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FHWA Scenario Planning Guidebook

1. Introduction

What Is Scenario Planning?

Scenario planning is a process that can help transportation professionals to prepare for what lies ahead. It provides a framework for developing a shared vision for the future by analyzing various forces (e.g., health, transportation, livability, economic, environmental, land use), that affect communities. The technique was originally used by private industry to anticipate future business conditions and to better manage risk.

FHWA's Scenario Planning Program

FHWA views scenario planning as an enhancement of the traditional transportation planning process. The technique helps practitioners to consider how changes in transportation, land use, demographics, or other factors could affect communities. As a result, scenario planning can help stakeholders to make decisions for the present and prepare for future needs.

In support of scenario planning, FHWA has:

  • Encouraged the use of Federal metropolitan planning and other transportation funds.
  • Identified scenario planning resources, including visualization and analysis tools.
  • Facilitated peer workshops on scenario planning best practices and process steps.
  • Developed tools, such as this guidebook, to assist practitioners with implementing the technique.

For more information on the FHWA scenario planning program, see

Since 2004, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has encouraged transportation-focused scenario planning as an approach that enhances the traditional planning process. This type of scenario planning is a technique designed to help citizens and stakeholders in the public and private sectors understand how demographic and land-use changes could potentially impact transportation networks in a state, community, region, or study area.

The hallmark of scenario planning is identifying land-use patterns as variables (rather than as static inputs) that could affect transportation networks, investments, and operations. Other variables might include demographic, economic, political, and environmental trends. Considering and analyzing alternative possibilities for each variable helps stakeholders to understand how a state, community, region, or study area might look and function in the future.

Scenario planning creates guiding principles for future potential conditions. These principles become a basis for scenarios. Stakeholders, including the public, compare scenarios, using either qualitative or quantitative methods. The ultimate outcome is a shared future vision that provides a framework for transportation priorities, goals, recommendations, and investments. Through comparing scenarios and discussing their possible outcomes, the technique helps participants to identify and challenge assumptions about the future, discuss tradeoffs, and make better decisions.

Key Elements of Scenario Planning

This guidebook presents a suggested framework for scenario planning process steps; however, each scenario planning effort will differ depending on the issues addressed and the resources available.

While scenario planning can be implemented in many ways, the key elements include:

  • Use of scenarios to compare and contrast interactions between multiple factors, such as transportation, land use, and economic development.
  • Analysis of how different land-use, demographic, or other types of scenarios could impact transportation networks.
  • Identification of possible strategies that lead a state, community, region, or study area toward achieving elements of the preferred future.
  • Public engagement throughout the process.

Scenario planning shares common elements with both alternatives analysis and visioning exercises, but primarily differs from these processes in examining interactions between multiple factors, including both internal and external forces, as a way to assess possible future outcomes.

Scenario planning is a flexible approach that can be used in areas of fast, slow, or declining growth to address questions related to quality of life, development, transportation infrastructure, and financial resource management. The technique has been used at a range of geographic scales (including at the nationwide, statewide, regional, community, and corridor-specific levels). Public involvement is a critical component in using the technique.

Transportation and Land-Use Scenario Planning
The focus of this guidebook is on the use of scenario planning in a transportation context.

This specific application of scenario planning to transportation emerged over time, with early efforts beginning in the 1960's. 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit, provides an example of an early scenario planning effort. The nonprofit engaged in scenario planning throughout the 1990's.1 This effort, which became a project of national reputation, was one of the first comprehensive, well-publicized initiatives to consider alternatives to highway expansion and development of transportation modeling tools to forecast travel behavior associated with new land-use patterns.

Scenario planning also grew from the alternatives analysis required as part of National Environmental Policy Act reporting.2

Over time, the application of transportation scenario planning has become much more common. FHWA has collected numerous examples nationwide of transportation agencies' use of the technique.3

Types of Scenarios

There are many types of scenarios. Some scenarios focus on telling a story about the future as a way of visioning possible changes. Others do not involve narratives but rather sets of assumptions that examine future possibilities.

For example, the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) for the Gainesville Urbanized Area developed four scenarios as part of a 2005 update to its 2025 long-range transportation plan.* Each of the MTPO's scenarios provided different sets of assumptions about future growth patterns, including compact growth, radial development along existing major arterials, and westward growth.

MTPO's compact growth scenario assumed focused growth in the community's core, including higher-density, vertical development, such as tall office buildings. A second scenario, the town/village centers concept, most closely reflected the North-Central Florida counties' adopted comprehensive plans. This scenario assumed focused development within certain areas and higher-density activity centers to connect modes.

The graphic below illustrates the town/village centers concept scenario.

This graphic illustrates the Town/Village Centers Concept scenario.

*For more information about the Gainesville MTPO, see

Scenario Planning and Alternatives Analysis
Scenario planning and alternatives analysis share some common features in that both consider a range of options to identify a preferred path forward. However, scenario planning focuses on a range of interactions between both more controllable, or internal, factors (e.g., transportation investments) and less controllable, or external, factors (e.g., political and economic trends). It should be noted that alternatives analysis has not traditionally focused on these types of interactions. Scenario planning also differs from alternatives analysis in emphasizing public stakeholder involvement to create options (scenarios) and assess outcomes.

