these projects.
V1 Media: This project used drone footage. Is there a particular reason why, and what was your experience with using drones?
Taylor: One reason we used drone footage is because we have a geomatics practice area that uses drones for various things, and we have licensed drone operators, so we saw it as an opportunity to use one of our other practice areas to assist us on this project. And we realized that one of the best ways to provide this public education was to be able to give the public different views of how to operate a roundabout.
So we initially had our geomatics group go out and get some drone footage of a roundabout that was in close proximity to those projects, and they were able to be there certain times of the day where they could catch the most traffic going through the roundabout. They took that drone footage, that bird’s-eye view of it, and then we also had them use GoPro cameras to drive through the roundabout. We combined the GoPro footage with the drone footage to give different perspectives on how to traverse through the roundabouts. We show that bird’s-eye view of traffic going through the roundabout, and then we transition into the GoPro footage that actually showed a driver going through the roundabout, making those different moves depending on the direction they were looking to go.
V1 Media: Are there other ways to improve public education that would help across the industry?
Taylor: Take advantage of 3D renderings and simulations. We also do traffic simulations that show how traffic goes through the designs and where it would back up. Those are all good tools to help educate the public.
The biggest thing is making sure you engage the public early on, so we can guide the public through the development of these designs. Since we’ve had public meetings on these projects, I’ve had a lot of stakeholders wanting to know the progress of the designs, and it leads to better engagement with the public.
We’re designing these roads so the public can get around better, so as much involvement as we can get from them makes for a better design and a better project that the public’s proud of. It also helps public relations with the DOT.
With my history with NCDOT, I’ve been through public meetings where we’d hear: “Well, you’ve already decided what you’re going to do anyway, so what I think doesn’t matter.” And I’ve seen that change over the years. Now the public knows they have some input, and whenever they make comments at public meetings, we actually take those comments and evaluate them and consider them. Obviously, not everything gets incorporated, but at least they have a sense that they have input in these projects.
It’s been a real positive that I’ve seen over the years as far as how public involvement has developed with NCDOT on these projects.
V1 Media: Are there other ways besides public meetings to help raise awareness?
Taylor: Some of the more-complex projects have websites set up, that people can use them to stay abreast of the progress on these projects. And social media also can be used to educate the public on these projects. There are a lot of ways out there now to better keep the public abreast of changes on these projects, and anything we do in that area makes it a better project, because we have more buy-in on what we’re doing.
V1 Media: Is there any advice you could pass along about how engineers can do a better job of educating the public?
Taylor: Make sure you engage those local stakeholders early in the process. One thing we do now is at the very outset of project development, we’re engaging local officials and planners to get their input and make sure we have local buy-in to these projects. Whenever we do that early on, we jump start that public involvement process. The main thing is just engage the public, engage the locals early, and engage them often, so you can make sure and get buy-in at each project development phase. That’s the biggest takeaway I can give you.