The Second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP 2) Encourages Collaborative Decision Making and Building Community through Transportation

By Gary Toth

Gary Toth

What’s significant about the SHRP 2 is that it represents a benchmark moment in the evolution of the transportation establishment. The often slow and inconsistent movement toward livable transportation solutions is now getting a significant impetus from the industry’s research/innovation wing.

This spring I participated in a meeting of the second Strategic Highway Research Program in Washington, DC as part of my role as a member of the program’s Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC) in the area of Capacity.

Here are some valuable resources and new research that emerged from SHRP 2 and some information about the innovative aspects of the program.

Not Your Mom’s Highway Research Program

SHRP 2 is moving toward holistic transportation solutions, which might include some of these alterations to make the street more livable. Image from Dan Burden.

This second SHRP program has “an intense, large-scale focus, integrates multiple fields of research and technology and is fundamentally different from the broad, mission-oriented, discipline-based research programs that have been the mainstay of highway research for half a century.”

SHRP 2 takes a “customer-oriented view of highway needs, addressing them from a system perspective,” and is “open to research in non-traditional highway-related areas…”  

The Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) was established by Congress in 2006 to improve the safety, reliability and performance of the nation’s highway system.   Since this is the second time in history that Congress has authorized a SHRP, the ongoing program is known as SHRP 2.

There are four focus areas under SHRP 2:

  • Safety: Prevent or reduce the severity of highway crashes by understanding driver behavior.
  • Renewal: Address the aging infrastructure through rapid design and construction methods that cause minimal disruption and produce long-lived facilities
  • Reliability: Reduce congestion and improve travel time reliability through incident management, response, and mitigation.
  • Capacity: Integrate mobility, economic, environmental, and community needs into the planning and design of new transportation capacity.
The focus of the Capacity program- the program I’m a part of shaping- is itself encouraging: “to develop approaches and tools for systematically integrating environmental, economic, and community requirements into the analysis, planning, and design of new highway capacity.” 

This is the kind of holistic thinking that is the first step toward creating more livable and sustainable places. So what’s involved in actually getting there?

Identifying a New Problem to Solve

The Capacity TCC acknowledges that our country will need new transportation capacity in the 21st Century: 140 million more people are expected to live in America by the year 2050. However, the TCC has redefined the problem statement for transportation from one of simply moving cars from point A to point B, to providing the mobility that America needs in ways that simultaneously support all other societal needs.

Simply put: we’re moving toward new customer behavior and a new planning philosophy.  We’re realizing now that people should drive not just to drive but to connect with people, work, recreation and purchase goods and services. This perspective on the purpose of driving has direct impact on the kind of communities we build (on land use).  If we keep emphasizing high speed automobile travel, then we’ll continue to end up with spread out development (sprawl). This is a significant shift in thinking: we’re moving away from a narrow obsession over speed- we’re moving away from a mitigation paradigm- and moving towards ways to build community through transportation.

Speer Boulevard in Denver

SHRP 2: A Significant Move toward Building Communities through Transportation 

In essence, SHRP 2 acknowledges that transportation is about building strong communities, fostering great places and making America sustainable.  Failure to understand this fundamental principle led to major conflicts in the 20th Century, delaying scores of projects for decades and leading to hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in conflict resolution, redesigning and reprogramming investments, inflation, and lost opportunity delays.

As such, the 20 research products selected by Capacity TCC’s emphasize collaborative decision-making, societal based performance measures, and the role of both in helping to expedite transportation investment.

But to say that ‘research’ was the only product of this program is to understate its impact: the $21.5M budget for these twenty projects resulted not only in new knowledge but also in hands on tools that can be immediately applied to help improve transportation over the upcoming decades.

Implementing SHRP 2: Tools for Meaningful, Shared Decision-Making in Transportation Planning

This “applied research” concept is typified by the cornerstone of the Capacity program: the development of a collaborative decision-making model.   This model is web based and advocates for meaningful shared decision-making with a wide range of stakeholders throughout the transportation process.  SHRP 2 is committed to implementing great new ideas and has put together a number of resources.  Here are just a few of them:

Advocating for shared decision-making may sound like a “no-brainer,” but having spent a career inside the transportation establishment, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it has been for transportation professionals to become comfortable with the idea of shared decision-making.

I can still recall a meeting early in my career, where a visiting engineer from Yugoslavia – then a totalitarian country – whispered into my ear:  “I don’t understand, it is much more democratic in Yugoslavia!”

A project that I directly oversaw as Chairman of its Expert Task Group, was the research and identification of techniques and strategies that could help transportation agencies free themselves from the decades long confrontational processes for delivering transportation.   Not surprisingly, many of these strategies involved taking more time up front to engage stakeholders and frame the correct project goals.   Grassroots involvement has long been a PPS principle – “the community is the expert” – yet has been counter-intuitive to transportation agencies subject to intense pressure from the political process to move things along faster.

For Lasting Change, We Need New Process AND New Problem-Statement

Sharing decision-making is great, but if the problem is still defined as moving cars from point A to point B, then products of transportation can still remain in conflict with communities and resource agencies. In other words, its not enough to have a democratic, inclusive decision-making process-  for transformative change, in order for transportation to really build great communities, we need to redefine the problem we’re trying to solve.

In that spirit, the second project authorized by the Capacity TCC sought to deal with this by investing almost one million dollars in creating a balanced series of performance measures to evaluate transportation investment.

New Performance Measures:
Traditional measures of mobility, reliability, and safety are now joined by environmental, economic and community

This web based performance measure framework is so balanced that the Director of the Colorado Springs area Metropolitan Planning Organization reported that in a recent pilot test that transportation professionals were grumbling that there were more non-transportation performance measures being applied than transportation!

Have you put shared-decision making for transportation planning into practice in your community?   Have you used some of these new tools? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Meg MacIver contributed to this post.

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