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Transportation Planning Provides Road Map for Improvements

As public demand for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and improved community connectivity continues to grow, transportation master plans are becoming increasingly popular in communities of all sizes. Using a data-driven approach, transportation master plans focus on providing actionable steps for achieving multimodal goals that enhance community livability.

As Brian Willham, PE, PTOE, PTP, and Senior Traffic Engineer for Snyder & Associates explains,

Communities often have a comprehensive plan that includes multimodal transportation system goals to support the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, however, they often lack the details on how to bring those goals to life. That’s where a transportation master plan comes into play. They go beyond a comprehensive plan and provide clarity and direction a community can use and act upon, making them very useful.

Because no two locations are exactly alike, transportation master plans also vary in scope and detail and are customized to address each community’s specific needs. The primary goal of a plan is to help prioritize specific projects or improvement areas and identify funding sources to streamline their construction and maintenance needs.

Documenting Current Conditions through Data Collection

Although customized for individual communities, all transportation master plans follow a similar set of steps that guide the process forward. The first step is to formally document how your current transportation system works. With a primary focus on the safety and capacity of roadways, sidewalks, and bicycle facilities, data collected at this stage often includes:

  • Crash Data — Available from a state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) or local police department, crash data helps identify crash hot spots, trends in crash types, and causes of injury-related crashes
  • Traffic Congestion — Regional travel demand models help determine areas where additional lanes might be needed, as well as opportunities to reduce the number of lanes to accommodate multimodal transportation
  • Existing Transportation Network — Existing maps of a current network, depicting routes for trucks, emergency response vehicles, and public transit, along with sidewalks and bike facilities
  • Land Use — Existing and future land use maps provide context about a transportation network and how land use affects roadway corridors. Current or planned large traffic generating developments can impact a transportation system on a regular or seasonal/periodic basis
  • Public Health/Equity — Metropolitan or regional planning commissions and local public health officials can provide geographic location information, transportation system performance metrics, and predominant health concern data that impacts traditionally underserved populations
  • Community Input — Local government departments (i.e., public works, parks and recreation, police, and fire departments) and public engagement efforts can provide important information that doesn’t show up in other data

Identifying Transportation Improvements in a Community

Combining this newly gathered data with a community’s transportation goals creates a vision for the ideal transportation system. The next step is to compare this vision with the current state of the transportation system to identify gaps that should be addressed. These gaps become actionable improvements in these traffic subsets:

  • Intersection Improvements — Safety and capacity concerns can be eased with traditional traffic controls such as stop or yield signs and traffic signals. Access management techniques, such as limiting certain movements or combining access points, can also lead to improvements. Other innovative solutions, such as roundabouts and diverging diamond interchanges, are designed to address specific intersection issues
  • Multimodal Networks — Safe and efficient accommodations for alternative modes of travel are a primary focus for many U.S. communities. Dedicated pedestrian and bicycle networks reduce our dependence on motorized travel and make it easier to connect with parks, athletic facilities, and other destinations through active transportation
  • Large Vehicle Routes — Primary routes used by emergency vehicles, public transit, and semi-trucks often feature specific accommodations to keep users moving efficiently. Designed with the needs of large vehicles in mind, these routes provide adequate intersection turning radii and lane widths. They may also include emergency vehicle preemption or transit signal priority at traffic signals

Prioritize Transportation System Improvements

Once the desired transportation improvements have been identified, the next part of the process is to prioritize project construction efforts using a combined data-driven approach, including crash review and cost/benefit analysis. Other inputs that should be used for consideration include aligning improvements with efforts such as pavement management plans and upcoming utility projects. Additionally, other construction projects that impact an area (including private development) would also fall into this category.

An example of this approach would be to prioritize active transportation improvements near a school or underserved neighborhood. Ultimately, this exercise results in a prioritized implementation program that addresses critical issues first, while remaining mindful of other community planning efforts.

Funding Transportation Improvements & Ongoing Maintenance

With a prioritized implementation plan established, the natural progression is to figure out how to fund improvement projects and maintenance efforts for your transportation system.

When it comes to funding, it’s crucial to think about both the cost of initial improvements, as well as the cost of ongoing maintenance,” shares Willham. “One of the most eye-opening things I have learned from my friends in the public sector is the impact that new projects can have on operating and maintenance budgets. If those costs aren’t addressed up front, the long-term success of a project can be jeopardized.

Due to the significant costs that are usually associated with transportation system improvements, Willham advises incorporating projects identified through the master plan with a community’s Capital Improvement Plan. “Having a transportation master plan developed by the community, backed with data, and incorporated into a Capital Improvement Plan, helps to keep future projects on track as time goes on and political interests or staff changes.”

To supplement local funding for projects, outside sources can be sought through state and federal agencies. A well-established transportation master plan provides the supporting documentation that will enhance your chances of securing outside funding. “A transportation master plan shows that projects have been developed to directly improve safety and provide high value to the community, which is important when applying for grants and other sources of supplemental funding,” shares Willham. Aligning the goals and outcomes of identified improvements with those of the funding programs is the key to success.

Measure Progress to Increase Impact of Plan & Improve Community Livability

Similar to other community planning efforts, a transportation master plan should be treated as a living document through regular updates or amendments. The timing will be different for every community, but a good time to revisit the plan can be during capital improvement planning, strategic planning, or when new traffic projections become available.

Between updates, it’s a good idea to track the progress of plan accomplishments. Performance measures can be developed based on the goals and priorities identified in the plan. These measures can include improved crash rates, an increased number of multi-modal projects, traffic congestion reduction, or the percentage of new projects being constructed in underserved neighborhoods and areas.

Transportation master plans turn multimodal goals into data-driven implementation programs that make it easier and safer to travel as a pedestrian, bicyclist, transit user, or motorist. While the process may seem overwhelming to some community leaders, Willham is careful to point out that there’s nothing to fear.

Developing a transportation master plan isn’t as daunting as it seems. It’s really an exercise of collecting and organizing various forms of data. You listen to what your community wants and needs, and then prioritize improvements for safety and efficiency while aligning with other improvement activities already underway.

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