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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation
Date:
November/December 2014
Issue No:
Vol. 78 No. 3
Publication Number:
FHWA-HRT-15-001
Table of Contents

One Size Doesn't Fit All

by Elaine Murakami

Smaller communities depend on a distinct set of solutions for overcoming obstacles to planning multimodal transportation facilities in their cities and towns.

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The Tahoe MPO in California and Nevada is using increased public input to help balance the region’s transportation needs while preserving the natural resources, including scenic Lake Tahoe, shown here.

Regardless of the size of a community, residents need to be able to access jobs, schools, health care facilities, stores, entertainment, and more. Federal regulations for transportation have different requirements for urbanized areas (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) with populations of more than 200,000. The Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Committee on Transportation Planning in Small and Medium-Sized Communities (ADA 30) generally works with communities that have populations below that threshold. These small and medium-sized communities must address many of the same issues as larger metropolitan areas, but with fewer staffing resources and smaller budgets. Finding cost-effective solutions to developing accurate travel models, evaluating projects for long-range planning, and improving public participation are all critical for success.

To help transportation professionals charged with planning and programming for multimodal transportation facilities, the TRB Committee on Transportation Planning in Small and Medium-Sized Communities holds a biennial Tools of the Trade conference. The most recent took place in Burlington, VT, in July 2014, and focused on economical, ready-to-use, and practical tools and techniques for smaller communities. Attendees also discussed future research and implementation needs.

Here is a look at a few of the innovations featured at the conference.

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NCDOT used aggregate cell phone data to evaluate travel patterns along U.S. 1 in Moore County. The analysis identified how the corridor serves its users locally, regionally, and statewide. By understanding how these groups use the corridor, NCDOT can approach transportation planning more strategically.

Using Aggregate Cell Phone Data

Developing travel models at the local level can be challenging due to the high costs of conducting household surveys, which typically run from $150 and up per completed survey. However, travel surveys have been a staple of model development for decades. Some major metropolitan areas plan for a sample size of at least 1,000 (some significantly more) households every 10 years, but that is out of reach for smaller metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

In lieu of locally collected data, many communities borrow model parameters from other locations with similar populations and adjust as needed based on comparisons of estimated traffic flows to observed traffic counts. Examples of the parameters are trip rates (the number of household trips daily) and distribution curves for trip lengths. Typically, household trip rates transfer fairly well, but the distribution of trips to reflect local land use and development patterns in each community are less transferrable.

A recent project in North Carolina used data from cell phones to analyze corridor traffic, in particular to determine the proportion of travel by local residents compared to visitors. For the U.S. 1 corridor in Moore County, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) needed a model to evaluate travel patterns and traffic demand. Moore County, with a population of more than 91,000, is located in central North Carolina. The comprehensive transportation system serving the county includes major corridors such as U.S. 1, U.S. 15, and U.S. 501. With population growth nearing double digits over the last decade, the corresponding increase in traffic volume is straining the existing infrastructure.

Working with the Triangle Area Rural Planning Organization and the county’s 11 planning jurisdictions, NCDOT needed to determine the source of the traffic volume contributing to the mounting congestion in the corridor. Agency officials also needed to know how much of the traffic was local and how much came from outside the county, and how the county’s anticipated growth would affect the corridor by 2040.

The solution? NCDOT obtained location data from cell phones to determine major origin-destination patterns and to understand the traffic flows along U.S. 1. The data helped to clarify the potential need for corridor improvements.

NCDOT purchased the aggregate cell phone data at the traffic analysis zone (a unit of geography defined for transportation planning) level from a wireless information and data provider for a fraction of the cost of a traditional survey. Because the data is completely aggregate, it does not show individual cell phone records and therefore it is not subject to privacy issues. North Carolina plugged the data into a travel demand model developed by a contractor to assess the traffic patterns along the U.S. 1 corridor. The traffic patterns showed NCDOT how local, regional, and statewide traffic use the corridor, thus helping them plan for improvements with a more strategic and cost-effective approach.

Both State and local planners view the project as a success because it helped NCDOT determine where the traffic was coming from and traveling to, and plan for expected growth in volume on the affected roads.

Frances D. Bisby, transportation engineer in the NCDOT Transportation Planning Branch says, “Confirming the existing travel patterns of the county’s roadway users, and specifically, the breakdown of internal versus external traffic, [was] vital for the decisionmaking process and in planning the future of the U.S. 1 corridor.”

Bisby adds, “Finding solutions to capacity [issues] within urban settings is a problem facing more and more communities as our State and local planning agencies try to balance safety, mobility, and constrained resources within the context of local communities. Having an analysis tool [and data]…helps make sure that the plan under development reflects local travel patterns. The ultimate goal is a transportation plan that will accommodate the projected growth of the county’s traffic and provide the best operational solution for the county’s future transportation needs.”

