Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Comments to the FTA on goal oriented planning

on 2006 May 22

I believe it is important to project the effectiveness of any proposed pilot project against a set of parallel public goals, and allow private design of solutions, prior to selecting the projects.

For background, you may refer to the report I developed, called “A Democratic Land Use and Transportation Planning Process for the Albuquerque Metro Region”, published at This report proposes a planning and evaluation framework. The main points will be repeated here.

Typical transit procurement starts with a list of “in the box” alternatives which are viewed as politically feasible, often skipping the step of setting goals. The alternatives are then usually narrowed to a few preferred alternatives based on simple points. Before any serious analysis is done, most creative solutions have already been ruled out. (This is how government works, but no successful business operates this way.)

I would propose to turn this process upside down, and start with goals instead of options, and then make it a widening process that expands to include new ideas, rather than a narrowing process that rules out ideas.

In my study, I set fifteen proposed goals encompassing all aspects of urban growth. I then compared three alternative regional systems: The first (“Plan A”) was a very traditional set of four LRT lines. The second (“Loop-Radial”) was a radial network of on-street BRT lines with signal priority, combined with a GRT loop, with elevator-type off-line service. The final alternative was a dense grid of elevated PRT. The three systems were compared against a subset of the goals. (I did not have the capacity to evaluate all the goals.) If this framework were to be adopted as the actual planning process, many more alternatives would be evaluated.

Based on the cost and ridership modeling that I did, it was shown that Plan A achieved few of the public goals, and only slightly, while the other two alternatives would meet the goals much more substantially and have much higher ridership.

Arguments to privatize typical transit, such as the current bus system in Albuquerque (or most anywhere) stand on fairly narrow grounds, because the operational incentives of a private company that is being paid through public subsidy are basically the same as the incentives of a public agency. However, if the system is a bit more creative and bold and has high ridership (like the LoopRadial or PRT system in my study), then the cost/revenue equation changes, and in that case, private companies and public agencies would operate under very different incentives.

It appears that the broad public goals of safety, access, environmental concerns, equity, and so on are correlated with the potential for profit, because a high-ridership system would have greater capacity for return on investment, as well as reduce automobile miles driven.

The way all this fits together is for private companies to perform the system design, not just the component design. In other words, instead of contracting out to design a vehicle that meets certain requirements (length, seats, power consumption), the process would be that potential investors or operators would design a system that meets broad public requirements (safety, air quality, equity and so on). The public agency would evaluate the public effects of the system, and choose the one that best balances public subsidy and meeting public goals. Each submission would have to state the initial and/or operating subsidy that it required.

If anyone is looking for more P’s, you could call it a Public Private Pilot Planning Process Partnership. The four steps in the process are (1) Set goals – entirely on the public side, with citizen involvement; (2) Design solutions – entirely on the private side; (3) Evaluate solutions against goals – done by MPO-selected experts; and (4) Choose and permit solutions – done by elected officials.

I strongly believe that turning the planning process upside down to this 4-step process would result in much better solutions, both for mobility and for all the environmental and economic side effects of transportation.


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