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Scenario Planning Peer Workshop Report - Denver, Colorado

III. Presentation and Discussion Highlights

Scenario Planning Overview

Rae Keasler, Transportation Specialist for FHWA, and Faith Hall, Environmental Protection Specialist for FTA, provided an overview of scenario planning and Federal resources available to assist agencies in adopting the approach.

There are many versions of scenario planning. In the context of metropolitan transportation planning, scenario planning often provides a framework for developing a shared vision for the future. Through developing and comparing scenarios and with the help of visualization and mapping tools, planners and others can assess trends that affect transportation and see how different alternatives meet community or regional needs. Scenario planning can help a State, community, region, or study area identify priorities, envision its ideal "future self," and evaluate what combination of policies, strategies, or actions could best realize a desired future state, or states. An important feature of the approach is extensive public involvement to solicit feedback on current trends, scenarios, and analyses. Proactive and engaged public involvement can ensure that scenario plans are supported by the public and that the vision and goals established through the scenario planning process align with those established by the State, community, region, or study area.

FHWA and FTA see scenario planning as an approach that enhances, not replaces, traditional transportation planning processes. To promote scenario planning, FHWA and FTA established a scenario planning program as part of the existing TPCB Program, which provides training and technical assistance to transportation professionals at State, Tribal, regional, and local government agencies.

Through the scenario planning program, FHWA and FTA organize regular webinars, sponsor customized training workshops, and produce and distribute scenario planning guidance, case studies, and other resources, all available on the scenario planning website. Previous FHWA- and FTA-sponsored training workshops have informed transportation agency stakeholders and the general public about scenario planning and shared best practices, lessons learned, and success factors from experts' experiences.

There are various other Federal resources that agencies can access to leverage scenario planning effort or other related initiatives, including Sustainable Communities Regional Planning and Challenge Grants offered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Smart Growth Implementation Assistance offered through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many of these resources and others are offered as part of the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), EPA, and HUD Partnership for Sustainable Communities.2

DRCOG Overview

 Jill Locantore, principal planner for DRCOG, provided an overview of the agency and its past planning efforts. DRCOG is the MPO for approximately 3 million people across a 5,000 square-mile area, including 9 counties and 47 municipalities (see Figure 1). The area is diverse and includes urban centers, smaller suburban areas, rural and agricultural areas, and mountain-side communities.

Title: This figure displays a map of the DRCOG region showing each of DRCOG's member counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Clear Creek, Douglas, Jefferson, Gilpin, and the southwest portion of Weld.

Figure 1. DRCOG region.

The agency has been incorporating scenario approach for more than a decade. In 1985, DRCOG produced its first regional master plan that was a compilation of all the local governments' master plans. DRCOG found that the regional master plan did not reflect the community's desire for future growth and development, included redundancies, and did not adequately address public concerns such as air quality, increasing congestion, and rising transportation expenditures.

To resolve these discrepancies and develop a more consistent guiding vision for regional growth, DRCOG developed the original Metro Vision plan in 1997. Using a scenario planning approach, DRCOG evaluated four potential growth scenarios. Ultimately, a hybrid of two--compact and satellite development--was identified as the preferred scenario. This scenario provided a framework for growth horizons through 2020.

In 2007, Metro Vision was updated to include growth projections through 2035. Six scenarios were developed along with two main categories of indicators to assess scenario performance: land use metrics (comparing compact to dispersed development) and transportation infrastructure metrics (comparing highway investment to transit investment). Specific indicators included access to transit, driving and congestion, urban development, land consumption, and environmental impacts. The scenarios ranged from those that emphasized highway-focused development to those that offered a balance between highway/transit investments and compact/dispersed development. Ultimately, through the scenario planning process, DRCOG identified a preferred growth scenario and incorporated it into Metro Vision 2035.

Metro Vision 2040

Metro Vision 2040 represents the next major update to Metro Vision 2035. DRCOG intends to use a scenario planning approach to ensure public outreach and engagement and generate regional enthusiasm about the plan and the process. As part of Metro Vision 2040, DRCOG seeks to address ongoing regional challenges such as increasing congestion, air quality and environmental concerns, and transportation funding shortfalls. DRCOG also intends to address the transportation implications that might result from newer challenges that include:

Aging populations in the Denver region and resulting transportation implications;

Potential longer-term differences in housing preferences from current residents as compared to those from newer generations and a younger workforce (i.e., the "millenials");

Increased urban growth and density;

Encroachment of urban density on rural communities;

Increases in cost-of-living, housing, and transportation costs (see Figure 2);

Title: This figure displays a map of the Denver region showing areas in which combined housing and transportation costs make up less than 45 percent of household income. These areas are scattered throughout the region.

