Metropolitan Planning in an Age of Uncertainty: Recap of AMPO 2020

Metropolitan Planning in an Age of Uncertainty: Recap of AMPO 2020

Earlier this month I attended the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO) annual conference, which took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. AMPO is a nonprofit organization that represents many of the nation’s 402 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and other regional planning agencies.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, social unrest, and the presidential election, the conference highlighted the critical importance of planning for uncertainty. MPOs are embracing this challenge in at least two ways. First, they are increasingly engaging in scenario planning and risk analysis. Second, they are broadening the scope of their work to address issues that extend beyond transportation.

Scenarios and Risk

At MetroPlan Orlando, a three-county MPO in Florida, planners are pushing forward with a scenario planning process that began before the pandemic but has shifted to incorporate uncertainties within the next several years. One major reason for this is Orlando’s dependence on tourism, an industry hit particularly hard by the pandemic. MetroPlan created a low growth, “disruption dilemmas” scenario in direct response to the pandemic. In it, planners imagine a future where tourism-related highway travel increases but congestion decreases as most Central Floridians telework at least once a week. Office vacancies also remain elevated under this scenario, making the region more polycentric than it is today.

At the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), Boston’s regional planning agency, planners are assessing risks associated with three “known unknowns”: regional demographics and the economy, federal policy, and the future of travel. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has impacted all three, causing the agency to reconsider how they will prepare for the next several years in MetroCommon 2050, the region’s long-rang plan. At the other extreme, the Broward County MPO in Florida is imagining 2100 and the widespread adoption of things like vehicle electrification, “limitless” fusion power, automation, high-capacity energy storage, artificial intelligence, smart streets, and dynamic road pricing. EBP is also exploring several of these through our work on community energy and mobility innovation.

Looking Beyond Transportation

Although the core functions of MPOs are long-range transportation planning and programming, many are expanding the scope of their work in the face of climate change. This is especially true in coastal regions, where the impacts of rising sea levels will extend far beyond the transportation system to affect housing, land use, and demographic trends. I was particularly intrigued by how MPOs are planning for so-called “climate refugees,” or those who migrate from coastal areas to other states or regions. The magnitude of these population shifts is currently difficult to predict, but planners are exploring ways of incorporating such assumptions into their regional forecasting processes. At a more local level, EBP is currently working with Nantucket, Massachusetts, to better understand residents’ perceptions of climate change and the ways sea level rise could impact their lives.

AMPO 2020 offered further proof that metropolitan and regional planning are essential for guiding us through these uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need for new approaches to long-range planning that were already apparent due to climate change. As we move into 2021, EBP will continue to support innovation in scenario planning, risk analysis, and forecasting while sharing success stories from our MPO clients and other regional planning partners.

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