We’re two planners who have come to realize that being good planners means thinking more like non-planners.

What do we mean?

Good planning considers the needs and perspective of all other groups involved.

Generally, this is stated in the context of considering users of a transportation system—which is essential. However, we’re here to recommend adding another category to that list.

Considering operators as a stakeholder group, and looking ahead to operations needs, is a small but vital component of the planning process.

Safe, efficient, and reliable transportation requires good planning. But it also requires effective operations and ongoing management. “Planning for operations” means pausing as planners to ask the question, “What will operators need to be effective and efficient in the context of this project?”

Every Transportation Project Needs a [Communication] Bridge

“Traditionally, transportation planning and transportation system operations have been largely independent activities,” the FHWA tells us. “Planners focus on long-range transportation investments, including development of metropolitan transportation plans and programming of projects. Operators are typically more concerned with addressing immediate system needs such as incident response, traffic control, and work zone management.”

It is for this reason that Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSM&O) sometimes fails to be considered in the transportation planning process. The oversight becomes significant when the transportation system limits how efficient operators can be—whether it’s a newly built project that didn’t account for snow plow movement, or a lack of funding for routine maintenance or incident management.

Planning for operations bridges the gap, instigating essential communication between planners and engineers so that investment decisions account for needs at every phase of a transportation project, and so projects can be managed and sustained to meet their communities’ needs long-term.

In 2010, we helped author the FHWA’s desk reference guide on Advancing Metropolitan Planning for Operations. As the urbanization of communities calls for greater attention to M&O for the maintenance and safety of complex transportation networks, we’re increasingly seeing the need to account for operations early in the process.

Build Human Connections

Perhaps simple in theory, incorporating TSM&O into the planning process takes intentional communication and awareness. The human connections you build are key components of effectively considering both disciplines in your process.

Look for ways to collaborate across disciplines to learn one another’s language and priorities from their perspective, not your convenience. Understanding the pain points of operators better helps us plan for their success, which translates to the success of the project. When these human connections are folded into the structure of a project team, that team is better prepared to plan sustainable solutions.

Also important is visibility and support of operations among decisionmakers. If you have early commitment from leaders to advance operations programs and projects, you are better set up to have the resources you’ll need when the time comes. This includes staff time, equipment, policy commitments, new operating procedures, and funding.

SEFTC TSM&O SubcommitteeAn excellent example of integrating planning and operations through relationships is the Southeast Florida Transportation Council (SEFTC) TSM&O Subcommittee. A model structure for regional planning in the Country, SEFTC (pictured right) is composed of representatives from three MPOs in Southeast Florida and meets several times a year as a forum for policy coordination and communication. The TSM&O Subcommittee applies the principles of planning for operations, meeting for the purpose of better integrating TSM&O into the region’s planning processes and promoting program resources to support these projects.

Be SMART About Planning for Operations

Once you bring the right voices together, it’s the performance measures you set that will keep planning for operations alive throughout the duration of the project.

FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) promote the use of an objectives-driven, performance-based approach to planning for operations as an effective way to integrate operations into planning. Rather than just addressing problems that arise, this approach works toward desired systems outcomes. When operations is built into your decision-making criteria, you will naturally revisit these principles as you move through the scope of your project.

This is achieved through setting objectives that are SMART:

S: Strategic: These objectives should point you toward the real challenge you’re trying to solve.

M: Measurable. Define what success will look like, for both planning and operations.

A: Agreed to among all parties. This is where it’s important to have a diversity of perspectives represented.

R: Realistic. Set objectives your plan can reasonably achieve.

T: Time-bound. Keep yourself accountable to reaching these objectives by a determined deadline.

FHWA’s desk reference provides examples of more than 200 operations objectives that can be incorporated into transportation planning documents.

SMART Objectives in Action

The Metropolitan Planning Organization in Fairbanks Alaska (FMATS MPO) recently completed its 2045 Regional Transportation Plan update, and followed this process to integrate operations into the plan. The MPO relied on operations professionals to help translate plan goals for utility, efficiency, and protection into SMART operations objectives. Moving forward, the transportation system will be maintained within a certain percentage of adopted standards to better protect users and the environment and save money. Low-cost TSM&O projects that achieve system efficiency receive priority for funding; another valuable outcome of this “planning for operations” approach.

A Process That Builds on Itself

The better you get at folding operations into planning, the more you’ll start to take on an operator’s perspective.

It is for this reason integrated project management is a hallmark of our process at Kittelson. We believe in pulling operations into planning early and often so that we are proactively meeting operational needs, not facing situations down the road where we need to react but don’t have resources. An integrated approach to transportation projects indicates they will meet long-term needs.

What has been your experience planning for operations? What challenges do you face? What successes have you seen? We encourage you to open a dialogue with us.