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U.S. Department of Transportation

Advancing Metropolitan Planning for Operations: An Objectives-Driven, Performance-Based Approach – A Guidebook

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Motivation for Advancing Operations in Metropolitan Transportation Planning

The pressures of a rapidly changing world require that we optimize the use of our existing and planned transportation infrastructure. Traffic congestion continues to challenge urban areas of all sizes across the country, taking approximately 6 billion hours of time away from Americans each year.2 Freight is tied up on the roads and rails, increasing the cost of doing business in the United States. The call to address climate change is becoming more urgent, and effective multimodal solutions are needed to remain competitive in a global economy. With increased communications technologies, travelers expect to have more choices for travel and better information to use to make those choices. Additionally, the public is demanding increased Government accountability and transparency.

The public expects that traffic signals be coordinated, and technology is being used effectively to optimize system performance across geographic and jurisdictional boundaries. The public also demands increased reliability from transit services and accurate information to make choices in travel modes, routes, and times. With homeland security concerns as well as natural disasters, efficient emergency response and evacuations are critical, and rely upon effective coordination and communication between transportation agencies and law enforcement. It is estimated that more than half of congestion experienced by travelers is caused by non-recurring events, such as weather conditions (e.g., snow, ice, rain); work zones; special events; and major incidents and emergencies that are not typically taken into account in the traditional metropolitan transportation planning process (see Figure 2).3 All of these factors are putting more emphasis on operations strategies that optimize transportation system performance and provide near-term, cost-effective solutions to get the most out of our transportation system.

Traditionally, the metropolitan transportation planning process has sought to address the performance of our transportation system by primarily identifying long-range project needs rather than addressing the short- to medium-range issues associated with transportation system operations. Although management and operations (M&O) strategies are increasingly being recognized as important by transportation planners and operators today, in most regions the metropolitan transportation plan (MTP) still tends to be largely "project-focused," and it is often difficult to clearly identify M&O strategies in the plan. Moreover, while the MTP typically includes a range of goals, there is limited development of measurable regional operations objectives and tracking of actual system performance against those objectives.

Addressing these needs and others requires a new way of doing business – a strategic and informed approach to planning for operations.

Figure 2. Sources of Congestion
Pie chart indicates that 40 percent of congestion is due to bottlenecks, 25 percent is due to traffic incidents, 15 percent is due to bad weather, 10 percent is due to work zones, 5 percent are due poor signal timing, and 5 percent are due to special events/other.

This guidebook provides the foundation for integrating operations in the metropolitan transportation planning process using an objectives-driven, performance-based approach (also referred to as "the approach"). It is designed to assist metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in meeting Federal requirements under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) calling both for M&O strategies to be incorporated into the MTP and for larger MPOs to implement a congestion management process (CMP). The guidebook highlights effective practices in planning for operations that result in an MTP with a more optimal mix of infrastructure and operational strategies.

This guidebook is intended for those professionals involved in the metropolitan transportation planning process at MPOs, State Departments of Transportation (DOT), transit agencies, or other operating agencies across the country. The recommended approach applies to all stakeholders; it recognizes their diverse roles and responsibilities, and appreciates their commonly held goal: to improve the performance of our transportation system.

1.2 What is Planning for Operations?

"Planning for operations" is a joint effort between planners and operators to support improved regional transportation system management and operations. This term encompasses a variety of activities that lead to improved transportation system operations, including the consideration of M&O strategies in the transportation planning process. Planning for operations also includes collaboration among transportation system operators, transit agencies, highway agencies, toll authorities, local governments, and others to facilitate improved transportation system operations and to ensure that transportation services are delivered in as safe, reliable, and secure a manner as possible. Oftentimes, this collaboration is carried out in the context of a regional planning agency and is connected to the planning process. In this guidebook, planning for operations will focus on those activities performed in the context of the metropolitan transportation planning process to advance regional operations in the MTP.

Planning for operations in the metropolitan transportation planning process means developing operations objectives to direct the consideration of operational performance during the planning process and incorporating operations solutions into investment decisions that support the operations objectives. This approach ensures that operations needs are addressed in regional planning and investment decisions.