Figure 2. Areas of the Denver region where combined housing and transportation costs make up less than 45 percent of household income. 

Some of the anticipated transportation implications of these trends could include effects on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and heightened demand for transportation in employment and urban centers among others.

To conduct a more nuanced analysis of these and other regional trends, DRCOG developed several new analysis tools, described in detail below. These tools will be used as part of the Metro Vision 2040 scenario planning effort to better assess scenario outcomes.

Listening Session Preliminary Themes

Following Ms. Locantore's presentation, staff from BBC Research and Consulting presented preliminary results from the regional listening tour.

The tour solicited the public's input on their values and opinions of regional values, strengths, and weaknesses, to help inform a framework for Metro Vision 2040 and scenarios. In addition, the listening tour provided an opportunity for DRCOG to share information about Metro Vision 2040 and the scenario planning process. The tour involved conducting online and in-person surveys, individual interviews, group discussion sessions, and public meetings who comprised a representative sample of the DRCOG regional population.

During the listening tour, participants were asked to identify important regional values and features that should be emphasized in the Metro Vision 2040 update as well as aspects of the region they thought could be improved over the next 30 years. Finally, participants identified concerns and challenges that the Denver region might face in that timeframe and that Metro Vision 2040 should address. Preliminary themes from the listening tour are highlighted below.

The Denver region has a variety of strengths. For example:

There are several factors that will make Denver an attractive place to live in 2040. For example:

The Denver region may face some future challenges. There are some areas that will present difficulties for the region or that may offer opportunities for future improvement. For example:

Expert Panel Responses

 Following the listening tour session, the four experts identified factors that DRCOG should consider as it begins the Metro Vision 2040 update, how DRCOG can improve the anticipated scenario planning effort, and how the agency can make most effective use of its new analysis tools. Highlights from each presentation are detailed below.

Kevin J. Krizek

Measure and improve regional accessibility. The scenario planning effort should help evaluate the region's accessibility to employment, services, and other amenities as well as ways to improve this accessibility. To do so, scenario indicators and analysis should be accessibility focused such as measuring the number of jobs or schools located within a short walk from residences. By including accessibility in scenario analysis, DRCOG and its partners can identify investments that maximize accessibility improvements.

Conduct rigorous analysis to verify trends. Dr. Krizek believes that many transportation planning practitioners over-emphasize certain demographic trends. DRCOG should engage in rigorous data collection and analysis to verify the implications of these trends in the Denver region.

For example, there is a belief that younger generations are more transit oriented, reducing their per-capita VMT. However, when younger generations form households, their propensity for transit may decrease and VMT increase. As another example, there is a belief that cities that feature compact development are popular places to live and work, particularly among the "Baby Boomer" generation. Although these communities are growing in popularity, suburbs are still attracting new residents. Additionally, though compact development has resulted in smaller individual housing units, each of these households still generate a significant amount of VMT through daily work commutes, recreation, and shopping. In addition, many urban services such as schools and post offices generate trips that may counteract the VMT reduction of an otherwise compact community.

Address the potential offered by non-motorized transportation. DRCOG should investigate the potential to shift a significant portion of daily travel toward non-motorized transportation, namely biking and walking. Although many areas of the region are not dense enough for non-motorized trips to catch on, urban areas like downtown Denver are well situated to shift many of its shorter trips to walking or biking. Denver's favorable urban topography, combined with increasing levels of bike advocacy and awareness, would allow the city and region to position itself as bicycle and walking oriented, thereby reducing the need for costly highway and transit investments.

Uri Avin

 Mr. Avin commended DRCOG for its exemplary past scenario planning work. Having engaged in multiple scenario planning efforts, Mr. Avin believes the agency is well positioned to accomplish its stated goals through the Metro Vision 2040 update. However, there are opportunities to enhance scenario planning for Metro Vision 2040. DRCOG may want to consider:

Developing scenarios that explore significant changes in land use and transportation rather than modifying existing scenarios used in previous efforts. With significant past scenario planning experience, DRCOG has a unique ability to identify new and innovative scenario examples to incorporate into Metro Vision 2040.

