How can a transportation agency effectively plan for emerging technologies with a 25-year view, when the future of automated vehicles, mobility as a service, ride-hailing, and electric vehicles is unclear even five years out?

Research is underway to understand how connected and automated vehicles will impact roadway capacity, the long-term future of on-demand micro-mobility services, and other important questions about how technology could transform our transportation systems. But from where we stand right now, the one thing our industry knows for sure is that no one has the exact answers to these questions. In the past six months, we’ve seen some predicted shifts happen at a rapidly accelerated pace, while others slow to a crawl.

Challenges around long-range planning for emerging technologies are shared by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and transportation planning organizations (TPOs), but all cities can (and should) start preparing now. And the good news is you don’t have to have all the answers in order to assess your city’s readiness and take steps forward.

Technology Transition Planning: The Time Is Now

MPOs need to make long-range decisions about transportation investments, without yet having all the information about which technologies will “stick.”

Every five years, MPOs are required to produce long-range transportation plans identifying investment, policy, and planning needs as they look 20+ years into the future. The difficulty with this, of course, is that 20+ years is a long time. MPOs need to allocate funding without knowing which technologies will “stick.” It appears extremely likely that cars with advanced automated systems will impact our transportation systems within that time frame, but no one has the specifics yet of what systems will be sustainable in the market place.

Agencies can, however, assess their readiness and start to prepare.

NCHRP Report 924 (“Foreseeing the Impact of Transformational Technologies on Land Use and Transportation”), published in December 2019, was written exactly for this purpose. Designed to help public agency decision-makers manage the uncertainty transformational technologies bring, the guide provides detailed information supporting a straightforward recipe for readiness:

  • Self-assess. Develop a Technology Transition Plan for the agency. Understand what training or outside support may be needed to keep up with changing patterns.
  • Get data. Acquire more data on the day-to-day impacts of new technologies.
  • Get smart. Provide education for staff on new technologies.
  • Be nimble. Adopt a more agile planning and policy response to the challenges of new technologies.

As the lead authors of NCHRP Report 924, Kittelson’s Rick Dowling and Abby Morgan have a message for MPOs that came from their research: the time is now to conduct a self-assessment and begin readying for connected and automated vehicles. Emerging technologies have a big impact on long-range transportation planning, and understanding how to prepare and monitor changes in technology uses and deployments is critical. In this article, we’ll share how we applied NCHRP 924 for the River to Sea TPO, and our advice and takeaways for all MPOs who recognize the need to get ready.

Emerging technologies have a big impact on long-range transportation planning, and understanding how to prepare and monitor changes in technology uses and deployments is critical.

River to Sea TPO’s Technology Transition Plan

The River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) spans approximately 65 miles along Florida’s East Coast, including the iconic stretch of Daytona Beach and surrounding metropolitan area. Planning for technologies has become a strong interest of this TPO, mirroring partners in the community such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and their automated vehicle program.

After completing a TSM&O Master Plan that identified gaps in their technology infrastructure, the River to Sea TPO was ready to take action to address questions such as:

  • How should we be investing in our transportation infrastructure? Are updating our signal systems and technology infrastructure better investments than building more roads?
  • How can partnerships with mobility service providers help us support transit through our region? Can they effectively help us reach rural communities where fixed-route transit is not cost-effective?
  • What policies and codes should we be writing/updating now so we are set up for future technologies?
  • What investments should we make in our staff to prepare for the future? What kind of training do we need?

Kittelson has worked with the River to Sea TPO since 2013 on a variety of technology related projects. The TPO engaged Abby Morgan, our senior engineer who was one of the authors of NCHRP 924, to conduct a readiness study and to outline a plan to prepare for impacts from transformational technologies, including connected and automated vehicles, ride-hailing services, micro-mobility, and electric vehicles. We were excited to see the River to Sea TPO be one of the first local agencies to create this type of plan, paving the way for other MPOs and TPOs who are facing similar questions.