Operations managers are engaged in the planning process so that system performance concerns or challenges and potential operations strategies inform and influence the development of the metropolitan transportation plan. Operator involvement further ensures that operations informs and influences the planning process so that operations considerations are reflected in regional transportation plans. This results in a mix of operations and capital projects that optimizes transportation system performance.

While certain activities associated with planning for operations are already occurring in many metropolitan areas throughout the country, the challenges discussed above are motivating increased attention to incorporating M&O strategies more effectively into metropolitan transportation plans.

Management & Operations Strategies

An effective transportation system requires not only a highway and transit infrastructure for the traveling public and the movement of freight, it also requires the efficient and coordinated operation of the regional transportation network to improve system efficiency, reliability, and safety.

M&O strategies focus on optimizing the performance of the multimodal transportation system and include a broad range of activities, such as:

M&O strategies are part of an integrated approach to optimizing the performance of existing and planned infrastructure through the implementation of multimodal, intermodal, and often cross-jurisdictional systems, services, and projects (often called regional transportation systems management and operations, or RTSM&O).4 In the MTP, M&O strategies lead to either operations projects or programs or are combined with other projects such as capacity additions. It is important to note that M&O does not encompass traditional maintenance activities, such as landscape maintenance, pothole repair, or road resurfacing. Although M&O strategies may be implemented on a regional, area-wide, or project-specific basis, those included in a transportation plan should typically be those that have importance on a regional level.

Congestion Management Process

The congestion management process (CMP)5 is a systematic approach applied in a metropolitan region to identify congestion and its causes, propose mitigation strategies, and evaluate the effectiveness of implemented strategies.6 The CMP then recommends projects and strategies for the plan and transportation improvement program (TIP). In many metropolitan areas, the CMP is one of the primary avenues for planning for operations. In the CMP, system performance issues are systematically examined and management and operations strategies are often included in the set of solutions recommended to address congestion. The CMP, guided by specific objectives and integrated into the planning process, is an example of this systematic approach. In some regions, the objectives-driven, performance-based approach for integrating operations into the plan may be performed within the CMP.

A CMP is required in Transportation Management Areas (TMA), defined as urban areas with a population over 200,000. The congestion management process should not be considered as a stand-alone system, but as an integral part of the metropolitan transportation planning process. At the core, a CMP should include a data collection and monitoring system, identification of strategies for addressing congestion, performance measures or criteria for identifying when action is needed, and a system for prioritizing which congestion management strategies would be most effective. In air quality non-attainment areas, the CMP takes on even greater importance since Federal guidelines prohibit projects that increase capacity for single occupant vehicles unless the project results from a CMP.7

Although a CMP is only required for TMAs, all MPOs can benefit from using a systematic process to address congestion issues. Moreover, while the CMP focuses on congestion, the data collected as part of the CMP also can be used to help support other system management and operations consideration, such as safety, accessibility, and connectivity.

1.3 Federal Requirements

Planning for operations, in addition to having many congestion mitigation and system efficiency benefits, is required under Federal law.

Integrating Management & Operations Strategies

SAFETEA-LU contains the following requirements for all MPOs, regardless of size:

For MPOs of areas with populations greater than 200,000, SAFETEA-LU contains this requirement:

Planning for Operations within the Context of Other Metropolitan Planning Requirements

While this guidebook focuses on planning for operations (including requirements to incorporate M&O strategies and the CMP in metropolitan transportation planning, where applicable), it is important to recognize that MPOs face a wide range of transportation planning requirements, which may place competing demands on priorities for inclusion in the MTP.

Figure 3 highlights the operations portions of the planning process that are the focus of this guidebook in the context of the many planning requirements that MPOs face in developing the MTP. The figure illustrates the eight planning factors that must be considered in developing the MTP, including the M&O planning factor. Surrounding these factors are other planning requirements, including the requirement that TMAs develop a CMP. Highlighted within the center circle is the requirement that the MTP must include M&O strategies.

