What Is Multi-Modal Planning and Why Is It Important?

by Kurt Schulte, AICP

What Is Multi-Modal Planning and Why Is It Important?

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A mobility planning viewpoint is grounded in the desire to understand a transportation problem fully before envisioning a solution. This viewpoint embraces a multi-disciplinary team of planners, engineers, and others walking through a proven planning process that identifies and considers every reasonable solution. 

Multi-modal planning practices have broadened significantly over the past few decades. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962 created the mandate for transportation planning in the United States. That act continues to shape urban development in cities throughout the United States.

The transportation system built from the 1960s through the 1980s offered access to affordable housing options and reasonable commutes that allowed people to drive from home to work with limited delays. Now, some 40 years later, commutes (time and distance) have doubled, and the aging infrastructure is severely under capacity. Major cities are doing their best to repair and expand their systems, but with the expected growth, they will quickly exceed capacity once again. It will take a multitude of mobility options to deal with these challenges. 

Mobility Planning Demands

Mobility planning has become increasingly complex since the 1960s, leaving agencies struggling to keep up with the pace of growth. Effective mobility planning explores many different transportation choices, including ones that attempt to mix housing with jobs, shopping, and entertainment. The ability to make choices is the cornerstone to living in a democracy, and as families go through lifestyle cycles—from urban living to suburban or rural neighborhoods and back to urban—we are challenged with providing safe, efficient, and affordable transportation. 

Our 21st century cities are up against growth pressures, economic disparity, safety issues, increasing congestion levels, and funding shortfalls. Owners expect their consultants to understand these challenges and how multi-modal planning can help. This article will further explore some of the complexities facing most urban areas and why multi-modal planning is critical.

Growth Pressures and Economic Disparity

Communities are always evolving. Many urban and suburban areas are growing at rapid rates, and at the same time, rural communities are losing jobs and young talent. This trend projects to continue for the foreseeable future, bringing higher levels of congestion and income disparity. Multi-modal planning practitioners must find ways to move more people within our current transportation systems. The reality of this situation is that if people choose to live far from their work, transportation professionals will continue to struggle to find acceptable ways to add capacity to the transportation network. The other trend at hand is that young people are flocking to urban areas. According to numerous surveys, millennials have little desire to live far from work, thereby resulting in more biking, walking, and transit trips. The millennial population group, now larger than “baby boomers,” will have considerable influence on future transportation trends.

Safety and Accessibility to Jobs

Accessibility to jobs and safety includes looking into access opportunities such as safe walking paths, transit coverages, bicycle facilities, and the accommodation of people with disabilities, lower-income workers, and younger people not yet able to drive. Agencies are always working to make facilities more accessible. When planning multi-modal projects, attention to the access of walking and cycling to transit stops, and of course, safe streets is a core responsibility for our profession.  

Downtowns and Urban Centers

While suburban areas are rapidly growing, many younger people and empty nesters are choosing urban settings where they can live, work, and play without the stress of long commutes. Also, younger generations are leaving their smaller towns for better employment opportunities, cultural experiences, and socialization. In large metropolitan areas, redevelopment and newer urban centers are emerging and producing urban housing. Downtowns and urban centers require a high degree of modal shift due to the density of development and the amount of automobile traffic generated. The most well-known example of population density influencing significant mode shifts would be New York City. Without walking, bike, or transit facilities, the city would not have developed in the manner we see today. The density expected in many urban cities is far too pronounced for any single transportation mode to handle on its own. It is in the interest of the economic vitality, and overall health of our cities, that our profession continues to explore multiple modes and new technologies.

Technology and Funding

Cities, counties, and states control an asset: our roads. For the most part, roads may be used at little to no cost, leading to overuse and congestion. Autonomous vehicles may pose an even bigger challenge than regular cars, but they also provide an opportunity for smarter, more dynamic road pricing based on origin, destination, number of riders, congestion, emissions, and other variables. Continued improvements in vehicle and roadway technologies need to be closely monitored and considered when developing transportation plans for 10 to 20 years from now. Transportation funding will remain critical for all modes of travel, and governing agencies need to make transportation projects—whether new, reconstruction, or maintenance—a high priority. 

Multi-modal planning allows planners, engineers, and others to make an impact on their communities by offering numerous transportation choices. Each project and study we complete that considers multi-modal planning is one step closer to a brighter future.