Transportation planning has gotten even more unpredictable in 2020. Sure, we were already dealing with the unknowns of autonomous vehicles, micromobility, and more, but at least those were exciting, innovative trends. Now we’re just stuck in a land of existential short-term pandemic fog.
When will VMT return to normal? What will our budgets be for 2021? Will people go back to transit? What will congestion do? Nobody knows.
The new economic reality means that many agencies can’t even plan their budgets. Planners still have a desired future, now we must figure out how to chart that path with so many factors outside our control.
Balancing Short and Long Term Plans
Over the course of nearly 20 years working as a transportation planner for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, my colleagues and I became accustomed to dealing with crises and uncertainty related to funding – -reauthorization of federal transportation programs, national economic recessions, failed state and local ballot initiatives, you name it! While these were painful at the time, they taught me a lot about how to navigate short-term obstacles while maintaining a focus on long-term goals. If I were still working at a transportation agency, here’s what I would be studying, and how I would be setting myself up for both short- and long-term flexibility.
- Understand what has and what hasn’t changed. We know that on an aggregate level travel has decreased during the pandemic, but where and by how much? Analyzing average daily traffic (ADT) road by road reveals nuances that can inform project prioritization. For example, some roads may have lighter loads but others may have actually increased. There are still corridor needs out there, and you need to know where they are.
- Prioritize projects effectively. Now is the time to decide which projects should proceed and which should go on hold. Make data-based decisions based on accurate and current information, not last year’s (or even last month’s) metrics so that you can move quickly and effectively if budgets suddenly grow or shrink.
- Run as many scenarios as possible. If you have the resources, consider running multiple scenarios for existing plans. Scenario planning accounts for uncertainty in the planning process, and leads to better informed decisions by stakeholders. The more scenarios you have in place, the better your forecasting, and the more flexible your plan can be. This is where a subscription to a big data platform like StreetLight can really help since you can run endless analyses for one annual price.
- Keep your eye on long term goals. It’s easy to get distracted by short-term challenges, but the goals you set pre-pandemic are still important. Of course, those plans were developed under certain assumptions, and at some point you will have to go back and test those assumptions. Start thinking about the metrics you’ll need for re-evaluating them.
- Support workers and commutes to help resuscitate the economy. Transportation planners alone can’t help people afford a new car, or work from home. But we can study people’s travel, and optimize for it. Identify your region’s essential workers, and understand their travel patterns using current information, not yesterday’s data. Are those movements changing during the current situation, and if so, how? You may find low-cost operational changes that can improve mobility, like tweaking bus timetables or routes.
- Monitor mobility to enhance quality of life during the pandemic. People are clearly spending more time outdoors. Help local parks understand the frequency and number of visitors so they can adequately allocate resources, or identify areas with high levels of cycling and pedestrian activity for potential safe or slow streets programs.
Data to Fuel Quick Pivots
Here’s the good news: We now know what happens in an economic downturn. Instead of running modeled scenarios and guessing what happens, we actually have empirical data.
Because scenarios are shifting so quickly, we need to work with real, updated metrics instead of “typical conditions,” or last year’s data, or outdated models.
I believe that data is our way forward. To get through 2020, we need to get comfortable with a new level of uncertainty. But with a wider range of real data available, we can get the answers we need to pivot even more quickly.