The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) held their annual meeting in Toronto this summer, where over 1,300 professionals gathered to share information and insights across a dozen themes, ranging from A (as in Automated Vehicles) to Zed (as in Vision Zero). The stated theme of the meeting was “Transportation for All: Putting New Ideas into Practice”. But given the extent and variety of these new ideas currently percolating in the industry, most conversations revolved around how to best navigate an ever-changing planning environment through a renewed commitment to include all types of transportation professionals. Broadening our tent is how to best solve for uncertainty.
WHO'S IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT?
Perhaps the topic of greatest interest during the conference was the effect that driverless vehicle technology will have on both the transportation system and society at large. John Leonard of MIT noted that the private sector is in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and that while significant changes are certain to come eventually, there is a lot of hype around how quickly such ground-breaking changes will arrive. Leonard noted that historically we have vastly overestimated the near-term effects of paradigm shifts and simultaneously discounted the often-unanticipated effects these shifts have over subsequent decades. It seems clear that engineers and planners won’t need to build whole networks of exclusive roads for automated vehicles (AVs) - a popular vision decades ago. Instead, the private sector is scrambling to bring various AV technologies to market and the landscape is littered with new acronyms and terms such as TRINA and WAYMO.
On the other hand, the hallways in Toronto were filled with war stories of elected officials canceling or postponing all sorts of projects, from complete streets to transit, because “when we have AVs, we won’t need this particular public investment any more”. Automated vehicles are being touted as a panacea, but the unintended consequences are looming in the background. For instance, as automated vehicles and a shared economy reduce the need to park your car, they will also increase the demand for curbside space. Imagine how quickly your automated car will be able to access your bank account to outbid the competition for that parking spot right in front of your kid’s elementary school at dismissal time.
In order for the ITE Transportation Planning Council to help ensure technology advancements serve broader community goals, the council will identify predictors and indicators and develop high-level guidance for how to lead the discussion to set policies and plans. For near term considerations, the message will likely be “don’t expect AVs to solve your needs”; in the longer term, there is a greater role for scenario planning to help gauge the effect that automated mobility technology will have on urban design, parking needs, sprawl, public health, equity, and so forth.
Another transformational technology that we are already seeing the effects of is Big Data. We have significantly shifted from an era in which nearly all transportation system related data was owned and controlled by public authorities with strict definitions and standards for accuracy and precision. Today, the private market is collecting, processing, and selling data in every shape and size, ranging from large corporations that can supply data for nationwide roadway system performance measures to start-ups seeking to be helpfully disruptive in the search for better trip generation data.
PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF
Within the structure of the ITE organization, several changes are underway to reflect dynamics in the marketplace. Several changes to the ITE constitution that would notably open organizational membership to a more inclusive range of affiliated professions are in the works. Increased collaboration across disciplinary silos is actively being pursued, particularly with an overlap between transportation and public health. One anecdote demonstrates the benefits of this particular interdisciplinary coordination and Big Data: Leah Shahum with the Vision Zero Network noted that while road safety has traditionally focused on reported crash data, information on under-reported crashes is emerging from data on emergency room visits. For example, people deciding the property damage isn’t worth reporting, while at the same time checking themselves in for treatments for bruises or whiplash.
An interdisciplinary approach has raised some interesting questions, most notably associated with the proposed change from limiting membership to those in transportation engineering or transportation planning to “transportation related” fields. Is ITE targeting the pizza delivery industry with this change? Not really, no. But should ITE be coordinating more with groups like ATRI or Uber to better plan, deliver, and operate effective transportation systems? Absolutely.
JUST DON'T CALL IT A TRAFFIC STUDY
I have the honor of leading a volunteer effort to update ITE’s “bible” on how jurisdictions should consider the transportation impacts of new development. Changes in the industry have prompted a need for a refresh to this document, even though it was last updated only a few years ago. The new one, called the Multimodal Transportation Impact Assessment Recommended Practice, will update the “how-to” chapters for traditional, bread-and-butter impact analyses that most jurisdictions use to define mitigating actions for site development.
More robust data sources, a shift from vehicle trips to person trips, and a defined role for scenario planning will help address uncertainties in this regard. But just as important, the new document will provide communities options for thinking about the private sector role in achieving comprehensive plan transportation outcomes, as contrasted with a focus on mitigating adverse impacts. Concepts such as pro-rata share districts will be addressed and outcome-based measures of effectiveness ranging from vehicle-miles of travel to public health will be incorporated during what will be both intense and invigorating conversations over the course of the next year.
The ITE annual meeting is an important event for planning professionals to stay current with issues and ideas in the field of transportation. Ultimately, participants of the meeting aim to make well-informed decisions and provide guidance for planning transportation that affects the long-term wellbeing of our cities and populations. With the aura of uncertainty for what’s to come, the meeting did an excellent job of providing a forum to discuss these ideas and furnish engineers with the knowledge and insight needed to plan transportation projects of the future.