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Transportation Planning and Sustainability Guidebook

Chapter 2: How are Sustainability Issues addressed in Transportation Planning?

Transportation planning usually tackles multiple objectives, such as setting strategic goals and priorities, measuring and monitoring progress, prioritizing initiatives to best use limited funds, and addressing new challenges like climate change and freight system capacity. The remainder of the guidebook focuses on how these issues can be addressed with sustainability as a central focus.

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is the development of a vision, mission, and strategic objectives, and the creation of a system for evaluating progress. An agency's strategic plan shapes its activities over a multi-year period. Therefore, incorporating sustainability principles during the strategic planning process can be an effective way to implement sustainable practices for facility design, operations, and maintenance. While sustainability is commonly addressed as a section or set of goals within a strategic plan, a better approach is to transform the strategic plan into a sustainability plan. Scenario planning (especially by backcasting) or spatial planning are helpful processes for creating a strategic plan (see Chapter 3 for descriptions of these practices).

Sustainability plans and programs are important because they provide a comprehensive and coordinated way to address sustainable transportation within the agency and across complementary state agencies. There are few state DOT examples of a comprehensive sustainability plan, and one of the strongest examples of such a plan is New Zealand Ministry of Transport's sustainability-centered long-term plan. The New Zealand Transport Strategy (NZTS) 2008 establishes a set of targets to be achieved by the transportation sector over the next 30 years, and includes a performance measurement framework that is available for policymakers and the public to review progress towards the targets. The plan will also be supported statutorily by the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport Funding, which prioritizes funding for a six- to 10-year period. In addition to the statutory funding statement, NZTS will also be evaluated through a Transport Monitoring Indicator Framework, which is available to the public via an online interactive version. The framework provides accountability and a procedure to monitor progress towards the objectives, sector outcomes, and targets. It is also a tool for evaluating the effectiveness of the current policy and for guiding future decisions.

Fiscally-constrained Planning

Providing transportation funding sufficient for maintaining current transportation infrastructure and putting in place capacity expansions to meet future demands is likely to be one of the most challenging public policy issues facing federal, state, and local officials in the future. Given the diversity of funding contexts at all levels of government, the most likely descriptor of future transportation funding programs is that they will be "menus" of different funding and financing strategies. In the near term, that is, over the next 20 to 25 years, the motor vehicle fuel tax will still likely be a major source, if not the major source, of funding for road projects. It also seems likely that states and metropolitan areas will continue to develop their own funding programs based on a variety of revenue sources that could allow more flexibility in using such funds for a range of projects (e.g., freight-related projects) if decision makers so chose. There has also been a growing interest in recent years in types of projects that could be jointly undertaken by both public agencies and private investors. Called public/private partnerships or P3s, these projects are assumed to provide both public and private benefits and thus justify investment on the part of both parties (5). Given the strains on many state and local government budgets, it is likely that public/private funded projects will be an important ingredient of future investment programs.

Even with new funding sources and financing strategies, transportation funding will be limited and agencies will need to make tough decisions about the best system improvements to invest in. By identifying sustainability criteria and exploring different funding scenarios, transportation agencies and political leaders can make well-informed investment decisions (see ODOT Investment Scenarios case study for example). Life cycle cost analysis, also profiled in the case studies chapter, can also inform long-term funding priorities by quantifying not only initial costs and impacts, but also costs incurred later in a facility or program's life span.

Performance Measurement and Performance-based Planning

At the same time as transportation agencies have been applying sustainability principles and adopting sustainability practices in the U.S., there has been growing consensus that transportation plans, programs, projects and services must become more performance-driven and evaluated with measurable outcomes. Initiatives promoting performance-based decision making in transportation in the U.S include NCHRP 446: A Guidebook for Performance-Based Transportation Planning (6) and Transportation Performance Measures in Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand developed for the USDOT International Technology Exchange Program (7). The recently adopted surface transportation authorization policies advocated by AASHTO acknowledge the need to define an outcome-driven, performance-based approach to the plans, programs, project delivery and operational services of transportation agencies.

Performance is about the capability of generating future results (8). Various performance frameworks have been applied in different organizations over the years. Examples include the Balanced Scorecard Approach reflecting the need for including "cost" and "non cost", and "external" or "internal" measures; and the Performance Prism that adopts a stakeholder-centric view of performance (9). Often, performance is identified or equated with effectiveness and efficiency. The work of Kaplan and Norton (1992) and Keegan, Eiler, and Jones (1989) emphasize that the set of measures used by an organization has to provide a "balanced" picture of the business (10,11). It should reflect financial and non-financial measures, internal and external measures, and efficiency and effectiveness measures (9). Performance measurement theory also distinguishes among inputs, process, output and outcome measures. While the central function of any performance measurement process is to provide regular, valid data on indicators of performance outcomes, performance measurement should not be limited only to data on outcome and efficiency indicators. It should also include information that helps managers to evaluate internal processes and gain insight into the causes of outcomes.