Be cautious in using historic data to project current trends out to the future, given no change in current conditions (i.e., "baseline trends"). Baseline trends are typically difficult to measure or project, given fluctuations in initial conditions and difficulty in selecting metrics to identify any given trend. Thus baseline trends should be considered only as rough indicators of future patterns.

Evaluate potential economic, travel, and population decline in the region or parts of the region. Although politically unpopular, decline in these and other areas is a possibility and should at least be addressed in the scenario planning effort.

View the new analysis tools as aids for discussion and analysis rather than as the central focus of the scenario planning effort. In other words, DRCOG should use the tools' outputs to augment and support its decisions rather than relying on the tools to define solutions. Mr. Avin also noted that because these tools are new, they will require substantial resources to operate and manage both during their initial deployment stages and in later stages for data maintenance and support.

To complement the general public engagement that DRCOG will undertake as part of the Metro Vision 2040 scenario planning process, Mr. Avin suggested that DRCOG recruit a citizens' task force of approximately 30 people who could remain involved with Metro Vision 2040 over the course of the plan update. Through the task force, DRCOG could obtain deeper insight and feedback about the plan update as it unfolds. The task force could also help disseminate information about the scenario planning process and Metro Vision 2040 to others to ensure a broad network of support for the plan.

Finally, Mr. Avin posed some questions for DRCOG to consider as it designs the Metro Vision 2040 scenario planning process:

What is DRCOG's role in this process? How much influence does it have over constituent municipalities?

If the regional plan is misaligned with local plans, how will differences be resolved?

What steps are in place to ensure that the scenarios and goals DRCOG presents to the public are feasible and fiscally compatible with the region's resources and intent?

How will DRCOG continue to engage stakeholders in an honest discussion of trade-offs that emerge from the scenario planning exercise?

How will DRCOG manage expectations about the feasibility and affordability of the plan's goals? For example, increased transit service may require costly investments that might not be realistic at this point in time.

Reid Ewing

Dr. Ewing presented components of a research study he conducted that assessed the differences and similarities between 80 scenario planning exercises.4 The study compared scenario alternatives' performance on land use and transportation variables such as population growth, VMT, mode share proportions, and transportation investments (see Figure 3).

Title: This figure displays a graph that shows the average assumed population growth across all scenario planning exercises that Dr. Ewing studied. The graph shows that the mean population growth across all exercises was 40 percent, the low population growth was minus two percent, and the high population growth was 123 percent.

Figure 3. Average assumed population growth across all scenario planning exercises was 40 percent (in this chart, N = 70).

Through the study, Dr. Ewing examined the purpose and goals of the scenario planning processes and identified how scenario-based plans achieved their stated goals. The study also identified potential factors that may limit the success of a scenario-based plan's implementation such as growth horizons that were too short to see significant change.

Dr. Ewing examined Metro Vision 2035 alongside the other plans included in the study, identifying successful components of Metro Vision 2035 as well as potential improvements. Dr. Ewing also compared the Denver region and Metro Vision 2040 plan update with others in the study, noting areas for DRCOG to focus on and ways the agency can promote good practices throughout the plan's design and implementation:

There are several external trends over which DRCOG has little control but that might be helpful to include as part of scenario development and analysis. For example, due to increased demand, fuel prices are likely to rise in the future; this will affect travel patterns as well as housing and lifestyle choices. Additionally, climate change may lead to more severe weather patterns that can impact transportation infrastructure and land uses and contribute to higher energy demand.

 Include significant or dramatic changes as part of scenario analysis. This will allow DRCOG to better prepare more effective strategies for the future. For example, if there was a 50 percent increase in fuel prices, housing demand in urban and transit-oriented centers could dramatically increase. Had DRCOG assumed only a modest increase in future growth and density as part of its scenarios, resulting strategies would be inadequate to meet the region's needs in the event of dramatic changes.

When identifying policy recommendations that result from the scenario planning process, DRCOG should be aware of secondary or unintended effects. For instance, the agency might recommend reducing congestion by building additional highway capacity. But this could induce nearby retail and residential development, thereby generating more traffic and limiting the benefits of the added capacity.

Paul Waddell

Dr. Waddell suggested that DRCOG be cautious of potential public resistance to the Metro Vision 2040 update and scenario planning process as based on experiences in other areas of the country. Effective strategies for mitigating any public concern include engaging citizens early on in the process, explaining each stakeholder's (e.g., citizens, planning agencies, others) roles and responsibilities in detail, and committing to transparency and inclusiveness.

