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U.S. Department of Transportation

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

3.0 Developing Operations Goals and Objectives

Diagram of the flow chart depicting the objectives-driven, performance-based approach to planning for operations. 'Regional Goals and Motivations' and 'Operations Objectives' are called out, indicating that this chapter will focus on those topics.

3.1 Develop Operations Goals

An important first step to integrating M&O in the MTP is to establish goals that focus on the efficient management and operation of the transportation system. A goal is a broad statement that describes a desired end state. In the metropolitan transportation planning process, goals stem from the values inherent in the region's vision.

The MTP may identify an overarching M&O goal. For example:

Alternatively, the MTP may identify a set of M&O goals that are broad, but address different aspects of transportation systems management and operations, such as transportation system reliability, efficiency, quality of service, and travel options. Examples include:

The MTP also may identify a wide range of other goals relating to issues such as improving transportation safety, security, and environment. These goals also may lead to the development of M&O strategies.

3.2 Develop Operations Objectives

Operations objectives are critical components of creating an objectives-driven, performance-based approach to integrating M&O in the MTP. They are contained in the MTP and guide the discussion about operations in the region. Whereas goals relate to the "big picture" or desired end-result, operations objectives are specific and measurable. Unlike goals, progress toward an operations objective and its achievement can be evaluated with performance measures.

In the context of the MTP, operations objectives typically come from the goals defined during the transportation planning process and are regional in nature. They describe what needs to occur to accomplish a regional goal. The operations objectives state what a region plans to achieve concerning the operational performance of the transportation system and help to determine what strategies and investments to include in the MTP. Operations objectives typically place a focus on issues of congestion, reliability, safety and security, incident management, and work zone management, among other issues.

While operations objectives typically stem from goals in the metropolitan transportation planning process, operations objectives also may be formed in response to motivations that are identified outside of the transportation planning process. For example, a natural or man-made disaster, a significant weather event, or a major incident may create public attention that causes elected officials to focus on incident management or emergency response. A major sporting event or a large public works project could focus attention on special events and work zone management. These motivations might lead to the development of operations objectives that can be included in the MTP.

In areas subject to CMP requirements, the MPO should develop operations objectives that address congestion.14 Like other operations objectives, congestion mitigation objectives also are incorporated into the MTP and serve as the basis for the congestion management process.

SMART Characteristics of Operations Objectives

Operations objectives are specific, measurable statements developed in collaboration with a broad range of regional partners. They are regional or multi-jurisdictional in nature. Operations objectives generally lead directly to a measure of performance that can be used to assess whether or not the objective has subsequently been achieved.

An operations objective should have "SMART" characteristics as defined here:

Specifically, an operations objective identifies targets regarding a particular aspect of regional transportation system performance, such as traffic congestion, reliability, emergency response time, or incident response. By developing SMART operations objectives, system performance can be examined and monitored over time.

Is your objective SMART?

  • Specific – is the desired outcome clearly written?
  • Measurable – can it be measured quantitatively and evaluated?
  • Agreed – was there consensus among partners?
  • Realistic – can it reasonably be accomplished?
  • Time-Bound – did you set a timeframe to complete performance?

Examples of Operations Objectives

Operations objectives are developed in the context of recognizing existing conditions and what is realistically possible for the region to achieve; therefore, the specifics of operations objectives will vary widely across MPOs of different sizes and characteristics.

There is likely to be a wide range of operations objectives to address a goal or specific operational issues. This may be because of the different measures of performance available in that operations area. There also may be a wide range of objectives for any given goal because each region will have its own set of performance issues that must be addressed to reach its operations goal. In developing operations objectives that bring a region closer to its goal, planners and operators must examine what needs to be improved. For instance, a goal of "improved transportation system reliability" could lead to many possible operations objectives depending on what will contribute to a reliable system for that region:

Alternatively the goal to "improve transportation system performance through effective management of travel demand" could lead to one or more operations objectives focused on managing the demand for travel, such as:

In developing operations objectives, it is important to recognize – and to communicate to elected officials and the public – that conditions may be significantly worse without the implementation of new strategies or programs, particularly in regions where population is growing rapidly. Consequently, it may not be realistic to improve some aspects of system performance (e.g., reduce traveler delay) from existing levels. Even if a plan results in significant improvements over projected "baseline" conditions, it still may not show significant improvement over current conditions. In these cases, an objective might be to hold average traveler delay to no greater than 2007 levels by 2020, to improve the availability and accuracy of traveler information to a certain level so that travelers can make more informed travel choices, to optimize signal timing on major congested corridors, or another measure that is achievable and helps to achieve overall goals.

Table 2 illustrates the connection between operations issues or challenges in a region and the operations objectives developed in response to the issues. The table also includes performance measures that can be used to track progress toward the operations objectives.

