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2. An Objectives-Driven Performance-Based Approach to M&O in the MTP

2.1 Motivation for a New Approach to M&O in the MTP

Current Practice: Challenges and Opportunities

Over the past few decades, the metropolitan transportation planning process has evolved in response to new Federal requirements and increased public and stakeholder interest in issues such as non-motorized (bicycle and pedestrian) transportation, air quality, land use planning ("Smart Growth"), environmental justice, and transportation security, among others. Metropolitan transportation plans (MTPs) now typically include a wide range of goals addressing not only mobility, but the environment, safety, quality of life, and community development.

As noted earlier, increased attention is now being paid to the role of transportation system management and operations (M&O) strategies as an important means to address critical concerns relating to the performance of the transportation system, and to address customer needs without the long time delays associated with major infrastructure projects (See Figure 2). Many MPOs have taken a role in coordinating investment decisions relating to M&O strategies across modes and jurisdictional boundaries, such as regional traveler information systems, electronic transit payment services, traffic signal coordination, and traffic incident management. For instance, many regions across the country have invested substantial resources in intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies, which include real-time traveler information systems. In many regions, transportation demand management (TDM) programs have been established that encourage ridesharing, transit use, and employer-based programs to reduce peak period traffic congestion.

Image describes the transportation concerns addressed by M&O strategies.
Figure 2: Transportation Concerns Addressed by M&O Strategies.

Benefits can been seen throughout the U.S., such as in the Denver metropolitan area where the Denver metropolitan planning organization and approximately 30 traffic signal operating agencies have worked together since 1989 to reduce traveler delay and air pollution. Multiple jurisdictions participating in an arterial emergency response team in the Phoenix metropolitan region save time and money by calling on the team to manage traffic during major incidents. In the Washington, DC area, a transit "Smart Card" allows travelers to transfer more easily from one transit mode or operator to another.

Although M&O strategies are increasingly recognized as important by transportation planners and operators, the MTP in most regions 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. A 2004 survey of MPOs asked, "Does your planning process reflect measurements of actual system performance, like travel time, reliability, and incidence of non-recurring congestion?" Of those that responded, 45% answered no.12

There are several reasons for this. Within the transportation planning process, the technical analyses and travel demand forecasting processes used tend to focus on nominal conditions on a 20 to 25 years horizon. Travel demand forecasting models, for instance, typically identify congestion levels based on average travel demands and system capacity constraints, but do not capture non-recurring congestion associated with incidents, weather conditions, work zones, or special events. Analytical tools, therefore, do not focus on many characteristics of system performance that are of concern to customers and that can be addressed by operations strategies.

At the same time, the transportation operations community historically has not taken a regional approach to developing M&O goals, objectives, and strategies. Transportation operators across a region tend to function mostly independent of each other, with limited cross jurisdictional coordination. With the exception of transit agencies, transportation operations agencies often tend to focus on a short time horizon rather than the long-term outlook required for the MTP. Therefore, it has been difficult to articulate what are the most important regional M&O investments for a region.

Despite these challenges, transportation agencies are taking steps to increase the role of M&O strategies in transportation planning. Opportunities are being taken to enhance coordination and collaboration among transportation system operators,13 and to improve linkages between operators and planners.14 Building on those experiences, this document describes a new approach to integrating M&O in the MTP, highlighting the importance of including M&O as a regional goal in the MTP, and in developing measurable operations objectives.

Rationale for an Objectives-Driven Approach to M&O in the MTP

Implementing a planning process with a strong M&O component is best accomplished by a new way of thinking about management and operations in transportation planning - one that is objectives-driven, rather than project-driven. This process focuses on both short-term and long-term system performance, using established system performance measures, rather than simply focusing on implementation of projects as a measure of success.

The maxim that "What gets measured gets managed," recognizes that performance measurement can focus the attention of decisionmakers, practitioners, and the public on important characteristics of the transportation system. The act of defining regional operations objectives in the MTP will place increased attention on the operational performance of the transportation system. By including operations objectives that address system performance issues, such as recurring and non-recurring congestion, emergency response times, connectivity among modes, and access to traveler information, the MTP will yield programs and strategies that more effectively address these concerns. In addition to addressing long-range system capacity needs, the MTP will encourage operations to play a more important role in transportation investment planning, and address both short-range and long-range needs.

