MPO Strategies for Success

MPOs will be challenged to stay abreast of emerging issues and opportunities

The NAS sponsored ‘Toolkit for the 21st Century’ features practical techniques for a new generation of MPO challenges. The Toolkit set for 2022 publication is supplemented by an on-line Innovation Database and eight video summaries of the Information Forums.

NCHRP Project 08-122 / NCHRP Report 1002
Metropolitan Planning Organizations: Strategies for Future Success

Summary

A History of Change and Adaptation
This report presents strategies to facilitate the future success of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) throughout the United States. MPOs have been a steady presence in the metropolitan areas of the United States for 50 years or longer in some instances. MPOs were conceived and have persevered because transportation networks and travel itself operate at scales larger than any one city or county. Sub-regional travel moves at this scale to take advantage of economic circumstances: people may choose to live further away from their jobs to afford a larger home; freight originates from distant ports or modes; and businesses locate at regional nodes or smaller towns to take advantage of savings in travel costs, access to consumers, or simply because it is cheaper than locating in the central business district of a large city.
These concepts and the federal rules that form the underlying foundations of metropolitan planning at MPOs are fairly durable assumptions, but the MPOs themselves have evolved in a myriad of ways to respond to localized needs over several decades of operation, including the size of staffing and other resources. Some MPOs are more involved in land-use decision-making to better link development practices and transportation services. Some are focused on system preservation, roadway expansion, or facilitating active modes of travel; smaller MPOs may be working hard to produce the basic long-range plans as well as guiding work programs, board meetings, and improvement programs that are stipulated by federal law.
MPOs and their member governments have endured, and even thrived, under substantive changes: performance-based planning, management systems, environmental justice, air quality conformity, trends toward more workers per household, trends toward preferences for automobile travel, and trends away from automobile travel to walking and biking. Priorities have shifted as well—from urban living to suburban and back to urban again; from shopping in malls to shopping online; from working in factories to offices or at home, a more common practice during the global pandemic starting in 2020.

The New Challenges Are Different
With this degree of change and the durability of MPOs through it, the temptation is to gloss over the current challenges as simply the next wave in a recurring cycle of changes. However, several concurrent forces are posing unique challenges to MPOs now, in addition to some concerns that have not gone away. During this study, the United States experienced levels of political dissatisfaction and polarization that potentially influenced some of the engagement results. The Black Lives Matter movement is the latest attempt to raise awareness of persistent disparities in personal resources and opportunities for millions of Americans, some of which the TRB has publicly acknowledged are influenced by transportation-related decisions. Then, in early 2020 after this study had commenced, news came that hundreds of people had become sick in a province of China and that the virus, COVID-19, had the potential to spread rapidly to other places and people. of persistent disparities in personal resources and opportunities for millions of Americans, some of which the TRB has publicly acknowledged are influenced by transportation-related decisions. Then, in early 2020 after this study had commenced, news came that hundreds of people had become sick in a province of China and that the virus, COVID-19, had the potential to spread rapidly to other places and people.

A Study of Adaptation Had to Adapt
The outcomes and products of this study were substantially shaped by the COVID-19 coronavirus; its attendant impacts shifted the research team away from more traditional case studies to conducting Regional Roundtables and Information Forums (webinars open to the public) to discuss important topics and assess the state of coordination with MPOs and their partners, respectively. The view at the time, while uncertain, created the sense of opportunity to understand at a firsthand level how MPOs were adapting in real time to these substantial challenges. An example of this is the large survey conducted in early- and mid-2020 for this project (see Appendix E). About half of the 129 respondents gave their replies before the pandemic lockdowns occurred, and about half responded during the full lockdown. The responses showed some differences but also gave the study process some time to reconsider the planned Phase II work program and how it could be adjusted to this new reality. For instance, one such change was that expert panelists on eight very different, but often interconnected, topics that MPOs identified in Phase I research of the literature and early conference engagement replaced detailed case studies. The MPOs frequently discussed in literature reviews (including the one developed for this project) are often large and possess resources and specialized talents not available to the majority of their peers, so input from a range of MPOs was sought throughout the study. A database of best practices, termed “Innovation Database,” was modified to be more robust, and each of its 108 records is searchable by region and MPO size as well as keywords. Since MPOs noted that communication and coordination with partners were challenged (an ever-present concern for many MPOs), eight Regional Roundtables were prepared and conducted involving people from a dozen states and nearly 20 MPOs with the intention of understanding how collaboration works and the best practices for making it better. In this way, at a time of heightened separation, canceled conferences, and two-dimensional communication across digital divides, outreach was conducted that benefited the research process and outcomes. An unanticipated benefit, and one that the research team hopes becomes a more commonplace occurrence in large-scale studies like this, is that communication was actually strengthened as a result of the study. Important information was shared through Information Forums conducted during the study rather than simply absorbing the limited time and resources of MPOs and their partner agency staff through surveys and telephone interviews. Finally, 12 issues were chosen to create the framework for the Toolkit for the 21st Century, which consists of two-page guides that, like the Innovation Database, are designed to be easily accessed and provide relevant resources to MPOs of varying sizes and contexts.

Project Products

Download full report from NAS

Report Chapters

  • Frontmatter
  • Summary
  • Section 1 – Strategies for Metropolitan Planning Organization Sucess
  • Section 2 – Conduct of Research
  • Appendix A -Information Forum Summaries
  • Appendix B- Regional Roundtable Summaries
  • Appendix C – Literature Review Summaries
  • Appendix D – Conference Activities Summaries
  • Appendix E – National MPO Survey Summaries
  • Appendix F – References

MPO Innovation Database

Video Series (Vimeo)

  1. Staff Attraction and Retention
  2. Engagement in the Time of COVID-19
  3. Funding of Projects and Programs
  4. Land Use Shifts
  5. Micro-mobility
  6. Resiliency, for Real
  7. Social Equity
  8. Technology and Transportation

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