New datasets and tools for improved modeling of travel demand support better planning decisions in small and medium-sized communities at reduced costs. TRB is currently working on a project (08-95) under the National Cooperative Highway Research Program to better understand the extent to which location data from cell phones accurately depict travel patterns and to provide guidelines on the use of these data. Information on the project is available at http://apps.trb.org/cmsfeed/TRBNetProjectDisplay.asp?ProjectID=3637.

Applying Technology to Long-Range Planning

Long-range plans typically include two types of projects: those that are visionary (no funding available) and projects that are fiscally constrained. Only fiscally constrained long-range projects can be selected for implementation because funding must be available or reasonably expected to be available for projects to move forward. Therefore, MPOs need a way to evaluate each project based on targeted outcomes (for example, contribution toward performance goals) for consideration and inclusion in long-range plans, as well as shorter term transportation improvement programs (TIPs). Traditionally, MPOs each developed their own systems for planning, which could be quite labor-intensive for smaller MPOs with fewer staff members. Now, WebTELUS (Transportation Economic Land Use System) can help agencies with performance-based planning and selecting projects strategically.

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This sample report generated using the WebTELUS software scores a proposed bridge project according to its anticipated performance and various planning factors from the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). The graph provides a breakdown of the relative impacts the project would have on various planning objectives based on the scoring. Planners can use this to help select projects to meet the planning objects by comparing proposed projects according to planning factors. (Note: The scores for this sample project are for illustration purposes only. They were not assigned by the MPO or DOT and may not accurately reflect the actual scores or merits of the projects.)

WebTELUS, available at www.telus-national.org, is a software tool designed to make long-range transportation planning more accessible to the public by using data visualization in a Web-based geographic information system (GIS) environment. It also provides planners and decisionmakers with options for tracking project information, schedules, and funding commitments and for relating project selection to regional performance goals.

Many large MPOs already use GIS-based reporting systems for developing TIPs, which list projects to be funded with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration dollars over the next 4-year period. Some of them (for example, the New York Metropolitan Planning Council) use the TELUS platform. However, WebTELUS may be useful and beneficial to small and medium-sized MPOs because it is available to public agencies free of charge. In addition, the existing framework can be easily customized, making it a cost-effective solution. WebTELUS comes with standard reports, but agencies can develop customized reports using the project information in the database.

In WebTELUS, agencies can link each project to specific factors and criteria used in planning or project selection. Users can define the criteria or base them on default factors provided in the software. Each agency also can customize the rating system to meet its needs and match its business processes. This system makes it easy to tie projects to State or regional transportation performance goals and to analyze the contribution of the selected projects to each goal. The GIS component can include a variety of visualization tools, including links to an agency’s VideoLog application or Google Street View™ mapping service to show the location of each project.

FHWA has been working with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to develop WebTELUS. Congress initiated the project with an earmark under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). The objective is to develop management information systems to assist State departments of transportation (DOTs) and MPOs with the planning and programming requirements mandated under this legislation.

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WebTELUS provides a mechanism for collecting public comments on proposed transportation improvement projects, as shown here.

“With the passing of ISTEA, we recognized a need to develop a management information system that would be very easy to use, could store and manipulate large amounts of data, and could present this data to decisionmakers and citizens in a simple, coherent, and timely manner,” says Lazar Spasovic, TELUS project director at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “The decision was made to develop this tool through a collaborative research program driven by users’ needs, adopting the FHWA Technology Innovation Life Cycle approach.”

Recognizing the prospective value of TELUS and its potential to meet users’ needs, FHWA designated the tool as a priority, market-ready technology in 2003 to help expedite its adoption. The designation meant FHWA helped to get the technology marketed effectively, communicated, and understood by potential users.

WebTELUS became available in 2004. The off-the-shelf version of WebTELUS also includes a tool for the public to comment on individual TIP projects.

An agency can customize the software either using internal resources or with assistance under contract from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In the latter situation, the agency provides a TIP spreadsheet or database and detailed maps for each project, which the staff at the New Jersey Institute of Technology then enters into the WebTELUS system. The institute staff also can provide cloud-based hosting for the system, including system maintenance, which could be a cost-effective option for agencies that do not have full-time staff dedicated to information technology.

How DOTs and MPOs Are Using TELUS

The Alabama Department of Transportation, Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission, and Houston-Galveston Area Council are some of the early adopters of WebTELUS.

“The Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission has been using WebTELUS for nearly a decade with great success,” says Mike Lucas, information technology and Web manager for the planning commission. “Our staff uses it daily to maintain and update project data, and providing Web access for visitors has simplified and often reduced the number of meetings needed with project sponsors.”

