Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Advancing Transportation Systems Management and Operations Through Scenario Planning

Section 1: Introduction

Robust transportation planning and programming decisions are based on a thorough consideration of how conditions may change in the future and how those changes may influence transportation needs. Future conditions ranging from near- to long-term are subject to a range of different influences including financial, technological, political, socioeconomic, and climate factors as well as others. This primer introduces a scenario planning approach that can be used by planners and operators to examine variable future conditions, develop more robust plans, and make better decisions for transportation systems management and operations (TSMO) investments.

Transportation systems management and operations (TSMO) encompasses a broad set of strategies that aim to optimize the safe, efficient, and reliable use of existing and planned transportation infrastructure for all modes. TSMO is undertaken from a systems perspective, which means that related TSMO strategies are coordinated with each other and across multiple jurisdictions, agencies, and modes. TSMO includes both efforts to operate the multimodal transportation system and activities to manage travel demand. The following are examples of TSMO strategies:

  • Traffic incident management.
  • Traffic signal coordination.
  • Transit signal priority.
  • Freight management.
  • Work zone management.
  • Special event management.
  • Road weather management.
  • Congestion pricing.
  • Managed lanes.
  • Ridesharing programs.
  • Parking management.

The transportation planning process typically involves assessing needs and making recommendations based on considerations of historic trends and forecasts, resulting in a single "most-likely" estimate of future conditions. While this approach works well in some settings, the "predict and plan" method does not enable consideration of how future conditions might change and thereby affect transportation needs. The single forecast method also limits planners' ability to simultaneously look at the interplay of different factors on traveler behavior and levels of travel demand and how those factors can be optimized to achieve broader public policy goals such as livability. To address the limitations of predict and plan methods, transportation planning professionals are increasingly using scenario planning as a method to inform better decisionmaking. Scenario planning provides a framework to help planners and interested stakeholders consider issues and opportunities associated with uncertain futures or new desirable futures that are very different from conditions today.

Scenario planning in transportation is not focused on utopian or ideal futures, rather it is a method that enables a more effective decisionmaking process that takes into account the "what-ifs?" and the longer term strategies needed to help make transportation investment decisions that support a more resilient and desirable future. Scenario planning is an enhancement of the planning process rather than a replacement. It can result in a reconfirmation of existing goals, objectives, policies, and investment decisions and it can highlight the need to make policy, programming, or investment priority changes.

Scenario planning in transportation is typically applied to a long-range transportation planning process. Often led by metropolitan planning organizations (MPO), scenario planning in transportation most often is used to support community efforts to establish visions that help identify specific development and transportation policies and investments that can in turn help support long term goals. However more recently, MPOs and departments of transportation (DOT) have begun using scenario planning to provide insights on the potential impacts of evolving technology, climate change, shifting traveler behavior, financial uncertainty, failing infrastructure, natural and man-made events, and other unknowns so that they can be factored into planning and programming decisions. Scenario planning is also being used in response to changing public policies and a call for new measures of transportation performance that address broader livability goals, such as increasing transportation choices or improving accessibility rather than simply looking at measures to reduce congestion or enhance vehicular mobility.

Transportation systems management and operations proactively addresses transportation system user needs by:

  • Influencing travel demand in terms of location, time, and intensity of demand.
  • Managing trips effectively.
  • Anticipating and responding to planned and unplanned events such as traffic incidents, work zones, inclement weather, and special events.
  • Providing travelers with high quality information.
  • Ensuring that the unique needs of the freight community are considered and included in all of the above.

Source: Federal Highway Administration, Office of Operations, Presentation, Undated, Jeffrey A. Lindley.

As the use of TSMO strategies expands in States and regions across the United States, the importance of making effective planning and programming decisions for TSMO increases. To date, most scenario planning for transportation occurs over a longer term horizon, but scenario planning can also enhance shorter term planning and investment decisions. It has not been applied to TSMO-focused planning efforts, but given the benefits to long-range transportation planning, scenario planning holds promise for improving planning for TSMO as well.