The steps we carried out in collaboration with the River to Sea TPO were directly inspired by NCHRP 924:

1. We began by conducting a literature review that included a study of policies being developed by other MPOs. Because of Abby’s familiarity with NCHRP 924, which included an extensive literature review in and of itself, we were able to do this efficiently and focus in on the technologies, timelines, and impacts that the River to Sea TPO is most likely to see.

2. This set the stage for a self-assessment, in which we looked at the state of their infrastructure and their existing regional plans in order to assess the gaps and outstanding needs. We also identified opportunities for better coordination among all technologies and stakeholders—for example, Volusia County’s public transit system Votran had upgraded their buses to enhance communication with signal systems and transit tracking apps, but the signal systems themselves weren’t updated so they couldn’t yet take advantage of applications like transit signal priority.

3. All of this led to an action plan, which was the official “technology transition plan” component of the project, marrying the River to Sea TPO’s needs with short- and long-term strategies. The plan addresses data needs, staff resources and training, regulations and policy, infrastructure and equipment, enforcement, equity and accessibility, and financial prioritization.

River to Sea TPO’s Readiness and Next Steps

In what position does the technology transition plan put the River to Sea TPO?

Having their resource needs put into writing clarifies which infrastructure investments need to be made, what policies need to be looked at, and where staff training is needed. The River to Sea TPO now has a plan for gradually updating their existing infrastructure. The study also provides the framework and positions the River to Sea TPO to develop a robust systems report and a system for monitoring data over time so they can adapt as technology in transportation continues to unfold.

Additionally, the long-term strategies we developed will inform the River to Sea TPO’s next long-range transportation plan (LRTP). The next LRTP will be able to more thoroughly embrace technology and prioritize funding for the partnerships and projects that we identified in our study.

Planning for Automated Vehicles: 3 Takeaways for MPOs

Based on our experience on both the researchers’ and practitioners’ sides, here are three takeaways we want all MPOs to hear.

  • A successful technology transition plan is a realistic one. The River to Sea TPO had the right approach: they didn’t push for technology that didn’t fit their goals or needs, but rather wanted to develop a strategic approach to adapt to and plan for new technologies and direct funding more efficiently.
  • Policies and land development codes need to be nimble. Inflexible codes and policies may become barriers to adapting to emerging technologies, and revisiting policies is a way MPOs can prepare for future technologies even before the details are in focus. A timely example are flexible policies that manage use of curb space for micro-mobility, ride-hailing, and other pickup/drop off uses (which may also be useful when automated vehicles come more into play).
  • Monitor, monitor, monitor. Due to the rapid rate of change, we have to plan to learn things over time. Knowing which data and performance indicators to track makes a tremendous difference.

Policies and land development codes need to be nimble. Inflexible codes and policies may become barriers to adapting to emerging technologies, and revisiting policies is a way MPOs can prepare for future technologies even before the details are in focus.

Capacity Impacts of Connected and Automated Vehicles

Rest assured we’re monitoring impacts right alongside you. Kittelson is leading a national pooled fund study, spearheaded by the Oregon Department of Transportation and funded by 14 DOTs who also serve as an advisory panel. Our research uses microsimulation of realistic networks to predict future CAV capacity effects on freeways, arterials, and intersections. This information addresses a key question that River to Sea TPO is not alone in asking: will automated vehicles and emerging technologies improve congestion, and what impact will they have on the way we design and build roads?

Last year at the Automated Vehicles Symposium, we presented our initial findings on freeways: in summary, CAVs will improve capacity, but at a more conservative rate than was predicted. Read the findings here. You’ll find our freeway results in the next update of the Highway Capacity Manual (HCM).

Research is still underway when it comes to arterial streets, but we look forward to sharing that information in early 2021.

Is Your City Ready for Connected and Automated Vehicles?

As we stated before: the time is now to assess preparedness for connected/automated vehicles and other emerging technologies and to identify resource gaps. Whether you’re development readiness assessments, curbside management policies, or long-range transportation planning, we’d be glad to start a conversation about how we can apply the latest research to help your agency confidently prepare for the future. Feel free to reach out to any of us directly: