How to add strategy to TAM's Strategic Vision Plan

Friday is the last day to comment on the Transportation Authority of Marin’s (TAM’s) draft Strategic Vision Plan [1]. Billed as the planning framework of the agency, the document falls far short of its aims, serving more as an extended mission statement than a reliable strategy or roadmap.

Long-time readers will know that I love quantifiable, measurable data. Though I appreciate the nice words of walkable, sustainable, livable cities or transportation or whatever, I interpret these as terms describing a quality of a place achieves certain quantifiable aims. The vision plan is long on these terms but does very little to describe how to get to them, or even how we’ll know when we have achieved them.

The simplest place to focus on this problem is the three-part Goals section on page 14:

 Image from the TAM plan

Image from the TAM plan

Anyone who has been in contact with a management seminar has come away with the idea of the SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Action Oriented, Realistic, Time-Defined. These goals, in contrast, are vague, immeasurable, often unachievable (“support a growing and sustainable economy”?), and open-ended. The objectives are merely statements about why a given goal is a good idea.

Out of these goals come the rest of the plan, which is similarly vague. There is no condition for victory, or a target to strategize towards, only a direction. It’s like shouting “Drive!” to a driver and expecting them to get somewhere you want to be. They might, but they probably won’t.

So how might TAM fix its goals and make a better document? One lesson TAM might learn is Results-Based Management, a management style popular in international development [2, PDF]. Its objectives must describe an end-state and must be measurable, time-limited, and achievable. Objectives are accomplished with outputs, which are the things the agency actual does or makes. Outcomes are the results of those outputs. Those, in turn, are measured by performance indicators.

So, if an agency objective is to increase bus ridership by 20 percent in 5 years, it might have “Run More Buses” as its output, which will have the outcome of “Increased ridership,” as indicated by annual ridership.

Economy

The first principle, Economy, has a totally useless goal and almost as useless objectives. There are some key thoughts we can glean from these, however: TAM wants a sustainable economy; flexibility regarding new technology; and efficiency in its transportation system. On page 63, the plan adds that it should be easier for people to get to where they want to be.

Broadly, the outline I read on pages 64 through 65 is one where congestion is not a hindrance to travel (efficiency, ease of travel), where driving alone is less common (sustainability, easy of travel, efficiency), and where preparations are made for a driverless vehicle future (new technology) through upgraded highway connections, a widened Highway 101 at the Narrows, and better transit service.

Take all this together, and we can probably describe an Overall Objective:

“To reduce wasted hours of congestion on Marin roadways by 50 percent [or another appropriate level] per capita.”

This objective acknowledges that congestion is homeostatic, meaning that it will always remain stable as long as an economy is growing, but also leaves flexibility for others to avoid traffic through biking, walking, carpooling, or taking transit that skips the traffic.

Two outputs, outcomes, and performance measures might be:

Output: TAM will fund additional high-demand transit service to support existing and new travel patterns. Outcome: Increased per-capita transit ridership. Indicator: Annual transit ridership over population.

Output: TAM will fund additional road capacity at the Novato Narrows, Highway 37, and the 580-101 Interchange. Outcome: Decreased congestion at each of these chokepoints. Indicator: Hours of delay accumulated at these chokepoints.

There are other possible outputs as well around cycling, park-and-ride facilities, and HOV lanes. The two presented here are just a start. TAM should also indicate performance targets and return-on-investment studies to go with these outputs and report on them through the annual report.

Environment Health and Safety

Another overly vague and aspirational goal, we can deal with this similarly to how we dealt with the Economy goal: look at the key words in the presented goal, look at the strategies, and determine an appropriate objective and what TAM should do to achieve that objective.

It seems like the key words from Figure 1 are a healthy environment, healthy population, and safe travel. The Strategy on page 67 adds resiliency. Taking these, we can extrapolate that TAM wants to deal with pollution (CO2, particulates, and runoff), medical health (obesity, old-age independence, diabetes, asthma, etc.), travel safety (crashes and the resulting injuries and deaths), and sea-level rise and disaster preparedness. Each of these will require separate objectives with separate endpoints, as not all of them are interrelated and they cannot be summed up into a single metric.

Rather than take you through my thinking on all of these, let’s go through just one, travel safety, and I’ll list out the others I think would be appropriate for the other categories.

Safety is actually not mentioned much in the report with any specificity except to mention transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Though crashes involving these users tend to be higher-profile, crashes involving death and injury to people in cars are exceptionally common. Further, with SMART now operating, it is inevitable that someone, sometime, will get hit by a train.

To deal with safety in a way that encompasses all modes, we either need a single overarching metric (annual travel-related injuries per capita) or mode-specific metrics (crashes per 100,000 vehicle miles on each mode). The plan is of little help, but funding sources skew towards driving safety. Therefore, my instinct is to pursue one hybrid metric: crashes per 100,000 trips per mode. This allows TAM to keep track of each mode individually while also pursuing the single metric, car safety, that the state and federal governments use.

As for outputs, other countries operate on the assumption that all crashes are preventable with proper design. They take their time to study the site of each crash to determine what went wrong and what design fixes might prevent similar crashes in the future [3]. There are also generally unsafe situations, such as high speeds or poor asphalt maintenance, which can be mitigated by design. Given that many roads are not maintained by TAM, however, there needs to be partnership with the state and municipalities.

Put all this together and we get the following:

Objective: Reduce annual crashes per 100,000 trips on each mode by two-thirds for vehicular travel and to zero on nonvehicular travel in 25 years.

Output: TAM will fund design studies and design fixes for every crash site occurring after the finalization of this Plan. Outcome: Reduction in crashes at sites thusly redesigned. Indicator: Number of crashes as determined by police reports.

Output: TAM will identify high-risk intersections and corridors and work with partner agencies to design fixes to these locations. Outcome: Reduction in crash severity at sites thusly redesigned. Indicator: Crash severity as determined by police reports.

If we look at the other environmental issues similarly (pollution, medical health, and resiliency), we can come up with similar objectives:

Pollution Objective: Reduce travel-related runoff by 80%. Outputs would have to involve local water districts.

Pollution objective: Reduce travel-related carbon footprint by 90%. Outputs would include the promotion of electric vehicles, public transit, and nonmotorized transportation.

Pollution and medical objective: Reduce average travel-related particulate exposure by 80%. Outputs would have to involve electric vehicles, HVAC standards for buildings near Highway 101, new planting, and promotion of non-motorized transportation.

Resiliency objective: Ensure all major transportation networks are no longer at risk of 5 feet of sea-level rise. Outputs would involve engineering, reconstruction, and redesign of roads and parking lots.

Medical health objectives are difficult for TAM to influence, but reducing car-dependence for the elderly, promoting nonmotorized transportation, promoting recreational trail usage, and reducing particulate pollution in near-freeway communities would all be within TAM’s wheelhouse.

Equity

The key words related to the Equity goal are really phrases: mobility and access for all (page 14), accessible, affordable, and convenient transportation (page 63), and vulnerable populations (page 66). The plan also describes (also on page 66) some of the programs TAM expects will support these interests: new and faster transit service, new bicycle and recreational facilities, yellow school buses, Safe Routes to School, crossing guards, carpooling, and paratransit such as shuttles and demand-response service. Like elsewhere, these are all laudable programs but without objectives to unify them all they end up falling flat. It’s like cake batter before it’s mixed: a lot of flour, sugar, butter, and egg, just sitting on itself.

Equity ought not be simply creating equal access but also examining why certain populations don’t take advantage of that access. Black Marinites might not bike as much because they don’t feel safe; immigrant Marinites might not use paratransit because the drivers or dispatchers don’t speak their language; and so on.  Fares, fees, or tolls might also be too high for low-income residents. To take these all into consideration, we might create the following outline for TAM:

Objective: Reduce average transportation costs to less than 15 percent (or some other amount) of median income among very-low income residents. Outputs would involve reducing fares, improving fare transfers with surrounding transit agencies, and ensuring car-sharing and bike riding are common and accessible to low-income families.

Objective: Increase the number of jobs accessible within 45 minutes of low-income communities by 30 percent (or some other metric) by transit and by bicycle. Outputs would involve ways to increase speeds on buses, improving connections to the Canal, and trying to promote job creation near low-income communities.

Objective: Increase utilization of recreational facilities by minority populations to be proportional to their presence in the county. Outputs would involve targeted advertising, outreach, and working groups of community leaders to understand and resolve barriers.

Conclusion

Writing a blog post as I am, I can’t go into the extreme detail needed to really make this strategic vision plan shine, but I hope that the details I did leave in give readers the opportunity to see how far TAM needs to go, and to see how TAM might really start to perform.

TAM is not just the pass-through for state and federal money. It is a policy-making body, and the TAM Board should step up and make some policy. What does the county want from its transportation dollars? Whom does it want to serve? How can it positively influence pollution, public health, public safety, and the economy? Though the vision plan as written makes gestures towards these areas, it offers nothing to tell residents or leaders whether those areas have actually improved.

If you have comments of your own, TAM will be taking them at the email address marinvision@tam.ca.gov until this Friday, September 22. Feel free to also just send them a link to this, of course.

Works Cited

[1] Transportation Authority of Marin, “Getting Around Marin: Strategic Vision Plan,” Draft (San Rafael, CA: Transportation Authority of Marin, 2017).

[2] RBM/Accountability Team, “Results-Based Management Handbook,” Draft (New York, NY: United Nations, March 24, 2010).

[3] Martine Powers, “In Wake of Bike Fatalities, Government’s Response Demonstrates Support for Cyclists,” The Boston Globe, September 22, 2013.