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The times are changing, we need to plan

Transportation planning in Washington County is shaping up to be a significant policy issue in 2014. Beginning in January, Washington County plans to roll out the first draft of its 2035 Transportation System Plan, which will be available for public review at a series of open house workshops over the next few weeks.

The TSP, as it is better known, is a planning document with a 20-year horizon that maps out in detail the county’s transportation priorities.

But following quick on the heels of the TSP process, the county will soon begin work on a far broader effort, known as the Washington County Transportation Study whose aim is to look beyond the 20-year horizon of the TSP and evaluate transportation strategies and investments over the next 20 to 50 years. This big-picture study is being financed with a grant of $1.5 million from the state of Oregon and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2015.

Whether we are planning for 20 years or 50 years, designing transportation systems for the future is no easy task. Thousands of traffic projections must be calculated and numerous — sometimes conflicting — assumptions must be made in terms of population, jobs, housing, etc.

And, when you consider the several billion dollars that Washington County will be spending on transportation in the next two decades, it is critical that the planning assumptions behind these transportation studies are well understood by both the public and its policy makers.

The challenge we face, however, is that most of today’s transportation planning relies on a rather linear world view — one in which the future is typically conceived as simply a larger, more congested version of the present. This approach works well over the short term, but when the scope of planning involves plotting out transportation scenarios that are 30 or even 50 years in the future, traditional planning can fall short.

Ultra long-term planning, such as that envisioned in the Washington County Transportation Study, demands a more dynamic and non-linear approach — one that emphasizes the importance of human agency, creativity and evolution.

What does this mean from a planning perspective? It means that our planning efforts need to acknowledge that the transportation systems of 2045, 2055 and 2065 will be unlike our past or present, and the advent of technologies (such as driverless cars) will make many of our current planning assumptions obsolete.

However, looking beyond technology, it is also imperative that the design of our future transportation systems reflect the lifestyle values of the people who will ultimately be heirs of that future, i.e., the Millennial Generation (people born after 1980).

Again, what does this mean for transportation planning? It means that our future systems need to be planned in a fashion that reflects Millennials’ preferences for such things as livability and transit-oriented communities and recognizes that this emerging generation is focused much less on driving than their parents.

In fact, a new report out of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute concluded that compared to just five years ago, “We drive fewer light-duty vehicles, we drive each of them less, and we consume less fuel.” This finding is significant because if vehicle use — on a household and per capita basis — is, in fact, decreasing, then this shift needs to be reflected in both the assumptions underlying our planning as well as the designs of future transportation systems.

Typically, when we hire someone to work on our home, we don’t simply leave it up to the contractor to determine what the result should be. Rather, we provide them input and feedback regarding our expectations and preferences.

The same applies to planning our transportation future. Currently, there are more than $3.3 billion of transportation projects on the drawing board in Washington County. This is a significant amount of money and is equivalent to nearly $15,000 per household in Washington County.

Therefore, as the county ramps up its public review process for these big-picture plans, it is important that the citizens of Washington County (including the Millennials) take time to consider the various transportation futures being presented and provide policy makers with their input about what they think that future should look like. These policy decisions are simply too important to leave to others.

Jeff Petrillo of Bethany represents District 2 on the Washington County Planning Commission.




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