Developing Public Risk Communications about Deteriorating Transportation Infrastructure Risks

Focus Area

Construction and Maintenance Practices


Environmental Process, Natural Resources






1-2 years

Research Idea Scope

Policies are needed to
fund transportation infrastructure upgrades to avoid catastrophic costs and
risks. However, while transportation experts see these costs and risks as
significant, members of the general public are relatively unaware and
unconcerned about the issue. If people do not have sufficient understanding of
the relevant facts about the risks of transportation infrastructure
deterioration to make informed decisions about whether to support relevant
mitigation policies, communications may provide help. The Mental Models
Approach (MMA) for developing communications aims to teach recipients decision-relevant
knowledge that is missing from their repertoires by building on existing
beliefs or ‘mental model.’ Its four steps include (1) normative research to
identify what information is necessary for making informed decisions; (2)
descriptive research to characterize what people currently believe and how
these beliefs affect their decisions, (3) prescriptive research to examine what
people still need to learn in order to make more informed decisions; (4)
evaluation research to test whether communications are effective, in terms of
improving people’s understanding and hence their ability to make informed
decisions. We will use the MMA to develop risk communications about
transportation infrastructure risks and the needs for upgrading.


In task 1, we will conduct
normative research through a literature review to identify relevant information
that members of the public should know about this topic.


In task 2, we will conduct
descriptive research using open-ended interviews with the general public to
elucidate what the public does know about transportation infrastructure risks.
After topics are identified, we will conduct a short survey with a larger
sample to test the prevalence of the qualitative research findings.


In task 3, we will conduct
prescriptive research by comparing the findings from tasks 1 and 2 to elucidate
the knowledge gaps and misconceptions of the general public about
transportation infrastructure risks. We will develop communications and
iteratively refine them to be technically accurate, yet understandable to the
public, relying on expert review and pilot tests with lay people when


In task 4, we will conduct
an evaluation of the risk communications with members of the general public.
This will entail a pre-post experimental design, using the communications as
the intervention.


We expect this work take
place over 2 years, with a budget of approximately $300,000. 

Urgency and Payoff

A report by the American
Society of Civil Engineers ( ) found that deficient and deteriorating surface
transportation cost the U.S. $130 billion in 2010 and failing to invest more in
the nation’s roads and bridges would total $3.1 trillion in lost GDP growth by
2020.  Without public support and
pressure for infrastructure upgrades, policies to increase funding in these
areas may fail. Indeed, many existing public policies are informed by public


This study will provide a
better understanding of what people still need to learn about transportation
infrastructure costs and risks. It will also develop risk communications that
can be used to better inform the public about those costs and risks. Once
members of the general public are better informed, it should only be a matter
of time until public policies begin to reflect the urgent needs of
transportation infrastructure.

Suggested By

Lauren Fleishman RAND Corporation 412-683-2300 x4210

[email protected]