Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Transportation Research Board proposal for high level planning software

on 2008 March 15

The following proposal to the Transportation Research Board was submitted and not funded. Briefly, it claims that transit agencies may skip high level alternatives analyses and spend a lot of money investigating details of a transit proposal, missing the big picture. The proposed research should produce software, spreadsheets and/or other analytical and simulation tools, information, and procedures that can be used by planning agencies to perform high level “reality check” analyses of a large number of alternatives.



Software tools for low-cost goal-oriented planning


Transit is widely seen as a major part of the solution to carbon emissions, safety, congestion and other problems of auto dominance, but the transit planning process has not yet yielded alternatives that make significant gains towards these goals on a large scale. In the typical EIS scoping process, these major public goals are cited as a driving force, but the actual progress towards those goals is rarely projected and rarely used as a selector of the alternatives.

Transit agencies may skip high level alternatives analyses and spend a lot of money investigating details of a transit proposal, missing the big picture. For example, in 2003 the city of Albuquerque spent millions comparing a proposal for LRT or BRT on one corridor, only to find out what should have been obvious in the beginning: that the net effect of both options was an unacceptably reduced road capacity, because the partially dedicated right of way would have substantially interfered with traffic while only adding a small gain in ridership. This wasteful planning exercise could have been avoided by doing a quicker, low cost “reality check” up front.

As a recent example, the January 2008 announcement of the planned Tempe EIS states that the scope will include a few rail and BRT alternatives, and a certain bounded area, and also mentions air quality, congestion, and corridor capacity. Even though the announcement includes no analytical confirmation that any of those proposals will actually help with air quality or any of the other goals, the Tempe agency is nevertheless planning to delve into the costlier detail planning process. Although there will be public comment on the scope, in practice, few new alternatives are ever admitted after the process is launched.


The proposed research should produce software, spreadsheets and/or other analytical and simulation tools, information, and procedures that can be used by planning agencies to perform high level “reality check” analyses of a large number of alternatives. The tools would be intended for use prior to a detailed EIS, to project the extent to which an alternative would contribute to major public goals such as safety, climate stabilization, and congestion. The tools would specifically be geared towards cost effectively checking the numerous alternatives that might be submitted by non-agency sources.


A limited set of tools and framework was developed by this author, and published at The proposed research would continue in that direction, but make the tools more user friendly, and more fully calibrated to current data sources.

1. Calibrate and review ridership estimator software. This existing tool takes the approach of providing a quick rough estimate of ridership based on a small number of assumptions. Therefore it provides the first level of analytical checking of claims about potential alternatives, without the overhead of running a full simulation.

2. Calibrate and enhance cost model. The existing cost spreadsheet can be used to calculate total life cycle costs of different alternatives based on component costs. A more error-proof software product is needed to format and present the same calculations.

3. Enhance goal achievement models. The existing goal-achievement spreadsheet can be used to calculate the extent to which transit alternatives meet public goals, based on component estimates or data. However, as a spreadsheet, it does not help the user analyst understand how to estimate or what to present as a comparison. A more helpful and error-proof software product is needed to help an analyst present goal achievement in a meaningful format. For example, for carbon emissions, one transit system may have more total emissions than another, but the first may actually be superior on that scale if it displaces more cars, so the appropriate presentation is the total regional carbon reduction.


Two researchers over six months, plus anciliary costs might cost about $250,000. The total time would be about one year.


Given the urgency of stabilizing the climate and the theoretical potential of transit systems to help achieve that goal, time for planning is short. However, traditional infrastructure planning takes place at a much slower rate than what is needed. By disseminating a tool-set to MPOs, the proposed research could quickly accelerate the process of aligning transit infrastructure to climate change and other goals. Consider the scenario of Tempe and other growth areas, where transit ridership is around 2%, and current long term proposals call for billions of dollars to go to transit, knowing that ridership might only increase to 3-4%. This failure of transit to live up to its theoretical potential is an urgent and national priority. Goal-oriented planning could open up the consideration of alternatives and find a better answer to a particular local need, while also reducing the time it takes to find that answer. It allows agencies to accept ideas from political sources or the public and thereby expand the creativity of alternatives to include new configurations, innovative land use policies, new modes, and new modal connections. At the same time, it allows agencies to review and reject poorly conceived ideas at a low cost, by rejecting them on the basis of their inability to meet public goals.

Research that threatens established practices tends to threaten the beneficiaries of the established practices; this in the only identified institutional barrier.


Ridership and cost are two FTA goals met well by the development of software tools that help analysts project ridership and cost. The tools will help agencies use those factors as the basis of choosing alternatives for detailed study.

The external FTA goals of safety, security, environmental protection, and energy independence are among those goals that the tools will help analysts project. It is the intent to use the tools precisely for choosing alternatives that meet these goals.

Organizing high level alternatives selection around ridership potential is in line with putting the customer first. Promoting a planning process that accepts innovative alternatives is helping to enable transit to operate in a technologically advanced society. The tools support (and help define and justify) continuous improvement. The tools allow agencies to implement transparent and community-based planning, by accepting ideas from the public. And the tools help agencies cost less by getting closer to goals during high level planning, and spending less on wasted EIS efforts.


The related research that this proposal may draw from is published at, “A Democratic Approach to Land Use and Transportation Planning in the Albuquerque Metro Region”, published by Ian Ford. It includes text, software (ridership model), and spreadsheets.


Ian Ford

Phone: 505 246 8490; Email:

Address: 3110 Ninth NW; Albuquerque, NM 87107


The proposal was developed by one author.



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