Lucas says that the ability to modify the code of the application has enabled the planning commission to customize some portions of it, including accessing the data for specialized queries. “And an open line of communication with the TELUS/New Jersey Institute of Technology staff has always resulted in quick problem-solving when we’ve needed it,” he adds.

Another application of TELUS, which evolved from the Web-based system, is TELUS eSTIP, an application that streamlines the development, review, and approval of TIPs and STIPs (statewide transportation improvement programs), as well as the processing of amendments and modifications, and facilitates cooperation between agencies at all levels. The application also enables stakeholders, including the public, to quickly review submitted project actions and track the progress of approvals as they move through the process. This application, however, does not allow for public comments.

Both the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council have implemented the system to manage their programming processes. James F. Vari, program manager in NJDOT’s Division of Capital Investment Planning and Development, is pleased with the outcomes of implementing TELUS eSTIP. “A fully integrated [eSTIP] allows [us] to manage the STIP process, from planning and programming to the obligation of funds,” he says. “At the same time, eSTIP enables the MPOs, transit agencies, and independent authorities to manage their projects and programs.”

The software also helped NJDOT eliminate a lot of unnecessary paper-pushing along the way and improved the overall efficiency of the approval process. “With eSTIP,” Vari says, “we reduced the amount of time for both FHWA and [the Federal Transit Administration] to review and approve STIP modifications and amendments.”

Improving Public Participation

Public participation is a Federal requirement of regional transportation planning. It enables transportation agencies to make more informed decisions through collaborative efforts and builds mutual understanding and trust between the agencies and the public they serve. Outreach to a broad range of stakeholders, including residents, business owners, advocacy groups, and commercial property owners and operators, yields the most comprehensive input. But what if many of your constituents are seasonal residents or tourists? How do you engage them when they cannot participate at meetings in person?

The Tahoe Metropolitan Planning Organization, a joint effort between California and Nevada, is using virtual meetings to increase public participation and advance its regional transportation goals while preserving natural resources that are critical to the local economy.

Lake Tahoe is a stunning alpine lake set high in the Sierra Nevada, 2 hours northeast of Sacramento, CA, and about 3 hours from San Francisco, CA. The Tahoe MPO has goals to increase the safety, security, and efficiency of its multimodal transportation system, which includes highways, bus transit, ferries, and shared-use trails. The MPO emphasizes walkability and preserving Lake Tahoe’s famed water quality and other environmental resources. Both of these planning directions support the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism, and the natural resources and distinctive communities that attract tourists.

Controlling stormwater runoff and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging use of non-automotive modes of transportation are part of the goal to maintain the air and water quality of the region and preserve sensitive lands.

 “Our goal was to get people involved in Mobility 2035, our regional transportation plan,” says Karen Fink, senior transportation planner with the Tahoe MPO. “We have a lot of seasonal residents and visitors . . . here at Lake Tahoe, so we needed a way to reach those constituents, even if they were not able to attend an in-person meeting. By using a combination of hands-on methods for people attending an onsite meeting, and easy-to-use methods for virtual, real-time participation, we anticipated that we could increase participation.”

For the first time, the MPO implemented a Web-based application called Crowdbrite to engage stakeholders who could not attend meetings in person. Crowdbrite is an online platform for hosting brainstorming sessions, meetings, workshops, and charrettes. When users log into a session, they see a digital “white board” with virtual sticky notes containing comments, and photos and maps of the project area. The maps are clickable, which enables users to select a specific project, and then submit comments on that project as well as read comments from other users.

The application proved to be an effective means for increasing public participation in the planning process. “We received a great deal of positive feedback from using the Crowdbrite approach,” Fink says. “People were excited about the computer interface.”

Fink adds that online participation was comparable and complementary to the onsite meetings. “Onsite, people could use traditional sticky notes or computer tablets to identify project preferences or problem situations. Online participants could submit electronic sticky notes. Crowdbrite staff worked on adding the paper comments into the electronic system so that all comments were accumulated in one place. Making all the comments--submitted both onsite and electronically--easy to see made interaction easy and allowed people to discuss their ideas on specific projects with each other, both in person and online.” In addition, Fink says the improved interaction facilitated the generation of new ideas, such as identifying locations for safety improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians.

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Jeff Cowen, former public information officer with Tahoe MPO, talks to a stakeholder during a public participation meeting.

Within 20 minutes of the conclusion of the event, Crowdbrite generated a summary of all the comments submitted. The quick turnaround was important in gaining public trust, because people saw that their comments were included. After the summary was posted and made available publicly, an online open house enabled people to submit comments for an additional month.