2.2 A Framework for Objectives-Driven Performance-Based M&O in Planning

Overview of the New Approach

While the metropolitan transportation planning process takes place in the framework of existing laws and regulations, an objectives-driven approach to M&O involves the development of regional operations objectives, which inform the way in which transportation investments are determined as part of the MTP, as shown in Figure 3.

Flow chart depicting the process for integrating regional operations objectives in the metropolitan planning process.
Figure 3: Integrating Regional Operations Objectives in the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Process.

  • The development of a regional vision and goals arises from a thoughtful and deliberate regional process that takes into account the eight planning factors. It provides a broad sense of what the region agrees it wants the transportation system to achieve.
  • Regional operations objectives flow directly from the goals. These objectives are measurable and define desired outcomes that help to achieve the goals. They are developed through coordination and collaboration with operating agencies and play a central role in the planning process.
  • The regional operations objectives are used to develop performance measures, analyze problems, and develop and recommend strategies for inclusion in the MTP. The CMP is a key component of this approach, with a focus on managing congestion.
  • Management and operations strategies are then selected within fiscal constraints.
  • The result is a Metropolitan Transportation Plan, with a 20+ year outlook that includes a more optimal mix of operations strategies and capital investments, and a TIP with a near-term focus that includes specific programs and projects.
  • Monitoring and evaluation of transportation system operations then feeds back into the development of the update of the regional vision, goals, and objectives in the next cycle of developing the MTP.

What the Resulting MTP Looks Like

The resulting MTP can be structured in different ways. It typically will include (but is not necessarily limited to) either:

  • A section focused specifically on management and operations. This section of the plan would identify M&O goals, include specific, measurable, regional operations objectives, and describe M&O strategies for achieving the regional operations objectives. Such a section might describe existing system performance, projected system performance in the absence of the plan, and expected performance with the inclusion of all planned projects and strategies.
  • Alternatively, the MTP can include discussion of M&O strategies within the context of different goals and strategy groups identified within the MTP. For example, a goal aimed at improving highway safety might utilize a regional operations objective related to reducing the number of fatalities on the highway system, and include M&O strategies such as emergency response teams, enhanced signalization, etc.. A goal aimed at improving mobility and access across the region might include a regional operations objective related to reducing the level of traveler delay, and include M&O strategies such as peak-period use of shoulder lanes, congestion pricing, and variable message signs.

While metropolitan areas have flexibility to use different approaches to organizing the MTP, in all cases, the MTP should include:

  • A vision and goals that includes effective management and operations of the transportation system;
  • Measurable regional operations objectives that allow the region to track progress toward achieving its M&O goals; and
  • Identification of M&O strategies, backed by specific performance measures for evaluation.

It is suggested that MPOs include in their MTPs discussion of M&O strategies that are funded by State, regional and local transportation agencies even without use of Federal funding. Because many M&O strategies (e.g., incident clearance, emergency response) are planned and executed within these agencies, this added discussion in MTPs will provide a more holistic picture of the totality of M&O strategies being employed within a region.

2.3 Benefits of Applying Regional Operations Objectives in the MTP

The process of applying regional operations objectives in the MTP will also lead to broader outcomes that improve transportation planning and links between transportation planning and operations. Specifically, the benefits of this process include:

  • A more objective (rather than subjective) approach to addressing operations in the transportation planning process - By including operations objectives and performance measures in the metropolitan transportation planning process, resource allocation and investment decisions can be made with a clearer focus on outcomes of the plan, which will allow a better screening of strategies using objective criteria. While political considerations, public support, and tradeoffs between different goals will continue to play an important role in the process, having a clear set of agreed upon objectives will allow comparisons of alternative strategies and scenarios using specific metrics.
  • Focused transportation investment prioritization - Use of M&O objectives and performance measures will help in prioritizing investments on a regional basis. With regional operations objectives, there are established metrics for determining which investments are most important and cost-effective in meeting regional goals. For instance, regional operations objectives naturally lead to the development of performance measures, which can be developed and utilized as part of the Congestion Management Process (CMP) to prioritize locations with the most significant recurring and nonrecurring congestion problems.
  • Improved resource allocation - Transportation investment decisionmaking will become more comprehensive, incorporating system operations for an optimal mix of operations and capital projects and programs. In addition to "stand alone" operations projects, M&O strategies can be actively built into transportation system preservation, capacity expansion, and safety projects to help maintain existing and future planned capacity and safety.
  • Increased accountability and measurement of performance - Success in achieving regional operations objectives can be tracked over time. Tracking performance can help transportation agencies demonstrate to the public the benefits of their programs and investments, and can feed into future updates to the MTP, if it is determined that objectives need to be reassessed.
  • Engaging the operations community in a more substantive way - Integrating M&O into the metropolitan transportation planning process has benefits for transportation planners and operators, and the traveling public. By working toward optimizing the transportation system with management and operations strategies, transportation planners are better able to demonstrate to the public and elected officials that progress is being made on reducing congestion in the short-term with lower cost techniques. Similarly, day-to-day managers of the operating system are able to make their limited staff time and other resources go farther by collaborating with planners and other operators to address operations from a regional perspective. Transportation operations improvements made in one jurisdiction are reinforced by coordinated improvements in neighboring areas enabling travelers to move seamlessly across the region without encountering inconsistent traveler information, toll collection technologies, or traffic signal timing.

