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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Melding Multimodal Planning and Urban Economic Development

Thursday, February 26, 2015

There were 30,000 or so people living in Albuquerque when a paved highway called Route 66 was completed in 1937. Route 66 ran through the center of that town. And Albuquerque, now at the center of a metropolitan area with a population over 880,000, grew into a city around that historic highway.

The story of town meets highway has been told countless times across America’s flatlands and rolling hills, within its ocean bays and river deltas. Those towns flourished as new roads became major regional drivers of economic success.

Today, most metropolitan areas have realized the economic benefits of highway construction. Hospitals, schools, restaurants, and homes already surround our boulevards and throughways. Good planning can ensure that transportation investments continue to support urban prosperity. As urban areas seek investment opportunities across all modes, prioritizing which transportation projects are selected can come down to a project’s economic impact.

Why Transportation Matters for Economic Success

A report from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), written by Volpe and published last summer, highlights several metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs)—in the Albuquerque, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Sacramento metropolitan areas—that successfully consider economic development and multimodal transportation planning in tandem.

A cityscape behind highways with traffic.“Economic development is often something that is not the direct responsibility of transportation planning agencies,” said Bill Lyons, a principal technical advisor for planning at Volpe and one of the report’s co-authors. “Yet, it’s understood that transportation investments play a big role in economic development. We looked at best practices at MPOs that are working with their economic partners in innovative ways.”

The stakes of linking economic development with transportation planning are high: they are no less than the very livelihood of a city’s people. In a large, congested city such as Los Angeles, a 10 percent increase in congestion would reduce long-run employment growth by 4 percent, according to research cited in the FHWA report.

Paradigms of Blended Economic Development and Transportation Planning

The four MPOs in the FHWA report each have a unique take on coalescing economic and transportation planning. In the Albuquerque region, the MPO is responsible for economic development and transportation planning. The umbrella approach facilitates collaboration between experts and leaders toward transportation infrastructure improvements that support economic goals.

Through transportation investments, the MPO that plans for the Chicago area nurtures industry clusters, including biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and freight and logistics, and promotes increased commercialization of research that can be used for the public good. Efficient freight movement is a key goal in Chicago, one of America’s historic railroad centers. 

The MPO for the Pittsburgh region engaged the public at a town meeting, with participants at its headquarters and at 10 satellite locations, to identify economic and transportation priorities. Based on that meeting a decade ago, as well as ongoing, close coordination between planning offices, the MPO now emphasizes transportation investments for situations where a lack of mobility or access constrains economic growth.

Finally, the MPO that plans for the Sacramento region covers an area where the population is projected to grow by more than one-third by 2035, and that has a mature highway system. This MPO relies on high-quality data and rigorous analysis of the regional economy. Planners in the Sacramento region focus on land-use solutions that reduce travel distances for people and freight, expand opportunities for travelers to use alternative modes, and preserve land for infrastructure critical to business and industry.

“This report is a great resource to help MPOs and their partners pursue transportation planning that supports economic development,” Lyons said. “Multimodal transportation investments can help reduce road congestion and ensure that urban areas continue to create jobs and bring money into regional economies.”

Planners stand over a small-scale model of a city.