Figure 3. M&O and CMP in the Context of Metropolitan Transportation Planning Requirements
Graphic representation of the planning factors and planning requirements that must be considered in developing the MTP.

The M&O planning factor should not be viewed in isolation. In fact, improving transportation system M&O can support the other planning factors. Similarly, while the CMP focuses on congestion, the analysis of congestion problems and solutions also can help support multiple goals, including economic vitality, safety, and connectivity. The CMP can also help to identify M&O strategies.

In support of other planning factors, M&O strategies can:

1.4 Creating an Objectives-Driven, Performance-Based Approach to Planning for Operations

The guidebook describes an approach that is designed to help MPOs and other stakeholders incorporate M&O in metropolitan transportation planning through use of regional operations objectives. The guidebook not only helps fulfill SAFETEA-LU requirements, but also results in an MTP that is a better able to meet customer needs through an optimal mix of transportation investments. The approach is consistent with operational performance management strategies used in the private sector as discussed in section 2.1. The CMP is one example of applying this approach to manage congestion.

As described here, the approach to planning for operations includes the following elements:

The approach is iterative, with monitoring and evaluation used to refine and adjust operations objectives over time. Regional coordination and collaboration among partners and stakeholders is important throughout this process. The commitment of operators in the region to support the achievement of the operations objectives is vital. The operations objectives not only reside in the MTP, but also must be incorporated into the priorities of the operating agencies in the region. Decisionmakers within operating agencies in the region must be involved in the development of the operations objectives.

1.5 Guidebook Organization

This guidebook describes the major elements of the objectives-driven, performance-based approach, organized in the sections listed in Table 1.

In addition, this guidebook includes four appendices that provide additional technical information on SAFETEA-LU, the CMP, and the objectives-driven, performance-based approach:

Table 1: Guidebook Organization by Section and Description
Section Description
Section 2: An Objectives-Driven, Performance-Based Approach to Planning for Operations Provides an introduction to the objectives-driven, performance-based approach, including the rationale for its use and its relationship to the CMP.
Section 3: Developing Operations Goals and Objectives Describes the first steps of developing goals and operations objectives, including characteristics and examples of operations objectives.
Section 4: Developing Performance Measures, Assessing Needs, and Selecting Strategies Describes a systematic process of developing performance measures, assessing needs, and identifying and selecting strategies. Also includes examples of M&O and congestion management strategies, including approaches for analyzing their effectiveness.
Section 5: Resulting Plans, Programs, and Projects Discusses outcomes of the approach to planning for operations in metropolitan areas in terms of what the MTP looks like and additional benefits MPOs might achieve from following this approach.
Section 6: Ongoing Monitoring and Evaluation Addresses the critical but sometimes overlooked aspect of monitoring and evaluating implemented strategies and overall progress in meeting transportation system performance objectives.
Section 7: Moving Forward Through Regional Coordination and Collaboration Provides information on engaging operations stakeholders in transportation planning and provides examples of ways to collaborate effectively to implement the objectives-driven, performance-based approach.
Section 8: Getting Started Provides steps for getting started with the approach and a self-assessment designed to help MPOs assess to what extent they are addressing M&O and integrating the CMP in the MTP using the approach.

2 U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, "Focus on Congestion Relief: Traffic Congestion Factoids." Available at:, last accessed July 16, 2009.

3 The graph shown in Figure 2 is taken from the recent FHWA publication, "Traffic Congestion and Reliability: Linking Solutions to Problems," and provides rough approximations based on many past and ongoing congestion research studies. This graph roughly shows the contribution of each factor to congestion.

4 Transportation Research Board, Glossary of Regional Transportation Systems Management and Operations Terms, Transportation Research Circular, Number E-C133, April 2009. Available at:, last accessed December 6, 2009.

5 The CMP evolved from what was formerly called a Congestion Management System (CMS).

6 For a more detailed discussion of the components of the congestion management process, see Appendix B.

7 Safety improvements and the elimination of bottlenecks are exceptions to this restriction.

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