Overall, by working together to address transportation issues of regional significance with management and operations strategies, operators and planners are able to have a greater impact on the performance of the transportation system in the region than they would by working alone. The MTP will result in a more optimal mix of transportation investments among system preservation, M&O, safety projects, and system expansion strategies, and will more effectively integrate M&O strategies into all types of investments.

2.4 The Role of M&O Goals

An important first step to integrating M&O in the MTP is to establish a goal or goals that focus on the efficient management and operation of the transportation system. In general, a goal should describe the end toward which an effort is directed; it establishes an aim that is desired. The goal derives from the values inherent in the regional vision.

An effectively operating transportation system involves not only the provision of highway and transit infrastructure for movement of the public and freight, but also efficient ways of operating these systems in order to improve their effective capacity, reliability, and safety. This requires quick response times and decision-making during incidents and emergencies; coordinated traffic operations across jurisdictional boundaries; coordinated travel demand management for special events; provision of reliable and timely information about traffic situations so the public can make informed travel choices; easy movement among roads and transit services managed and operated by different jurisdictions and agencies; monitoring of hazardous materials across jurisdictions to improve safety and security; and other efforts to improve the management and operation of the transportation network.

The MTP may identify an overarching regional M&O goal,15 such as:

  • "The "X" region will optimize the operation of the regional highway, transit, and non-motorized transportation system."

Alternatively, the MTP may identify a set of M&O goals that are still broad, but address different aspects of transportation system management and operations, such as:

  • "The "X" region will provide a reliable regional transportation system,"
  • "The "X" region will reduce unexpected traveler delay," or
  • "The "X" region will ensure effective transportation response to emergencies."

The MTP may also identify a wide range of other goals - relating to issues such as improving transportation safety, security, and connectivity - that also lead to the development of M&O strategies to achieve these goals, even though the goals themselves do not focus on system management or operations directly.

2.5 The Role of Regional Operations Objectives

Regional operations objectives flow from the M&O goal(s) or from other goals in the Plan, and are a critical component of creating an objectives-driven, performance-based approach to integrating M&O in the MTP. Operations objectives help to actualize what it means to accomplish the goal, and should specify clear measurements for evaluating progress towards the goal. They state what a region plans to achieve in regard to the operational performance of the transportation system and thereby help to determine what strategies and investments to include in the MTP. Regional operations objectives put a focus on issues such as traffic congestion, traffic incidents, goods movement, homeland security and work zones that are not often well addressed in the MTP.

While this document focuses primarily on operations, MPOs may also recognize the value of having measurable objectives in relation to all goals in the MTP (e.g., safety, economic development, environmental, community, etc.), and may wish to consider applying the steps discussed here across the range of appropriate issues to be addressed in the MTP. Using operations objectives and performance measures in the transportation planning process puts increased emphasis on M&O.

2.6 What Do Regional Operations Objectives Look Like?

Characteristics of Regional Operations Objectives

Objectives are specific, measurable statements relating to the attainment of goals. In the MTP, operations objectives are typically regional or multi-jurisdictional in nature. In conjunction with selecting operations objectives, performance measures are developed to assess whether or not the objective has been met.

Given that the fundamental purpose of management and operations improvements is to better serve the transportation system user through increased system performance, operations objectives are preferably described in terms of system performance outcomes as experienced by users. Objectives focused on outcomes to the user address issues such as 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.

