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Scenario Planning Peer Workshop Report - State College, Pennsylvania

III. Presentations and Discussion

This section summarizes the presentations and discussions that occurred during the workshop.

A. Welcome

Martin Pietrucha, LTI/PSU
Dr. Pietrucha, Director of LTI, welcomed participants and discussed the overall objective of the workshop: to inform participants about how scenario planning can help the Centre Region planning and development organizations better prepare for possible, yet not necessarily predictable, changes. Dr. Pietrucha compared the use of strategic scenario planning to a wind tunnel that tests new design concepts. Both techniques are useful in helping people and organizations understand how alternatives might perform in the real world.

Scenario planning helps planners and stakeholders answer: "if the world were to unfold in a particular way, what actions can be taken today to prepare for or change the future?"

Darryl Farber, PSU
Dr. Farber, Assistant Professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at PSU, described the history of scenario planning. Scenario planning has been used by many types of organizations, including the military, the private sector, and educational institutions.5 For example, the United States' military pioneered scenario-based planning during the Cold War to assist with nuclear war planning, working with Herman Kahn of The Rand Corporation and later the Hudson Institute. Business, government, and non-government organizations adapted Kahn's methods. Most notably, the Royal Dutch/Shell Company and the World Economic Forum have used scenario planning as a tool for strategic decision-making and risk management. These organizations have employed scenario planning to stimulate discussion and to help think through and understand possible changes in the business environment to formulate strategic responses.

Overall, scenario planning is a technique that can be applied in many contexts. In all cases, it is designed to help practitioners answer the following question: "if the world were to unfold in a particular way, what actions can be taken today to prepare for and/or change the future?" Scenario planning is valuable in helping prevent stakeholders from getting "blindsided."

B. FHWA Overview of Scenario Planning

Fred Bowers, FHWA Office of Planning
Mr. Bowers explained that the workshop followed up a one-day, FHWA-sponsored event planning workshop held at PSU in September 2009. Mr. Bowers also provided additional background information on scenario planning in a transportation and land use context and discussed FHWA's concept of scenario planning. FHWA sees scenario planning as a technique that enhances, not replaces, traditional transportation planning processes. To promote scenario planning, FHWA established its scenario planning program in 2004. As part of this program, FHWA has conducted 16 scenario planning workshops in 16 states and produced training materials and guidance for interested agencies. FHWA shares this guidance and other resources through the scenario planning program website.6

Alisa Fine, U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center (USDOT Volpe Center)
Ms. Fine reiterated that scenario planning is a flexible technique and every application is unique. Many transportation scenario planning efforts take one to two years to complete and involve quantitative analysis of scenario outcomes. However, there are also many examples of shorter scenario planning efforts (e.g., one-day exercises, six-month processes) or efforts focused primarily on qualitative scenario analysis. The issues addressed in scenario planning, the analytic process used, and the length of effort will depend on the needs of the agency and other factors (e.g., available data).

Ms. Fine also noted that scenario planning has typically focused on interactions between transportation and land use. More recently, however, some agencies have used it to address new trends and less predictable factors, such as climate change, energy, technology, and public health.

Ms. Fine provided a brief overview of the FHWA Scenario Planning Guidebook,7 which provides a basic, suggested approach for transportation scenario planning. The centerpiece of the Guidebook is a framework that details six phases for a scenario planning approach and potential outputs from each phase. Ms. Fine explained that the PSU workshop would focus on Phase 4 (creating scenarios) and Phase 5 (assessing scenarios), with additional discussion related to Phase 6 (identifying an action plan or success factors for action steps) (see Figure 3 for an excerpt of the guidebook's framework).

Phases 4, 5, and 6 of the FHWA Six-Phase Scenario Planning Framework. Click image for detailed description.

Figure 3. Phases 4, 5, and 6 from the FHWA Scenario Planning Guidebook

Ms. Fine concluded by describing a scenario planning effort conducted in November 2009 by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), the regional organization of local governments in the Washington, District of Columbia (D.C.) area. Like the current PSU workshop, the MWCOG effort focused on identifying plausible future regional changes and qualitative analysis of scenario outcomes.8 MWCOG's effort involved a one-day scenario planning exercise during which nearly 100 participants identified strategies that would serve the region well under several possible futures. The alternatives, which had been developed prior to the workshop, included a range of possibilities for the region's economy, security, technology, and natural environment. The outcomes of the exercise were the "10 Big Moves," or the strategies that would guide the regional growth vision. MWCOG believed that the event helped to encourage innovative and creative thinking on complex issues while building consensus around regional priorities. Similar to the MWCOG effort, scenario frameworks for the PSU workshop had been developed prior to the event; the focus of the workshop was on evaluating these frameworks and assessing their potential regional effects.

C. Scenario Presentation and Discussion

During this session, participants discussed and assessed four scenarios (two "business as usual" (BAU) and two alternative scenarios) using their collective knowledge of the region to identify plausible elements and potential outcomes. The scenarios had been developed prior to the workshop by Dr. Farber and Dr. Pietrucha.

Discussions of scenario outcomes included expected measurable factors (e.g., traffic congestion, land developed, transit ridership, sewage discharge, etc.), as well as expected effects of these factors on quality of life and community identity. The discussion focused more on general measurable outcomes rather than on the magnitude of these impacts, such as how much traffic congestion might be expected in the future and where it would be located. The participants identified several factors, including the local economy, public finance, and fuel prices, as critical driving forces of change that could affect the region's future.

Summaries of each scenario and key themes from the discussions are presented below.

Business As Usual (BAU) Scenario (Version 1): Classic Suburbanization

BAU I scenario:
Assumed the Centre Region would experience unconstrained suburbanization over the next 20 to 30 years.