Dr. Waddell also discussed additional detail about the UrbanSim model being developed in conjunction with grants from the National Science Foundation, EPA, and FHWA. UrbanSim is an open-source platform for urban and regional simulation, providing planners with a highly detailed and adaptable land use model (see Figure 4). The tool is designed to work with the activity based travel models, dynamic traffic assignment models, environmental models, or others. UrbanSim can also create interactive visualizations of development, rendering three-dimensional models of an area. These provide a powerful demonstration of different types of development at varying scales.

Title: This figure displays a screenshot of UrbanSim that shows a highly detailed, three-dimensional birds-eye view of a metropolitan area. The view shows a variety of features such as roads, buildings, natural features (e.g., trees, grass), parks, and vehicles.

Figure 4. Screenshot of UrbanSim.

DRCOG will use UrbanSim for the Metro Vision 2040 update to depict regional growth and development. UrbanSim will also support an extremely detailed evaluation of scenario alternatives.

Dr. Waddell emphasized that DRCOG ensure that it adequately communicates to stakeholders the necessity of policy trade-offs. For instance, stakeholders may identify a demand for expanded highway networks and increased transit development; but they may not initially realize the cost implications of trying to accomplish both goals. DRCOG should be clear about what fiscal limitations exist and the underlying political realities that will make certain goals more or less achievable. While scenario planning can be a productive tool to foster consensus among varied parties, differences in priorities are inevitable. Preparing all stakeholders, particularly the public, for this certainty will help ensure that scenario planning will be successful in the long run.

Interactive Keypad Exercise and Breakout Groups

Following the peer presentations, PlaceMatters used Brainstorm Anywhere, its interactive tool that captures and helps sort ideas, to obtain feedback in real-time from workshop participants on Metro Vision 2040 (see Figure 4). Participants discussed several questions in a small group format, focusing on sharing their preferences for the indicators and factors that need to be considered during the Metro Vision 2040 update. The questions were posed by DRCOG; facilitators at each table, who included FHWA and FTA staff, guided the discussions.

Title: This image displays a photograph of a group of participants at the DRCOG scenario planning workshop. The photograph shows people seated at several round tables listening to a speaker who is not displayed in the image. Some paper materials are on top of the tables, including folders and handouts provided to participants during the workshops.

Figure 5. Groups use keypad polling devices.

Notetakers at each table then entered each group's aggregated responses into the Brainstorm Anywhere tool. All participants were then able to use keypads to prioritize the ideas generated. At the conclusion of the exercise, the responses were displayed to all participants (see Figure 5). This exercise helped spur dynamic conversation on Metro Vision 2040 and enabled DRCOG to capture a wide range of feedback on priorities and preferences for the plan.

Title: This image displays a photograph of Jocelyn Hittle speaking into a microphone. In the background of the photograph is a slide from Ms. Hittle's PowerPoint presentation that displays the word diagram. The diagram is a group of words (e.g., "housing," "transportation," "cost") in various orientations, colors, and sizes.

Figure 6. Jocelyn Hittle of PlaceMatters uses a word diagram to depict responses in Brainstorm Anywhere. The size of the word indicates the frequency with which it appeared in responses (larger words indicate more frequent responses).

Highlights from the exercise are presented below. Details on all responses received as part of this exercise are included in Appendix D.

What elements of the listening tour surprised you? Were there any missing elements?

What indicators should DRCOG measure in the scenarios? Why are these indicators important and which ones should DRCOG focus on?

What actions could the region take to influence these indicators?

What are the external factors that will influence these indicators?

In addition to these questions, participants engaged in discussion about their long-term goals for the region and potential challenges they saw as most significant. These discussions provided important feedback to DRCOG staff on the direction of Metro Vision 2040 and the scenario planning process.

Roundtable Discussions

During the second day of the workshop, DRCOG staff convened with the expert panel to engage in roundtable discussions focused on several topics of interest to DRCOG. Highlights from the discussions are presented below:


[2] The Sustainable Communities Learning Network is another resource for professionals working to develop more sustainable and equitable communities and regions.

[3] TABOR limits State and local governments' abilities to raise taxes.

[4] The study was co-authored by Keith Bartholomew. It is: "Land Use-Transportation Scenarios and Future Vehicle Travel and Land Consumption: A Meta-Analysis." Journal of the American Planning Association 75.1 (2009): 13-27.

Updated: 09/17/2013
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