During a recent workshop to kick off a corridor improvement project in a rural area, event organizers asked 70 stakeholders to share the Crowdbrite project Web site with their peers and social networks. The company provided computer kiosks onsite or the stakeholders used their tablets or smartphones to do it immediately. Within an hour, the effort had identified nearly 9,000 people as potential participants. Compared to the original 70, that number is significant. Plus, being invited by peers rather than by public notice resulted in meaningful input and an increase in participation--at no additional cost.

“The Crowdbrite approach is a process focused on impact and meaningful outcomes,” says Crowdbrite owner Darin Dinsmore. “We have been able to actually reduce the number of expensive workshops while increasing access and participation and focusing more funds on project delivery and early catalyst projects.”

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The Tahoe MPO is using Crowdbrite, an online application that supports virtual meetings, to gather public input. This summary report combines a map and photos with digital sticky notes containing comments received on the Lake Tahoe Regional Transportation Plan via in-person meetings and through virtual participation.

Crowdbrite is just one of many choices available for using interactive, Web-based systems, social media, and telecommunication to increase public involvement in the planning process. Several companies recently participated in a technology fair hosted by the International Association for Public Participation, including Intellitics, MetroQuest, PlaceSpeak, Telephone Town Hall Meeting, and Urban Interactive Studio.

Using Employment Data By Industry to Generate Regional Models of Truck Trips

Freight traffic is significant in some small and medium-sized communities, especially those near large distribution centers. Yet due to the highly aggregated nature of data in the Freight Analysis Framework, the proprietary nature of other sources of freight data, and the cost associated with collecting site-specific freight data, small and medium-sized communities often exclude truck trips in their travel demand models. To overcome these limitations, they assume truck trips as a portion of the non-home-based trips. However, inclusion of trucks in travel demand models does not provide the community the ability to plan the roadway infrastructure to account for actual truck demand.

The Freight Analysis Framework version 3 database, developed and maintained by FHWA, provides a snapshot of freight volumes for metropolitan areas across the Nation using freight analysis zones. However, some smaller communities, despite having reasonable freight activity, might not be included as a freight analysis zone in the database if they do not have direct access to the amount of freight transport in their communities.

To assist transportation agencies without local freight data at their disposal, the University of Alabama in Huntsville conducted a study to build regional models of truck trip generation. The study built models of trip generation using employment data by industry from 74 metropolitan regions (out of 381 in the United States) and 123 freight analysis zones.

Michael Anderson, professor of civil engineering at the University of Alabama Huntsville says the goal was to provide models that can be used anywhere in the country. “We used employment data by industry as the explanatory variable in the models,” he says. “We aggregated industry employment data from the North American Industry Classification System to two-digit level and developed a truck production and attraction model for each of 42 commodities at the two-digit aggregate level.” The two-digit level allows for classification of the data by industry.

Transportation planners can incorporate the trip generation models in a commodity-specific modeling approach. That is, entering the industry employment data for the community into the university’s model can produce an estimate of the total volume of freight expected to be imported into and exported from the community. These values represent the external-internal and internal-external movement of trucks.

University researchers tested the models developed against statistical parameters to ensure accuracy. They also examined the adequacy of the models using standard statistical tests. All of the models passed at a statistically significant level.

Although no model is perfect, Anderson says, “We are spending the public’s money without knowing all the data, so we have to try our best to use the existing data most effectively.”

For more information or to access the models, contact Mike Anderson at 256–824–5028 or andersmd@uah.edu.

Conclusion

Transportation planning in small and medium-sized communities requires creativity and willingness to think outside the box to accomplish goals while saving money. But when communities embrace new and emerging tools, they can increase public participation, improve travel demand models, and enhance transparency and accuracy in the planning process.

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Here, a commercial truck carries freight across the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, WV.

“I continue to be impressed by the diversity of innovative solutions to these challenges presented and the camaraderie of the participants at our Tools of the Trade conferences,” says Jerry Everett, research director at the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and chair of the TRB Committee on Transportation Planning for Small and Medium-Sized Communities. “These are the characteristics that piqued my interest in this group more than a decade ago and what I hope our committee will continue to foster to help small and medium-sized communities thrive.”

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Joe Zietsman, head of the Environment & Air Quality Division of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, presented on performance measures for sustainability at the 2014 Tools of the Trade conference in Burlington, VT.

 


Elaine Murakami is a community planner with FHWA’s Office of Planning in Washington, DC. She has worked at FHWA for more than 20 years. Prior to joining FHWA, Murakami worked at the Puget Sound Regional Council in Seattle, WA. Her work is focused on personal travel surveys, including using the American Community Survey for the Census Transportation Planning Products. Murakami has been influential in promoting innovations in conducting regional household travel surveys, such as using GPS and smartphones.

For more information, visit www.trbtoolsofthetrade.org or contact Elaine Murakami at 206–220–4460 or elaine.murakami@dot.gov.