Q&A: How to Help Transportation Agencies Plan for the Future

August 30, 2017

Lorna Parkins, Michael Baker International's Vice President for Transportation Planning, discusses how to help transportation agencies plan for an uncertain future that includes new travel technologies and mobility options.

Q.  How is disruptive technology affecting long-range transportation planning?Parkins-2012-headshot_orig-(1).jpg

Disruptive technologies, such as connected and automated vehicles (CAV), the Internet of Things (IoT), and the sharing economy, will transform transportation in the coming decades.  These industry game-changers are perhaps as significant as those experienced a century ago, with the transition from horse-and-buggy to automobile!  When combined with other trends such as transformations in the retail sector, and the unique values and choices of younger generations, planners’ ability to predict the future is more challenging than ever.  As technology changes, so too will land use, community design, and transportation systems.  One key take-away is that our planning tools that predict the future based on past trends and behaviors must now be used with caution as well as creativity.

Q.  Why are transportation agencies focused on planning for the distant future when it’s so uncertain?

State DOTs and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have federal requirements to plan for a minimum timeframe of 20 years.  For the past few decades, these agencies have relied on forecasting models to prepare long-range plans.  These models assume a great deal of consistency between past and future travel behavior. Transportation agencies are realizing that the combination of changing technology, changing values, and other dynamic trends are making it much more difficult to have confidence in a single forecast of future growth and transportation demand.  This is a dilemma – they are required to forecast into an uncertain future, but new approaches and tools may be needed to explore and understand what the future may bring.

Q. How can planning be done for an unpredictable future?

Scenario Planning is an approach that allows planners to consider a variety of assumptions about the future and compare the potential outcomes.  This is a great approach in uncertain times, because it covers a range of possibilities.  The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recommends scenario planning for long-range transportation plans, and it provides examples and best practices on its website.

There are many approaches to scenario planning that can be tailored to the tools at hand, from writing scenarios narratively with the help of a panel of experts, to sketch planning techniques, to full quantitative modeling – and combinations of these approaches can work, as well.  We are finishing up a sketch planning process for a state DOT that has been very insightful.  It involved a great deal of trends research plus development of relatively simple, but data-driven, sketch planning methods that connect transportation and land use, and that connect assumptions about future trends to transportation outcomes.

Q. What are the benefits of scenario planning?

Scenario Planning allows transportation agencies to learn about the tradeoffs they will face in the future, while gaining a deeper understanding about how different future trends may affect transportation needs.  The point of scenario planning is not necessarily to pick a future that is preferred (what should happen). In this context, exploratory scenario planning helps an agency be more prepared for what could happen in the future.  This allows agencies to be more strategic and nimble in their decisions about transportation investments, and it provides lead time for them to consider and develop policies that will guide their region or state towards better outcomes as the future trends take place. Importantly, the conversation that takes place among stakeholders, agency staff and policymakers in the course of scenario planning can often be the greatest benefit.  These conversations illuminate the future transportation issues, and they raise awareness of the trends that will have the greatest impact on transportation in the future.

Q. What are some examples of scenario planning insights with respect to future technology trends in transportation?

Based on research and our analysis, it’s apparent that connected and automated vehicles (CAV) and mobility-on-demand services (like Uber and Lyft) will create a surge in travel.  We analyzed different facets of this trend, such as how in the future, zero-occupant vehicles will be roaming between errands and passenger rides.  An important insight from scenario analysis was that the increase in demand, and how it’s met by different travel modes, will be quite different in different types of communities such as rural, small town, suburban and urban places.  At the same time, different parts of the transportation system and different community types will have the ability to ‘absorb’ the future demand through improved safety, information technology, and vehicle operations (like platooning of vehicles) to varying degrees.  Specifically, it appears that more multimodal environments and more urban environments may be best able to balance the surge in demand with the growth in through-put (or efficiency) of the system, while inter-city highways may also have great potential to balance these trends.  In any setting, however, a key question will be how to manage the timing of these two important dynamics – growth in demand and growth in through-put – so that travel conditions do not get much worse before they get better.

Q.  What is your background in long-range and scenario planning?

I started my career with the Pittsburgh MPO, where I worked on one of the first regional transportation scenario planning exercises in the 1990s.  We developed new tools to streamline the analytical process of creating and comparing different land use-transportation options for the regional long-range plan.  I have been a consultant for over 20 years, and in that time, I have worked on many regional and statewide multimodal long-range plans. I have also been involved in scenario planning efforts for different types of transportation plans along the spectrum of corridor to regional to statewide in scope. 

The tools for planning are continually evolving, but I often find that relatively simple approaches can provide a great deal of insight.  Also, having a structured conversation about the future is beneficial to all of those involved – and it’s fun, too.  We transportation professionals bring the transportation and land use data and the insights from research, we provide the framework for the discussion, and we crunch the numbers.  In the end, however, many of the key findings come from the dialogue among stakeholders, the public, and decision makers as we create and examine alternative futures through scenario planning.