Performance measurement should also relate the costs of the service to what the service produces. Input measures relate to the resources used to produce outputs and outcomes, such as employee time. Outputs relate to the products and services delivered; the completed products of internal activity such as the number of miles of road repaired. Outcomes, on the other hand, relate to the events, occurrences or conditions that are outside the activity or program itself and are of direct importance to the customers and the public generally (12). Because some organizations have control over outputs but not outcomes (which may be influenced by the activities of other organizations and other factors), it is important for a balanced performance measurement process to include input, output and outcome measures. NCHRP 466 cautions that performance-based planning is an incremental process that must focus on primary strategic objectives and be clear about causality (6).

Effective performance-based planning for sustainability is dependent on two things: 1.) defining meaningful and acceptable performance measures that can gauge the results of sustainable development initiatives and practices and 2.) developing a framework for monitoring performance and then using that feedback to influence future planning efforts. Several of the case studies address these issues.

Freight Planning

Numerous studies and forecasts have shown that the fastest growing user group of the nation's transportation system is the freight sector, especially trucks, particularly due to increasing trade flows (13). Federal transportation legislation, starting with ISTEA in 1991, has encouraged the consideration of freight issues in the transportation planning process. Given the number of statewide freight plans (14,15,16), and metropolitan freight plans (17) that have been developed recently, there will likely be a growing interest in freight planning in coming years.

At the national level, FHWA's Office of Freight Management and Operations is exploring the connections between freight and land use in a new handbook. The guidebook is intended as a resource guide and handbook for use by a broad audience in state DOTs and MPOs when considering freight transportation and land use in planning processes and projects. It will identify freight-related land use issues, key considerations in land use and freight planning activities, and available tools, techniques, and strategies. Throughout the guidebook, examples and case studies demonstrate the benefits and applications of these techniques. The guidebook also examines how poor freight land use planning impacts the different aspects of sustainability, and provides examples of sustainable freight land use strategies being used by municipal agencies and MPOs. In particular, the sustainability chapter explores issues such as emissions reductions and climate change impacts, job creation and preservation, and community impacts of freight. More information about FHWA's freight planning activities and publications can be found at

Research has been conducted on how to undertake such planning (18) and to integrate freight considerations into the transportation planning process (19). Much of the literature on transportation-related sustainability, however, has focused on passenger travel without much attention given to freight movement. One of the few freight studies that explicitly examined freight planning from a sustainability perspective is found in London, England where different strategies were proposed to reduce environmental impacts of goods movement while enhancing economic development (20).

Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

Climate change is an important element of environmental sustainability, one that is gaining attention across the country. FHWA has been a leader in this area, with two notable studies completed in 2008: The Potential Impacts of Global Sea Level Rise on Transportation Infrastructure and Gulf Coast Phase 1. The former is an assessment of the potential effects of sea level rise and increases in storm surge on transportation infrastructure in coastal states and low-lying regions on the Atlantic coast from New York to Florida. The Gulf Coast Phase 1 examined how changes in climate over the next century could affect transportation systems in the US central Gulf Coast region, and discussed ways to account for those impacts in transportation planning. The Gulf Coast Phase 2 study will focus on Mobile, AL to develop and demonstrate tools and guidance for analyzing impacts at the local level and designing an adaptation strategy. Phase 2 will also develop a vulnerability/risk assessment model to help decision makers identify climate change vulnerabilities and systematically implement transportation facility improvements (76).

Transportation Research Board Special Report 290: Potential Impacts of Climate Change on US Transportation outlines anticipated impacts of climate change on the U.S. transportation sector, discusses and prioritizes appropriate responses and assesses which data, decision support tools and adaptation strategies are needed to address climate change effectively in transportation (21). The white paper Adaptation of Transportation Infrastructure to Global Climate Change Effects: Implications for Design and Implementation examines the implications of Global Climate Change (GCC) over the lifecycle of decision making on transportation facilities and systems: planning, preliminary engineering and NEPA, project design and construction, operations and maintenance (22).

