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U.S. Department of Transportation

2.0 Developing Operations Objectives

Operations objectives and their associated performance measures are the focal point for integrating operations into the planning process. They are contained in the MTP and guide the discussion about operations in the region. While goals relate to the overall vision 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.

Regional goals reflect the region's values and vision for the future, and operations objectives should be developed to support one or more regional goals. This ensures that projects developed based on operations objectives are responding to the explicit values and overall goals for the region. Operations objectives 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. Operations objectives aim to "optimize the performance of existing [and planned] infrastructure through the implementation of multimodal and intermodal, cross-jurisdictional systems, services, and projects designed to preserve capacity and improve security, safety, and reliability of the transportation system."7

2.1 Outcome-Based and Activity-Based Operations Objectives

The operations objectives contained in Section 3 range from objectives that focus on high-level outcomes, such as system reliability, to objectives that focus on low-level operations activities, such as signal timing. Operations objectives span a continuum between outcome-oriented (higher order) to activity-oriented (lower order) objectives. While there is not a strict boundary between the two primary orientations, most fit within one label or the other.

Given that the fundamental purpose of M&O strategies is to improve the transportation system, operations objectives that guide operations throughout the plan are preferably described in terms of those system performance outcomes experienced by users. Aspects of system performance experienced by 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. Regions also may develop operations objectives that are activity-based and support desired system performance outcomes. Planners may find that the activity-based objectives are more appropriate for guiding the development of specific sections of the MTP or for use in supporting documents such as the regional concept for transportation operations. All lower level, activity-oriented operations objectives should support an existing outcome-oriented operations objective, providing a simple check to make sure that operations activities are performed in pursuit of a system performance outcome.

By establishing one or more activity-based objectives for each outcome-based objective, planners and operators further define how each outcome-based objective can be accomplished. Planners and operators can develop specific M&O strategies or actions to support the objectives and, in turn, the goals by examining how the activity-based objectives can be accomplished.

2.2 Characteristics of Operations Objectives

By creating specific, measurable objectives for operations, regions can use these operations objectives for making investment decisions as well as tracking progress. An operations objective should have the SMART characteristics defined below:

It is common for metropolitan transportation plans to have more general objectives relating to the performance of the transportation system, such as, "Relieve congestion on the freeway and arterial systems in the region." This example objective provides the direction—to relieve congestion— but does not express to what degree it must be relieved to be met.

To make this objective SMART, it must define congestion in measurable terms. One measure used for congestion is the travel time index that compares travel during peak periods to travel at free flow or the posted speed limit. In addition, the objective needs a performance target for the region, such as a 0.10-point reduction in the index. The objective also must establish the timeframe in which it must be accomplished. Establishing a realistic objective and reaching agreement on it must be done within the context of the region and the participating organizations. Using the SMART characteristics as a guide, the general operations objective, "Relieve congestion on the freeway and arterial systems in the region" can be transformed into a SMART objective: "Reduce the regional average travel time index on freeways and arterials in the region by 0.10 points within 10 years."

Incorporating SMART operations objectives into the MTP provides the opportunity for decisionmakers to invest in near-term, relatively low-cost operations strategies that provide immediate improvements to the transportation system. These can complement longer-term improvement strategies that may require time to study and fund. Thus, it would be appropriate for an operations objective to have a timeframe that is shorter than the horizon year of the MTP. The cyclical updates required of these plans provide the logical opportunities to determine if adjustments are needed to the timeframe or degree of the objective and help determine whether different or additional actions are appropriate.

2.3 Scope of Operations Objectives

An operations objective is the product of many decisions. As mentioned in the previous section, those who draft the objective must decide on what they want to improve or maintain, the direction of that improvement (e.g., increase), the degree of improvement desired (e.g., by 25 percent), and the timeframe for reaching the objective (e.g., within 10 years).

In determining what to improve, several dimensions often come into consideration. These dimensions determine the scope of the operations objective. One or more of the following dimensions may need to be addressed while developing or refining the objective. In using the menu of objectives in the next section, the dimensions of the objective can be tailored to specific needs of the region.

While defining operations objectives, developers must consider how best to measure progress toward the objective because this impacts how the objective is stated and, subsequently, the improvements that are made. This process includes considerations such as whether the improvements are measured per person, per vehicle, per facility, or for the total population. Does the region want to improve the average performance or make strides toward reducing the worst performance? These are strategic decisions that must be made when developing operations objectives.

In the menu of objectives in Section 3, the scope of the objective can be adjusted along these dimensions to fit a region's specific needs.

2.4 Connecting Operations Objectives

Using the structure of a tree to develop operations objectives and ensure that the supporting connections exist is a common technique in strategic planning and systems analysis. The method of developing an objectives tree is more fully described in other resources,8 but an example can be found in Figure 2, which illustrates the parts of an objectives tree. For the sake of brevity, the operations objectives are not written as full SMART objectives in the figure.