Scenario Planning and Visioning
Scenario planning also shares common elements with visioning, a process that typically involves gathering input from diverse stakeholders to set priorities and identify goals for long-range issues. Many transportation agencies have used visioning exercises as stand-alone efforts or have integrated them into a comprehensive planning process. Most often, these exercises have helped to identify community goals and aspirations through workshops, focus groups, and other events. While scenario planning can incorporate visioning exercises, it differs from visioning in that it assesses interactions between transportation, land use, and other factors to examine potential future outcomes.

What Are Scenarios?

Scenarios are narratives or sets of assumptions that explore plausible trajectories of change. They provide a means of visioning possible future changes and different policy and investment options. Scenarios translate complex thoughts into descriptions about what could be in the future. Stakeholders assess scenarios through qualitative comparison, brainstorming, use of visualization tools, application of travel demand models, and use of scenario analysis tools. Examples of these tools are provided in Phase 4, which focuses on creating baseline and alternative scenarios.

What Issues Can Scenario Planning Help Address?

Practitioners implementing scenario planning can include State Departments of Transportation (DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), regional governments (e.g., Councils of Government), rural planning organizations (RPOs), and nonprofits.

Each scenario planning effort might address a different set of issues. Some agencies have used scenario planning to help develop a statewide or regional vision for growth and development and to identify specific principles or strategies that support the vision. Other agencies have implemented scenario planning to test possible futures once a vision has already been developed. Scenario planning can help to support long-range planning activities, such as the update to a long-range transportation plan. The technique also supports integrated planning and statewide, regional, or corridor planning, as well as visioning activities not associated with long-range planning.

Scenario planning practitioners have typically focused on the relationships between transportation, land use, and population growth or declining growth, using scenarios to build consensus around preferred transportation investments or growth patterns.

More recent efforts, which FHWA has identified as "next generation" scenario planning due to their consideration of factors that are beyond the agency's control, use scenarios to explore broader risks and potential transportation impacts associated with:

In both traditional and next generation scenario planning, practitioners typically create a baseline scenario, which assumes that present plans for transportation investment are carried out and that recent development patterns remain the same. Alternative scenarios might also be created to examine how changes in baseline assumptions, trends, or investments might affect the region or study area. For example, an alternative scenario could look at how new land-use policies or changes in residential development patterns might affect the transportation network. As another example, an alternative scenario could look at what might happen in the region if transportation funding was significantly cut and planned investments were curtailed. Traditional scenario planning efforts assess scenarios by using measures, such as vehicle miles traveled, shifts in modal split, impacts on open spaces, or contributions to air pollution. Next generation scenario planning efforts might use a greater range of measures, such as:

The specific issues addressed by a scenario planning process will depend on the state, community, region, or study area.

What Is The Purpose of This Guidebook?

This guidebook is designed to assist transportation agencies with carrying out a scenario planning process from start to finish. It presents the six key phases that agencies are likely to encounter when implementing a scenario planning process. The guidebook focuses on implementing a regional-scale scenario planning process. However, the scenario planning approach is flexible and can be used on multiple scales.

Each scenario planning process is unique, and the specific topics or issues addressed will depend on resources available and other factors, such as the size and location of the community. However, the six phases provide an overall structure for transportation scenario planning. Agencies can use these phases to tailor an approach that meets their specific needs.

The guidebook assists transportation agencies with using scenario planning to address transportation issues, land-use changes, population growth or declining growth, as well as other topics that are important to the state, region, community, or study area, including climate change and uses of alternative energy. The latter topics are starting to be considered in scenario planning, and this guidebook can assist agencies in these efforts. Using the scenario planning technique, transportation agencies can make better decisions about how to develop a transportation system that responds to a wide range of factors and trends.

A potential output of the scenario planning process is a comprehensive vision that identifies how state, community, region, or study-area stakeholders would like the transportation system to look and function in the future, given anticipated factors and trends. In addition, an action plan could be developed that includes performance measures for assessing progress toward the vision. These outputs are described in more detail in Phase 6.

How Is This Guidebook Organized?

This guidebook contains sections that address a specific phase of the scenario planning process:

The graphic on the next page details the overall six-phase framework.

For each phase, the guidebook provides questions, considerations, steps, and strategies to help guide agencies in managing and implementing a comprehensive scenario planning effort. The guidebook also describes potential outputs from each phase. The conclusion to this guidebook contains information on additional resources to facilitate scenario planning.

Considering each phase in turn will help agencies structure a comprehensive scenario planning effort. However, these phases are suggestions and not prescriptions. Additionally, while the six phases are organized in a linear fashion, they might be iterative or occur at the same time. For example, agencies could present analysis results to the public as part of Phases 5 or 6. Depending on the feedback received, agencies could return to Phases 4 and 5 to refine or enhance scenarios, revise indicators, and conduct further analysis. Data collection, identifying and refining analysis tools, and stakeholder involvement will likely occur at the same time as several of the phases, as indicated by the left-hand tabs.

FHWA Six-Phase Scenario Planning Framework - click for long description

FHWA six-phase scenario planning framework


1 For more information on the 1000 Friends of Oregon effort, see

2 Keith Bartholomew. "Land-use transportation scenario planning: Promise and reality." Transportation 34 (2007). Available at

3 For more information on the background of scenario planning, see Keith Bartholomew's "Integrating land use issues into transportation planning: Scenario planning" (2005). Available at

Updated: 10/20/2015
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