Recently, there has been a wave of state policies related to climate change, some of which are in response to regional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nearly one-third of the state DOTs reported being involved in or developing a climate change initiative in a national survey conducted in 2008-2009. It is important to note that most of these initiatives were stimulated by state policies like a greenhouse gas budget or Governor's directive. The three regional efforts are the Western Climate Initiative, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states), and the Midwestern Regional Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord. As of January 2009, 27 states had adopted greenhouse gas reduction targets either by law or by executive order (23). California was the first state to pass comprehensive legislation for greenhouse gas reduction in 2006 (following a 2005 Executive Order that set reduction targets), legislation that survived a recall vote in 2010. California is committed to a reduction of GHG emissions to 2000 levels by 2010; a reduction of GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020; and a reduction of GHG emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Supportive legislation has since been passed to help the state achieve the goals. On September 30, 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 375 into California law, which requires Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to create sustainable communities strategies (SCS) to be used as roadmaps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and requires all 18 MPOs in California to incorporate SCS into their Regional Transportation Plans.

Maryland is one of the most recent states to adopt a greenhouse gas emissions budget. The Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act, signed in May 2009, establishes an ambitious target of cutting emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020 and directs the Maryland Department of Environment to create a strategy and timeline for achieving the goal. In addition to the emissions budget, Maryland lawmakers are promoting rapid transit-oriented development, reliable local planning choices, and a clearer understanding of development impacts on the environment through the Smart, Green, and Growing legislation agenda (24).

Florida is another state that has been particularly active in legislating climate change initiatives. In response to the November 2007 Florida Energy and Climate Change Action Plan, the 2008 state legislature passed two bills with new requirements for energy efficiency, land use planning, building standards, and transportation strategies to address greenhouse gas reductions. The Plan contains additional policy recommendations for the transportation sector (including Transportation System Management, increasing transportation mode choices, and increasing freight movement efficiencies) that have not yet been legislated.

Many of the state policies, like greenhouse gas budgets, do not directly mandate activities for the state DOT, but they do require cooperation of multiple agencies to achieve the goals. Colorado's state legislature has taken a more direct approach - legislation passed in March 2009 requires that the statewide transportation plan (prepared by Colorado DOT) address greenhouse gas emissions reduction by finding ways to serve mobility needs without expanding roadways.

Countries like the UK and New Zealand, which are viewed as sustainable transportation leaders, have strong national policies that guide planning. Similarly, the state DOTs that were most often identified by peers as leaders in sustainability (according to the survey), have mandates or strong support from state lawmakers for sustainable transportation planning. The climate change policies in California, Maryland, and Florida will undoubtedly impact the priorities of those states' DOTs.

Climate change initiatives focus mostly on mitigation; however, there is growing attention to adaptation needs. For example, Caltrans and other state agencies have sponsored a sea-level rise study to identify critical infrastructure that could be impacted. The study will help Caltrans prioritize which infrastructure to adapt and where not to locate infrastructure in the future.

Social Sustainability Assessment

Of the three major objectives of sustainability, transportation agencies both in the US and abroad struggle most with assessing social sustainability. This may be due to difficulty in defining social sustainability or to a lack of appropriate data to conduct the analyses that provide meaningful information for decision-making. In terms of definitions, socially sustainable (urban) transportation (SSUT) has been defined as transportation that provides equitable access to opportunities, minimizes social exclusion, and improves (or does not diminish) an individual's quality of life (25). The literature seems to indicate that sustainability efforts have tended to include system performance and environmental criteria, less of economic criteria, and much less of social criteria. Social sustainability research includes three aspects: social equity, social exclusion and quality of life, with a common thread as the fair distribution of society's benefits and burdens. Equity refers to the fairness of distribution of resources based on need, which can be in conflict with total system efficiency. Exclusion is the result of spatial, temporal, financial or personal obstacles, and quality of life (more of a subjective measure) is a multidimensional construct measuring the ability to seek happiness and fulfill needs (25).

There have been several efforts to translate those definitions into social sustainability indicators. Steg and Gifford (2005) present a list of 22 quality of life indicators adapted from Poortinga et al. (26,27). The Swiss Government's Sustainable Development Initiative (28), Sustainable Seattle Coalition's community sustainability indicators, and PROSPECTS (Europe) are good sources of SSUT indicators. However, there is often difficulty in identifying appropriate data sources for desirable indicators. In this case, developing indicators requires creative use of available data. For example, several variables can be combined into a quality of life index; when considered alone the data may indicate one condition state, but when considered jointly the data may suggest trade-offs that occur. The UK experience suggests that disaggregating traditional transportation statistics by geography or socioeconomic group could be an effective method for analyzing social equity (29). Such an analysis would require census data (demographics, geopolitical boundaries) and available transportation statistics. A Geographic Information System (GIS) could also aid in such an analysis.

Environmental Justice (EJ) and Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) policies are the most common ways that US agencies address social equity, through consideration of the local context and an extensive public involvement process. More comprehensive assessment methodologies are needed. Health Impact Assessment (HIA) (described in detail in Chapter 5) is an example of such a method, and is starting to be used for transportation planning efforts in both the US and abroad.

Updated: 03/27/2014
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