For some MPOs - particularly smaller MPOs - outcome-based objectives may be challenging to develop due to factors such as limited operations data, limited staff resources, or lack of consensus among decisionmakers around an appropriate system-level performance objective. In these cases, the partners may develop operations objectives in terms of the performance of the system managers or operators. These objectives refer to indicators such as incident response time, percentage of traffic signals retimed, or number of variable message signs deployed. 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 be the best interim objectives until more outcome-based objectives can be developed. The step of working together to develop objectives itself may help to elevate discussion of regional system management and operations.

In all cases, an objective should have "SMART" characteristics, as defined below:

  • Specific: It provides sufficient specificity to guide formulation of viable approaches to achieving the objective without dictating the approach.
  • Measurable: It includes quantitative measurements, saying how many or how much should be accomplished. Tracking progress against the objective enables an assessment of effectiveness of actions.
  • Agreed: Partners come to a consensus on a common objective. This is most effective when the planning process involves a wide-range of stakeholders to facilitate regional collaboration and coordination.
  • Realistic: The objective can reasonably be accomplished within the limitations of resources and other demands. The objective may be a "stretch" and require substantial coordination, collaboration, and investment to achieve. Because how realistic the objective is cannot be fully evaluated until after strategies and approaches are defined, the objective may need to be adjusted to be achievable.
  • Time-bound: The objective identifies a timeframe within which it will be achieved (e.g., "by 2012").

By developing "SMART" objectives, system performance can be examined and monitored over time.

Examples of Regional Operations Objectives

Operations Objectives

In order to address SAFETEA-LU requirements for consideration of M&O, the MTP should include specific goals and objectives that focus on the management and operation of the transportation system. Goals may be established that address issues such as transportation system reliability, response to emergencies and weather conditions, traffic incident clearance, or access to traveler information. In these cases, regional operations objectives will include specific measures that can help system operators to assess their collective performance.

For instance, for a goal of "Improved transportation system reliability," an objective might include the following:

  • By 2020, reduce the variability in travel time on freeways and major arteries in the region such that 95% of trips (19 out of 20) have travel times no more than 1.5 times the average travel time for a specific time of day.

Other examples of operations objectives include:

  • By 2010, reduce the clearance time of traffic incidents on freeways and major arteries in the region from a current average of X minutes to an average of Y minutes.
  • Throughout the timeframe of the plan, maintain an average time of no more than Z hours to clear all emergency snow routes and priority arterials.
  • By 2015, decrease average annual traveler delay associated with road closures, major incidents, and weather-related conditions on interstate highways by 20 percent from 2000 levels.
  • By 2015, at least 90 percent of transit buses will arrive within no more than 5 minutes of scheduled time.
  • By 2010, access to real-time information on bus arrival times will be provided for all bus routes on all transit providers within the region.

The extent to which the MTP includes these types of 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 developing these types of objectives, it is important to recognize - and to communicate with 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 provision 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.

Objectives for Various Planning Goals

While the objectives above all relate directly to goals that focus on improved system management and operations, a similar approach may be used throughout the MTP so that regional objectives are developed in relationship to multiple goals within a transportation plan. In this way, the entire plan is objectives-driven and addresses system performance. For instance, if one goal is to "Provide a safe transportation system" or focuses on safety enhancement, specific regional objectives may include:

  • By 2025, reduce the number of fatalities on the highway system to X per hundred thousand vehicle miles traveled.
  • By 2020, reduce the number of accidents in the transit system to Y per thousand riders.
  • By 2020, reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities to no more than Z per year.

For a goal that relates to "improved mobility," regional objectives might include the following:

  • By 2025, reduce the number of lane miles experiencing severe traffic congestion by X percent.
  • By 2030, increase the share of jobs within 30 minute access time of the population to Y percent.

Each of these types of objectives is specific, measurable, and time-bound, and generally exhibit the "SMART" characteristics described above. Coming under a range of goals, these objectives allow for a variety of different solutions, including both operations strategies and infrastructure enhancements. Having regional objectives places the focus of the planning process on performance, and thus plays an important role throughout the plan in raising the profile of M&O strategies.

12 Survey of MPOs on Linking Planning and Operations, Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, January 2004.

13 See Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration and Coordination: A Primer for Working Together to Improve Transportation Safety, Reliability, and Security. U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration, Publication Number FHWA-OP-03-008, 2003. Available at:

14 See Getting More by Working Together: Opportunities for Linking Planning and Operations. U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration, Publication Number FHWA-HOP-05-016, 2005. Available at:

15 It is understood that words like "optimize", "reliable", and other similar descriptors will need to be addressed in more detail in the supporting operations objectives.

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