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Public Roads - Autumn 2018

Autumn 2018
Issue No:
Vol. 82 No. 3
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Internet Watch

Selecting the Right Tools to Optimize Planning

by Jim Hunt

Transportation planners have a challenging job. They must balance competing priorities and needs against an anticipated but not necessarily known future. Planners must answer complex questions: Will congestion decrease if we invest in a particular strategy? How might travel patterns change and where will we see the worst congestion in the future?

The use of analysis tools in planning for operations helps answer questions like these. Planning for operations is a joint effort between transportation planners and operators to integrate transportation systems management and operations strategies into the planning process to improve system safety, efficiency, and reliability. A fundamental aspect of achieving this goal is using the right analysis tools and methodologies.

To help, the Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Analysis Tools Program offers a series of online resources to facilitate the deployment and use of existing tools and to support the development of new, improved tools. The resources include almost 20 publications, links to training and workshops available through the National Highway Institute, overviews of a variety of types of tools, and videos from four local agencies in New Mexico, Minnesota, and Texas about using analysis tools to support transportation planning and decisionmaking. These resources are available on the Traffic Analysis Tools website at

Analysis Tools to Support Operations Planning

No single analytical tool can solve every problem. Using an overly sophisticated tool may result in poor use of resources, and using a tool that is too basic may produce insufficient results. Analysis tools fall into the following five general categories:

Archived operations data are used for documenting baseline operational conditions, monitoring and evaluating system performance, and identifying and reporting performance issues and needs.

Regional travel demand models are widely used for estimating changes in mode choice and traffic patterns or volumes resulting from changes in development levels, demographics, and the transportation system itself.

Sketch planning tools provide quick order of magnitude estimates with minimal input data in support of preliminary screening assessments. They are most useful early in the planning process, while planners are still screening potential strategies.

Analytic/deterministic methods help planners analyze the performance of isolated or small-scale transportation facilities and the impacts of strategies under various demand conditions. They enable planners to predict capacity, density, speed, delay, and queuing on transportation facilities.

Simulation tools use a variety of formulas and algorithms to simulate travel behavior. They help evaluate a range of improvements and strategies at isolated locations, in corridors, or area wide.


FHWA's Traffic Analysis Tools Program provides resources to help transportation planners select the right analysis tools for projects to improve system safety, efficiency, and reliability.

© Kichigin, Shutterstock

Methods for Operations Assessments

Industry vendors and FHWA-supported research have led to the development of a number of new methods to better assess the changeable nature of transportation operations.

Activity-based models typically focus on individual person-trips, representing how individuals travel throughout the entire day. They offer higher accuracy on travel patterns and provide detailed performance measures.

Dynamic traffic assignment methods are emerging as a practical tool for numerous planning and operations applications, including simulating the impact of incidents, evaluating operational strategies that may shift traffic patterns, and estimating travel behavior from various demand changes and interactions.

Multi-scenario methods enable planners to assess impacts under varying conditions, including nontypical days (nonrecurring events). Tools of this type can help planners refine project scope or design to optimize benefits.

Visualization methods help planners present transportation performance data and information in a visual format, such as annotated maps, graphs, photos, illustrations, and videos. These methods are most useful in communicating transportation needs to leaders who prioritize budgets and to the public.

Finding the Keys to Success

Matching the methods or tools to planning objectives, budget, and resource requirements is essential to project success. FHWA’s Traffic Analysis Tools website can help transportation planning and operations professionals select the right options.

Analysis tools are important components in linking planning and operations, and in promoting the optimal performance of the transportation system through operational strategies. Linking the two fields using appropriate tools, methods, and performance measures can answer transportation planners’ questions and help them convey understandable information to decisionmakers, stakeholders, and the public.

For more information, contact John Halkias at or 202–366–2183.

Jim Hunt, P.E., is a transportation operations program manager on the Organizing and Planning for Operations team of the FHWA Office of Operations.