Table 2: Operations Objectives Motivated by Significant Issues in the Region
Operations Issue in Region Operations Objective Performance Measure
Heavy reliance on trips made by
single-occupancy vehicles in the
region contributing to congestion
and air quality issues.
Increase non SOV mode share
for all trips by X percent within
the next Y years.
Share of trips by each mode of travel.
Significant levels of delay at
border crossings negatively
impacting businesses in the region and freight carriers.
Decrease average crossing times at international borders by X minutes for each border crossing in region over Y years. Average border crossing time for
freight at international borders per year.
Snow, ice, and wind storms
frequently cause severe delays,
stranded vehicles, and traffic
Reduce time to alert travelers of weather impacts on travel using [variable message signs, 511, Road Weather Information Systems, public information broadcasts
etc.] by X (time period or
percent) in Y years.
Time between the beginning of
weather event and posting of traveler information on (select from among variable message signs, 511, Road Weather Information Systems, public information
broadcasts, etc.).
Incidents on the roads and rails
cause significant travel delays that have the potential to be reduced through improvements in incident management.
Reduce mean incident clearance time per incident by X percent in Y years. (Defined as the time between awareness of an incident and the time the last responder has left the scene.) Mean incident clearance time per
Traffic signal timing in the region is performed sporadically and there is delay on arterials due to poorly timed signals. Retime X percent of traffic signals every Y years. Percent of traffic signals retimed
every Y years.

3.3 Operations Objectives Are Scalable

While the concept of developing operations objectives is simple, its execution is often hampered by limitations in the data needed for performance measures and difficulty in agreeing upon the appropriate target or timeframe for achievement. Developing operations objectives requires data on baseline conditions and often requires information on historical conditions and forecasts of future conditions. Similarly, objectives within the CMP should be informed by available information on existing congestion levels, an assessment of the causes of congestion, and information on forecasted future congestion levels.

The costs and extent of data collection and analysis needed to develop operations objectives will depend on many factors, including the size of the metropolitan area, the staffing and data available to the MPO, the extent of traffic congestion, and the degree to which regional goals focus on improving the operation of the transportation system. In particular, small MPOs often are somewhat constrained in their access to system performance data and limited staff resources. Large MPOs may have more extensive data collection resources, but they often are challenged by the wide range of transportation system operators, jurisdictions, and stakeholders involved. These challenges can make it difficult to develop consensus on an appropriate system-level performance objective.

Fortunately, the concept of operations objectives is a scalable one. As a region's use of the approach grows over time, specific objectives can be added, revisited, and refined. Initially, planners and operators should identify which objectives to include in the plan based on regional goals, select those that can be implemented in the near-term, and build on initial efforts by refining and expanding the range of objectives used over time.

User Outcome- and Activity-Based Objectives

Given that the fundamental purpose of M&O improvements is to improve transportation system performance, operations objectives are preferably described in terms of those system performance outcomes as experienced by users. Objectives focused on outcomes to the user include travel times, travel time reliability, and access to traveler information. The public cares about these measures, and in many regions, data may be available to develop specific outcome-based operations objectives.

In cases where developing outcome-based objectives is difficult, agencies may develop operations objectives that are activity-based and support desired system performance outcomes. For example, it may not be possible for a region to develop a specific objective related to incident-based delay experienced by travelers if data is unavailable for this type of delay. However, the region may be able to develop an objective that relates to incident response time, which may be more easily established and measured.

Other examples of activity-based objectives include the percentage of traffic signals re-timed, the number of variable message signs deployed, and the share of bus stops with real-time transit information. Although these objectives are not as ideal as outcome-based objectives for inclusion in the MTP since they tend to focus on specific strategies or approaches, they may serve as interim objectives until more outcome-based objectives can be established and measured. Working together to develop the objectives themselves may help to elevate M&O discussions among planners and operators and lead to initiatives to collect additional data.

Start with a Limited Number of Objectives

It is recommended for agencies to start simple when developing operations objectives. Agencies should build on the existing data they have and the conditions with which they are familiar. Rather than developing dozens of operations objectives, a region could start with a limited number of objectives and performance measures for which data already exists and build on the objectives over time as data become more available or performance trends become clearer.

Add Targets over Time

Even when stakeholders agree on the performance measure(s) and have access to data for tracking performance, it may be difficult for agencies to agree on an appropriate target to reach within a specific timeframe. In these cases, it is recommended to start with an operations objective that does not include a specific time-bound target, and add a target in the future after additional performance tracking has occurred.

An initial operations objective might be worded simply, showing the direction of effects that are desired. For example, simple objectives might be to "reduce clearance time for incidents" or "improve transit on-time performance." These objectives lead to performance measures that can be tracked over time and reported. In the future, after additional data are collected, it may be possible to revisit these objectives to develop more specific, time-bound targets. For example, "reduce average incident clearance time to X by 2015," or "improve transit on-time performance to Y by 2020."

14 Metropolitan Transportation Planning Regulations (23 CFR Part 450.320 c) specify that the "congestion management process shall include...congestion management objectives and appropriate performance measures."

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