Outcomes, Not Projects: Fixing the Planning Process

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MTI Research Associate explores avenues to improve public transit infrastructure planning to reduce costs and shorten timelines
August 29, 2023
San José, CA

Recent years have brought substantial investment in public transit infrastructure in the U.S., thanks in large part to significant federal, state, and local funds—but hiccups in the planning process often mean increased costs, long timelines, and even uncertain results. The latest perspective from Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) Research Associate Joshua Schank, Fixing Our Broken Transit Planning Process, analyzes potential improvements to the planning process through a greater focus on outcomes over projects.

Based on extensive analyses, the perspective’s author posits that:

  • The first change must come before the official planning process even starts—as funds should be raised for an outcome rather than a project. Outcomes (e.g., reduced travel times) are the ultimate goals for the public and impact on communities, not necessarily the specific project.
  • Next, agencies should separate the planning and environmental processes to free each to focus on appropriate objectives, leading to more specific outcomes with lower costs and, potentially greater public impact and approval.  Rather than conducting a mandated environmental review process in which public input is sometimes superficial, a separate planning process would free planners to incorporate public input more authentically. Planning agencies often design public outreach processes around a set of requirements. If instead they were designed around soliciting critical feedback, the entire process might feel more valuable for everyone involved.
  • Finally, agencies should integrate planning, construction, and operations costs up front. One strategy that has been effective is the use of a Project Charter wherein all parties agree before a project begins exactly what their role is in the project, and how decisions will be made. The charter can be updated throughout the process, but, at a minimum, it sets the expectation for how the project will unfold and assigns responsibilities to each department.

“There is a joke about transit agencies that goes as follows: planners plan a project that can’t be built, engineers engineer a project that can’t be operated, and operators operate a project very different from what was planned. It doesn’t have to be this way,” explain the authors.

Rather than focusing on top-down sweeping change that can take years to implement, agencies can actively reduce costs and shorten timelines by focusing on fixing overlooked inefficiencies inherent in the transportation planning process. Shifting focus from projects to outcomes benefits the agency, the infrastructure, and, ultimately, the community.



At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nations’ transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. Founded in 1991, MTI is a university transportation center funded by the US Department of Transportation, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants, including those made available by the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (SB1). MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.

Joshua Schank is an MTI Research Associate who holds a PhD in Urban Planning from Columbia University and a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a Managing Principal at InfraStrategies, and a Senior Fellow in the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Schank previously served as Chief Innovation Officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, and Transportation Policy Advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Emma Huang is a Senior Consultant with InfraStrategies LLC. Emma previously worked as a Transportation Planner in the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at LA Metro. She has a Master of Public Policy from the University of California, Los Angeles.


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