The objectives tree concept can be put to use in developing a logical set of operations objectives and in understanding the necessary connections between goals, operations objectives, and management and operations strategies. An objective tree illustrates the logical hierarchy that exists between outcome-based objectives and activity-based objectives. It can be used to connect regional goals to objectives and objectives to M&O strategies. It is also helpful in thinking through the interactions between operations objectives.

An objectives tree begins with a broad goal or high-order objective relating to the performance of the transportation system. This objective answers the question, "What do we ultimately want to achieve?" Examples may focus on improved system reliability, efficiency, system options, or high service quality. In the example shown in Figure 2, the tree begins with the broad goal, "Improve system reliability." Based on that goal, the higher-order, outcome-based objective, "Reduce nonrecurring delay" was formed. This is how the region aims to achieve its goal of improving system reliability. From this high-order objective, the developers form more specific and detailed operations objectives that answer the question, "How can this objective be accomplished?" These detailed or lower order objectives are then linked to the higher order objective. This process is repeated for each goal or high-order objective until the developers reach the point where the lower order operations objectives can be acted upon. These are typically activity-oriented operations objectives that can be readily addressed through one or more M&O strategies. Lower order operations objectives connected to a higher operations objective answer the question of how that higher objective can be accomplished. Similarly, the higher operations objective answers the question of why the lower objective should be accomplished. M&O strategies can be placed below each of the lowest objectives in the tree to indicate which strategies are needed to accomplish those objectives. In Figure 2, the M&O strategy of "Organize additional regional coordinated incident response teams to cover six more corridors" stems from one of the activity-based objectives.

Regions can select which operations objectives in the objectives tree are most important to be included in the MTP or other planning documents. Outcome-oriented objectives such as those that may be near the top of an objectives tree are used to guide the operations elements of the entire plan. Activity-based objectives are used in specific sections to guide the development of M&O strategies.

Figure 2. Example of an Objectives Tree
Diagram of an objectives tree.

2.5 Using Objectives to Identify and Select M&O Strategies

Operations objectives are used within the regional transportation planning process to help select strategies that will be included in the MTP and corresponding TIP. This occurs through a systematic process in which objectives lead to performance measures, data collection and analysis, and identification and prioritization of strategies. Each of the sample objectives in Section 3 identifies sample performance measures; anticipated data needs, data resources, and partners; and M&O strategies to consider.9 Specifically, developing operations objectives leads to performance measures that can be used to assess and track regional system performance. These regional performance measures can be tracked and forecasted under various plan scenarios. By identifying specific and measurable performance outcomes, operations objectives also can lead to developing performance measures at a micro level, such as to determine the performance of corridors, road segments, intersections, or transit routes. For instance, while an operations objective might include a specific target for regional delay, different thresholds can be used to define unacceptable delay within the region based on location (e.g., urban or suburban), facility type (e.g., freeway, high occupancy vehicle [HOV] lane, transit route, arterial), and time period (e.g., peak commute periods, periods of special events).

Data are needed to use performance measures. Consequently, collecting data for performance measures is a key step in the planning process. Limitations in data are often a concern in selecting performance measures, particularly since MPOs typically are not responsible for operating the transportation system. However, many types of data currently are being collected by MPOs (e.g., census data on journeys to work, population, traffic counts, travel times). A wealth of data is being collected by transportation system operators, such as transit agencies, State DOTs, local transportation agencies, and toll authorities. It particular, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), such as toll tag readers, video detector systems, and traffic management systems, offer the opportunity for more detailed data to be used in planning, enabling analysis of issues such as variations in travel speeds. MPOs can team with agencies to collect and use the data.

An analysis of system- and corridor-level deficiencies (e.g., problems in specific parts of the region and corridors, times of year, or types of trips) and financial constraints should be used to help identify and select specific M&O strategies to include in the MTP and TIP. The assessment should consider cost-effectiveness in meeting operations objectives along with co-benefits, such as improved safety, and ability to support other regional goals. Analysis tools, such as sketch planning tools, travel demand forecasting model post-processors, and simulation modeling may be used to help forecast system deficiencies and analyze the potential benefits of operations strategies.

It is important to recognize that M&O strategies may be implemented as individual programs or projects, such as a regional incident management system, traveler information system, or transit smart card. They also can be implemented as part of transportation preservation projects, safety projects, or capacity improvements. For instance, as part of any new highway expansion, it may be useful to consider the role of transportation pricing, HOV lanes, flexible design to accommodate concurrent flows of traffic, or demand management programs.

7 Excerpted from the definition of transportation systems management and operations (TSM&O) in the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act of 2008 that amended Section 101(a) of Title 23 U.S.C. Return to note 7.

8 The specific strategies to be included within a plan should be based on analysis of the conditions in each metropolitan area. Return to note 8.

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