With uncertain budgets for 2021, transportation agencies must increasingly squeeze value from every dollar they spend. We talked with Nick Lepp, director of Transportation Planning at MetroPlan Orlando, about how his team leverages their investment in Big Data analytics by sharing it with other agencies.
What does MetroPlan Orlando do with Big Data?
We purchased a StreetLight subscription to help us develop a different kind of transportation model. We wanted to look more at accessibility instead of traditional transportation demand management that just focuses on cars.
We are shifting toward establishing more programs for multimodal transportation versus road widening and other car-focused initiatives. Our vision has grown to incorporate metrics that include health access. That’s how we identify and prioritize projects and areas that we focus on now.
How did the health department get involved?
This started before I even got here. Our former executive director was interested in health and transportation planning, and how transportation can help the health of the community.
He began the conversation with different types of agencies, starting with the county health department. That broadened into other private health agencies, including hospitals, and then the American Heart Association.
Our data educated them on how transportation can contribute, and what we need in a transportation plan to support improved health.
We contribute by giving planners and officials a transportation lens. Our officials have a lot of concerns about access to good healthcare, and maintaining it, which can be a problem if you don’t have good access to transportation.
How does intra-agency data-sharing work, in practice?
We started sharing our models with local health departments to identify areas of concern for access to food and other essential services. This is particularly important for populations living in food deserts.
Now we also share the same transportation data with local agencies for land use issues. We are identifying areas with transportation and access concerns getting to healthy food, doctors, parks, and other essential services.
We are building a better overall idea of where transportation can work to improve health – for example, sidewalk applications that might improve access in a certain area.
What’s an example of relevant data you share with other agencies?
We actually had an “aha” moment just this morning. We found that only about 25% of our population has biking and walking access to an essential service. That means most people would have to have a car to reach those essential services.
Another example is in analyzing food deserts and access to food. We were able to remove fast-food restaurants from the study area because they don’t really promote healthy eating.
It’s validating to be able to put our money where our mouth is. When we can say that only 25% of our population has non-vehicle access, it’s more concrete than something anecdotal like, “If we put in sidewalks and bike paths, it will improve the community.”
It sounds like the data starts to spill over into land use – is that right?
That’s right. Improving access can’t be done just through transportation investments, because we are running out of space. We’ll be working together with land use and health agencies to try to get those services there.
Big Data gives us actual information on trip-making characteristics, where in the past we’ve only had forecast models. Now we can say that we have a certain trip length in a certain area, and if we extend infrastructure, then residents can go farther. We can identify which zone has to travel great distances to a service. More mixed use would shorten the number of trips and reduce traffic by providing closer access.
In fact, I’m hoping that sharing data like this will strengthen the connection between land use and transportation overall. There has always been a gap there, and I’m hoping data can help agencies bridge that.
Has this enhanced your agency’s overall value?
It has opened doors, for sure. We are involved in a lot more local government projects because they say, “Hey, you have this data.” It’s great because now we sit at the table, and we can hear the conversations.