How do you get youth to use mass transit? Autumn Shafer is on the case

Story and photos by Margaret Connors  
Video by Aaron Weintraub

As in many industries, a key issue in transportation planning right now is sustainability and offering some kind of service that keeps people coming back, such as offering a super healthy drink for hydration. Transportation systems need to be planned with the future in mind, which means we need to start engaging the people who will soon be the decision makers and beneficiaries of these long-term projects: today’s youth.

But how do you get young people to buy into changing their transportation habits? What are the best ways to actively connect with youth who could be future mass transit riders, bike riders or walkers? And how do you get them to pay attention to information that has the potential to be dry and complex?

SOJC Assistant Professor Autumn Shafer is trying to find out. She recently secured a $15,000 National Institute for Transportation and Communities Small Starts grant for her research project “Engaging Youth to Increase Their Transportation System Support, Understanding, and Use” to investigate how to communicate with young people in ways that will “foster more positive attitudes, intentions and behavior related to transit and other non-car options.”

According to a member of the NITC Executive Committee, issues of communication continue to come up among scholars and professionals in the transportation world, yet the traditional transportation disciplines are ill-equipped to address these issues effectively. That’s why research like Shafer’s is so important right now.

Shafer decided to apply for the grant in August 2015 when another researcher from the UO Sustainable Cities Initiative sent an announcement to her. “We had previously talked about a few related projects that I hoped to do in the future,” said Shafer.

Now she has her chance.

Although Shafer, who has been passionate about helping create effective communication campaigns since she was in graduate school, has mostly worked on health-related campaigns in the past, she felt this was a cause she could get behind.

“I joined a research team working to help people consider sustainable transportation as part of what makes a city livable in 2015,” Shafer explained, “and that's what introduced me to transportation-related communication.”

Now she’s working on both this ongoing project and another project called “Framing Livability,” with the help of SOJC Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising Deb Morrison, that aims to communicate how public transportation is part of what makes a community livable.

There are very few, if any, studies involving practical and calculated efforts at promoting transportation systems at youth. Shafer’s project description details three main outcomes. It will:

  1. Empirically evaluate the materials needed to communicate with youth in ways that will foster a more positive relationship with non-car mobility.

  2. Aim to increase discussion about non-car mobility among youth by improving their knowledge of engagement with transit systems.

  3. Determine how effective it is to communicate about transportation with youth through their mobile devices.

Shafer decided that Portland, which is consistently ranked as one of the best transit cities in the country, is the ideal place to conduct this research. She is currently recruiting youth in the city for focus groups that will help her better understand the attitudes and opinions of students transitioning into high school. All the participants involved are eighth and ninth grade students from Portland’s after-school programs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs.

Following the focus groups, Shafer will conduct a message testing experiment to compare different strategies that might be effective with youth. At the conclusion of the research, she will provide NITC and the Portland Bureau of Transportation evidence-based messaging recommendations and electronic editable copies of tested messages that will promote non-car mobility through the use of text and graphics that can be sent to mobile phones.

SCI will be providing advisory assistance to Shafer throughout the course of the project.

“We work across disciplines inside and out of academia,” reads SCI’s website, “to re-define the delivery of higher education, conduct applied and policy-relevant research, and serve the public in the design and development of sustainable, resilient and livable cities.”

This project is scheduled to end in in the spring of 2018, when Shafer will present her final report to NITC.

There are two things Shafer says she is most looking forward to during and after this project. The first, she says, will be working with UO undergraduate students and teaching them about research, something she enjoys greatly. And second, she’s looking forward to testing the messages.

“I like predicting and sometimes being surprised about what is effective with a target audience,” she said. “There is so much creativity and strategy involved in the message design and testing process.”

When asked what the biggest impact she thought this project would have, Shafer spoke of the ways it will help transportation agencies to better communicate with youth about getting around by bus, bike and other non-car options. “I really like the idea of helping to create a culture that supports sustainable transportation,” she said.

Margaret Connors is a senior studying advertising with a concentration in photojournalist. She plans to graduate from SOJC this spring. This is her first year interning for the SOJC Communications Office. Previously, she was an intern for The Big Issue SA, a magazine that sent her around South Africa looking for stories and learning about the industry. She is eager to create ethical, authentic, and passionate work to share with the world. You can follow her on Instagram @margeconnors.

Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision MagazineWhen he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.