A peer exchange on Modeling and Analysis Needs and Resources for Small Metropolitan Area Transportation Planning was convened on August 28 and 29, 2011, to explore the state of transportation modeling and analysis practice in communities with populations under 200,000. The peer exchange explored planning concerns in small urban areas, and discussed data and analysis methods available to address those concerns efficiently and cost-effectively.
Larger communities often rely heavily on travel demand models to develop an overall picture of future performance of the regional transportation system. However, such models represent a large resource investment with respect to development cost, data collection and preparation, and staff support for planning analyses. The peer exchange revealed that while most small MPOs often have travel models available, other tools such as sketch planning tools and corridor analysis microsimulations are frequently used and can provide useful, cost-effective support.
Small MPOs face a number of specific planning issues that influence the type of data they collect and the analyses that they perform. They are often constrained in funds available for large projects or major capacity improvements, and may consequently have few or no such projects in their long-range plan. Economic development and "livability" (even simply in the sense of making the community a more attractive residential and business environment) are often significant considerations. External traffic may be a larger portion of overall roadway volumes for a small MPO, which can limit the ability of a regional travel demand model to fully represent influences on demand. Small communities are sometimes dominated by a single large institution such as a major university (though such universities may be a resource through faculty and student interest in transportation planning considerations).
In these policy environments, capacity enhancements aimed at addressing community growth are often a lower priority than projects aimed at specific operational or safety concerns. Because these concerns are based on present-day needs and seek rapid results, the time frame addressed in the analysis of such issues is often shorter than in a regional model (2 to 5 years, rather than 20 or 25). Over the shorter analysis time frame, microsimulation models or highway capacity analysis may generate more specific measures of effectiveness than a regional model. Though regional models often have a role to play in project selection and prioritization when developing a long-range plan, the participating small MPOs used a number of other tools in addition to regional demand models.
The peer exchange also examined data needs at small MPOs. Though access to traffic count data is generally available, household surveys are uncommon due to their prohibitive expense. Some small MPOs received survey support from their State transportation agencies through the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey add-on program. Several participants in the peer exchange had used innovative data collection methods such as GPS studies, smartphone applications, and video license-plate capture for external origin-destination surveys.
Small MPOs often face challenges in funding technical analysis and in retaining technical expertise on their staff. Nevertheless, these agencies frequently have generalist staff capable of performing many functions and of effectively and resourcefully using a wide range of analytic approaches to provide decision support for their policy boards.
Resource constraints may be addressed through in-kind exchanges of information and effort with partner or member agencies, with MPO host organizations, or with MPOs in neighboring regions. A number of State transportation agencies provide technical support and modeling resources to small MPOs. Technical support and training for small MPO staff may be available through user groups, but finding suitable groups might entail looking across State borders.
A number of information and training resources are summarized in an Appendix of this report.