Thinking beyond national transportation performance measures

Thinking beyond national transportation performance measures
By Michael Grant
Feb 20, 2019
What we need to consider at the state and local levels

Last month, I moderated a workshop titled “Next Generation Transportation Performance Measures” at the Transportation Research Board’s 98th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Speakers from state departments of transportation (DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and the private sector highlighted a range of emerging performance measures addressing topics such as accessibility, multimodal system connectivity, bicycle and pedestrian network availability, and public health. More than 150 participants brainstormed a wide array of possible measures and explored innovative approaches using “big data,” forecasting, and scenario analysis to support application of performance measures.

This discussion is important since transportation agencies are looking for ways to use performance information to support investment decisions. While national performance measures focus attention on a set of critical transportation issues, such as safety, congestion reduction, and infrastructure condition, they do not cover all of the issues that are important to states and regions around the country. Many state DOTs and MPOs are asking:

  • What other performance measures could we use to support our investment decision making?
  • How can we define performance measures for issues that matter to our residents and travelers, including quality of life and system resiliency?
  • And how can we collect data needed to track measures over time?

Thoughts to consider

Building on ICF’s work around the country on performance-based planning, some lessons for agencies to consider include:

  • Measure what’s important to your community—First, look to the vision and goals that are part of your statewide or metropolitan long range transportation plan. Select measures that matter, which may be issues such as greenhouse gas reduction, fostering healthy communities, or enhancing economic vitality. Define what is important, and then seek to identify the way to best measure that outcome.
  • Recognize that the perfect measures may not yet exist… and multiple measures may be needed—There is not one simple, single measure to address goals like transportation system resiliency or community livability. But that does not mean these issues cannot be measured. In many cases, proxy or secondary measures can be used. For instance, to support a goal related to livable communities, some agencies would like to measure bicycle and pedestrian activity but are challenged by lack of data. Instead, they may be able to use a measure to track the completeness of the sidewalk or bicycle networks. Some agencies use both “leading” and “lagging” indicators. “Leading” indicators address issues more directly affected by transportation investments and policy, such as bicycle network completeness, while lagging indicators are those that address outcomes farther removed from direct agency control, such as the level of bicycling activity, or public health outcomes.
  • Consider new sources of data—Data limitations are a significant challenge for developing and applying new performance measures. However, an explosion of “big data” including data collected via crowdsourcing and the private sector offers the potential to measure travel activity and system performance in ways that were not possible in the past. Agencies will need to consider factors such as data quality, costs, and long-term sustainability of collecting data.
  • Go beyond tracking overall system performance, and look at the finer grain issues—While agencies must report transportation system performance at a state, regional, or urbanized area level for the national measures, a key value of performance management is to help inform investment, policy, and operational decisions. As a result, it is useful to explore performance at a more detailed level to identify specific areas of concern and focus for intervention. Performance data at a geographic scale can be used to answer questions, such as: Where are the biggest congestion challenges? Which communities have the least access to jobs? And how does access to jobs differ by income and demographic characteristics? To support effective transportation decisions, it is important to delve beyond the top line figures to understand the who, what, when, where, and why of performance.

By taking into consideration these ideas, transportation agencies can abide by the framework set forth by federal regulations, while also improving upon their decision-making strategies at the state and local levels. We can go beyond the measures required by Congress to ensure issues such as community livability, system resiliency, and others play a key role in performance-based transportation investment decisions.

Meet the author
  1. Michael Grant, Vice President, Transportation

    Michael has more than 25 years of experience helping transportation agencies advance performance-based planning and sustainable transportation decision-making to improve mobility, the environment, and community livability. 
     View bio

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