One plausible vision of the Centre Region's future was a BAU I scenario focused on suburbanization. The BAU I scenario assumed the region would see unconstrained continuation of auto-oriented, suburban development over the next 20 to 30 years. The scenario also assumed no significant changes in the region's planning and development processes or in economic or development trends.

Primary factors for the BAU I scenario were the observed resident preference for automobile-based travel and suburban living coupled with the assumed continuation of municipal government efforts to support private development.

Discussion about the BAU I scenario focused on the following topics and issues:

BAU Scenario (Version 2): Urban Villages

BAU II scenario:
Assumed that the Centre Region would experience urban village development in next 20 to 30 years.

A second plausible vision of the Centre Region's future focused on urban villages. This scenario assumed that several higher density, mixed-use developments ("urban villages"), which have been proposed over the last decade, will be built and be the prominent development pattern in the next 20 to 30 years. Urban villages are characterized by a mixed-use activity center with nearby alternatives to automobile-based travel.

There are many precedents for urban villages within the region and elsewhere. The assumed motivating factors that would lead to this scenario included desire for reduction of energy costs, preservation of rural land, and the emergence of a consumer preference for mixed-use development. Discussion about the BAU II scenario focused on the following topics and issues:

D. Assessment of BAU I/II Scenarios

During this session, participants discussed the assumptions that were incorporated into the BAU I and II scenarios and identified issues and factors that scenarios did not address. Participants agreed that the future will likely incorporate elements of the BAU I and II scenarios, but the region might also encounter challenges that neither scenario specifically mentioned or anticipated. A central focus of the discussion was on how to preserve desired elements of the region rather than try to anticipate how the region might change in the future.

To conclude the session, participants voted by placing a sticker on a flipchart to indicate which of the BAU scenarios they believed was most likely to occur or whether they thought that some combination of factors were likely to make another scenario (a hybrid of BAU I and II) more likely. The hybrid scenario received the most votes by a two to one margin.

The following assumptions were identified that could affect the region's future but were not fully addressed in the BAU I and II scenarios:

E. Alternative Scenario Evaluation

This session explored alternative scenarios, developed by Dr. Farber and Dr. Pietrucha prior to the workshop, which incorporated factors that differed from those included in the BAU I and II scenarios.

Alternative Scenario (Version 1): Explosive Student Population Growth

Alternative scenario I:
Assumed 10,000 additional PSU students would be added to the student population in 2020.

Dr. Pietrucha described an alternative scenario in which the Governor of Pennsylvania decides (and the legislature agrees) to end Pennsylvania's historic support of PSU (see Figure 5). A potential PSU response to address the $400 million shortfall might be to increase university enrollment by adding 10,000 out-of-state students. Participants agreed that this scenario is quite plausible, although a more likely response from PSU might be to add 1,000 students per year over a decade rather than 10,000 students at one time, given that state support of PSU would most likely gradually diminish.

Photograph of a sunny day on the PSU campus; students are walking along a brick walkway and reading on a bench near a grassy area among college buildings

Figure 5. PSU's Campus

The discussion of potential outcomes from this scenario focused on housing, parking, and transit. Additional students would likely require an increase in these services. However, participants agreed that it is possible that local residents and elected officials could react negatively to an increased student population and refuse to accommodate the growth. If this were the case, additional housing, parking, or services would need to be built in locations that are farther from campus, which could significantly impact parking, congestion, and transit use. These impacts could be greater given the additional faculty and staff that would be needed to support an increased student population.

Important unknowns that could affect the outcomes of this scenario included: the specific location for additional student housing, whether the State College borough would cooperate to accommodate the growth, and whether the impacts could be mitigated by extending PSU's daily and weekly class scheduling and/or increasing online instruction.

Participants identified several actions that could be taken to mitigate the impacts of this scenario, including:

Alternative Scenario (Version 2): Regional Transportation Hub Development: Population Doubles by 2020

Alternative scenario II:
Assumed that region's population would double by 2020.

A second version of the alternative scenario focused on increased regional population as a whole. This scenario assumed the completion of several major road projects in and around the Centre Region that would establish the region as a major transportation hub. Spurred by this growth, this scenario hypothesized the establishment of a Federal free trade zone that would transform the region into a major, intermodal inland port. The port's accessibility and economic incentives would subsequently lead to substantial regional growth, including warehousing and product support (i.e., preparation, repair) facilities in the region as well as associated housing and service-based business growth. Overall, this scenario would double the region's population by 2020. Participants generally agreed that this scenario appears to be plausible, although most housing and trucking-related jobs would probably occur outside of the Centre Region.

If this scenario came to pass, many participants thought that its impacts would be more significant in nearby areas rather than in the Centre Region because of the location of major access junctions. Growth that occurred inside the Centre Region might be focused on secondary uses such as shopping, healthcare, services, and housing. New water treatment facilities would be needed in this scenario, as would significant roadway and transit upgrades. The significant level of population growth would likely create severe congestion problems on local and arterial streets. Participants suggested that managing these issues would require partnerships and cooperation between the public and private sectors. Major uncertainties about this scenario included the ability to finance any needed infrastructure upgrades.


5 For more information about the use of scenario planning in an academic context, see Christopher Zegras et al. (2004). "Scenario Planning for Strategic Regional Transportation Planning." Journal of Urban Planning and Development (2-13). The paper is available for purchase at

6 The FHWA scenario planning program website is available at

7 The Guidebook is available at

8 Additional information on the MWCOG and the scenario planning exercise is available at

9 From Google Images.

Updated: 12/2/2015
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