Planning for the management and operation of the transportation system is uniquely tied to several factors that are difficult to predict. For example, TSMO is supported by rapidly advancing technology, which will soon include connected vehicle systems. In addition, the Nation's aging infrastructure conditions and climate change present planning challenges for TSMO in maintaining safety and mobility during and after unplanned events such as a hurricane or bridge failure. Addressing issues of uncertainty in TSMO planning could include the development of scenarios that look at different response times to major weather incidents, or look at system-level operational needs if a large shift to automated vehicles occurs in the next 10 years.

Scenario planning also offers opportunities to revisit common TSMO performance measures with a focus on improving the safety, efficiency, and reliability of travel and goods movement through a broader set of multimodal management and operational strategies. It also offers an opportunity to identify new measures (e.g., multimodal accessibility) and potentially new data needs that can address the growing importance and interest in the transportation user experience and transportation on demand. In sum, scenario planning offers TSMO practitioners a new framework for planning that can facilitate better transportation decisionmaking.


The intent of this primer is to inform planners, operators, and other TSMO partners on the use of scenario planning to advance TSMO including why and when to use it and how to apply the phases of scenario planning to TSMO. This primer is also meant to promote thinking about the broad range of opportunities for using scenario planning for TSMO by providing hypothetical examples and discussions about applying it at multiple geographic scales and for several TSMO-focused planning activities, such as developing work zone management or statewide freight mobility plans. While this primer does not provide detailed guidance on how to conduct scenario planning for a specific TSMO effort, it does promote a deeper understanding of scenario planning opportunities and offers a framework that readers can adapt to their specific needs and use as a guidance tool as they embark upon scenario planning to enhance their TSMO planning and programming decisions. This primer does not focus on the use of scenarios to direct real-time operations decisions such as where traffic should be rerouted when a traffic incident blocks all lanes of a specific part of a highway. While using scenarios to create response plans is a common and useful effort, it is different than the more strategic level of planning described in this primer and does not require the scenario planning framework described here.

The audience for this primer is anyone who may lead or participate in an effort to plan for TSMO, either formally or informally. This includes transportation planners, operations professionals, and stakeholders at the statewide, metropolitan, rural, corridor, and local levels who contribute to decisions on how the transportation system should perform in terms of reliability, efficiency, and accessibility and what is necessary to reach that level of performance. Professionals whose work involves integrated corridor management (ICM), advanced transportation and demand management (ATDM), traffic incident management, transit operations, work zone management, road weather management, transportation management center (TMC) operations, travel demand management, and many other areas of TSMO will also find this primer useful. Finally, this primer is also intended to address the needs of those who engage in scenario planning to support the development of long-range transportation plans and other transportation plans that include TSMO.


This document is organized around six sections that help to give the reader a clear understanding of scenario planning and how they can use it to advance TSMO.

Section 1: Introduction provides the context and motivation for the use of scenario planning for TSMO. It also orients the reader to the purpose of the primer and its intended audience.

Section 2: Understanding Scenario Planning and its Use in Transportation discusses what scenario planning is and its origins. It also examines how scenario planning is used in transportation planning with an emphasis on its role in performance-based planning and programming.

Section 3: Applying the Scenario Planning Approach to Planning for Transportation Systems Management and Operations lays out a framework for using scenario planning for TSMO in six phases from "How should we get started?" to "How will we reach our desired future?"

Section 4: Opportunities for Scenario Planning to Advance Transportation Systems Management and Operations explores the range of opportunities to apply scenario planning to TSMO planning efforts.

Section 5: Illustrations of Scenario Planning for Transportation Systems Management and Operations provides readers with a step-by-step look at three hypothetical examples of scenario planning for TSMO in different contexts, driven by different motivations, and using different types of scenario planning.

Section 6: Getting Started concludes the primer and offers a list of questions to help planners and operators begin to scope their scenario planning effort for TSMO.

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