Why Transportation Planners are Tearing Their Hair Out

lavarr policy insights

Let’s say you’re a transportation planner for the Utah Department of Transportation, or Utah Transit Authority, or a local government, or a metropolitan planning district.

Let’s say you have a hard time dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity, and disruptive change.

Perhaps you’d better find a different job.

That’s because a dramatic transformation is occurring in the transportation industry and no one knows quite what’s ahead. Other than it will be much different — and exciting.

Transportation planners must try to figure out what transportation projects to build over the next five, 10, and even 15 or 20 years. Planners actually try to look out 30 years, with the ability to revise and make course corrections, of course.

Long-term planning is critical because big transportation projects take many years to plan, finance and build. You can’t just decide to build a new highway next year.

In today’s environment, long-term planning is a tough job.

Some believe the changes occurring in the transportation industry will be as significant as the transition from horses to horsepower, said Blaine Leonard, Intelligent Transportation Systems Program Manager for UDOT, speaking at the Wasatch Choice 2050 conference on Wednesday.

Everything will change about how we drive, whether we drive, and what vehicles we own or don’t own, he said. The new world of transportation could eliminate accidents, reduce (or maybe increase) congestion, enhance (or maybe reduce) demand for public transit, reduce (or maybe increase) urban sprawl, and eliminate (or maybe increase) the need to own a vehicle.

Dramatic technological and social changes are driving the transformation, including autonomous vehicles, combined with the connected, interactive, network of things (including vehicles and highways); combined with services like Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, etc.; combined with big data; combined with demographic and social changes like the sharing economy, a graying population and young people buying fewer cars, driving less and walking and biking more.

Those are the things that have transportation planners tearing their hair out.

Jeff Harris, planning director for UDOT, explained the difficulty of forecasting highway capacity needs. For example, will autonomous vehicles reduce congestion or increase congestion? The technological capabilities might enable packing far more vehicles in each lane of traffic with fewer accidents and less congestion. But will driverless cars result in dramatically more vehicles on the roads, including providing mobility to older or disabled people who previously were homebound? Will more cars or fewer cars be owned by consumers? Will driverless taxis be cruising everywhere waiting for a call to hire them? Will you send your driverless car to take care of innumerable individual errands (to pick up your dry cleaning or a pizza), or will you combine several errands in one trip? Will you send your car to pick up your daughter while you’re working? Will your car wait for you while you’re watching a movie, or will you send it back home and tell it to return when the movie ends (doubling vehicle miles traveled)?

If you own a car, will you take advantage of the sharing economy and rent it to others, or let it sit in your garage when you’re not using it?

During the coming transition, will regular cars and driverless cars co-exist on the same freeway lane, or will lanes be reserved for autonomous vehicles only?

With driverless cars so convenient, will fewer people use public transit? Or will congestion get bad enough that even more people will use public transit?

What if the retail sector mostly goes away as people make most purchases on-line? Does that reduce traffic (fewer people driving to retail stores) or increase traffic (more delivery trucks)? What if drones start to deliver packages?

Harris said estimates of future vehicle miles traveled vary wildly, from an increase of only 2-3 percent to as high as 100 to 200 percent when driverless vehicles are common.

Planners today look at population growth, employment locations, travel demand, highway capacity, and land use patterns to forecast future highway capacity needs. But all the additional new variables defy accurate forecasting.

Harris said the first step is to understand the uncertainty ahead. Planners need to embrace disruptive change, slice it, dice it, explore it, and get to know it. Separate the knowable from the unknowable. Do scenario planning. Put some boundaries on the range of possibilities.

“We’re sweating a lot,” Harris said. “The change curve is sweeping upward. We’re going to have to invent things as we go. The whole industry is on fire.”

Thirty-year planning will have to be broken into phases. It’s easier to predict what will happen in five years. However, big transportation projects take much longer than that to plan, finance, and build.

It’s an exciting time to be a transportation planner – especially if you’re good with a crystal ball.

Note: Wasatch Choice 2050 featured speeches, breakout sessions, and tours on regional planning, active transportation, how placemaking impacts health, and many other topics. For more information, see: wasatchchoice.com/consortium.  It was sponsored by Wasatch Front Regional Council, Mountainland Association of Governments, UTA, Envision Utah and Salt Lake County.