Embracing the Uncertain: Using Scenario Planning to Harness New Mobility

Scenario planning is gaining popularity as transportation and community planners search for ways to tackle the uncertainties of connected and automated vehicles.

New mobility—the combination of shared, automated, connected and electric transportation technologies and services—is both fascinating and challenging for those whose job is to plan and manage our communities for the public good.

Increasingly, the frequent announcements of new technologies and devices are translating to real world changes in our communities in the form of automated vehicles, scooters, on-demand delivery vehicles, connected devices and more. The questions that follow can seem unanswerable:

  • What, if anything, should we do to adjust agency programs and policies?
  • How can we future-proof our systems and investments?
  • What should we invest in—or stop investing in?
  • And how urgent is it?
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Embracing Uncertainty

Traditionally, we answer questions about the future with forecasts of population growth and travel demand – tools that work reasonably well when what we know about the future is relatively reliable. But what about when there is high uncertainty about the future? Or when past data and trends are no longer reliable predictors?

Enter scenario planning, an approach that embraces the uncertainties of dynamic, changing environments like new mobility. Often seen as just a technical tool for specialty planners, scenario planning is enjoying greater popularity as transportation and community planners search for ways to tackle the uncertainties of connected and automated vehicles and other new mobility components.

Scenario Planning 101

Many resources are available for learning about and conducting scenario planning, from the Federal Highway Administration to the American Planning Association and many others, including WSP. Although there are multiple ways to do scenario planning, the following guidelines from our experience can be useful in applying this tool to new mobility.

Start Simple
Scenario planning sounds complicated and technical – and it can be. But it can also be fairly simple. At a minimum, the purpose is to get people together for an out-of-the-box conversation. With a scenario-based approach, even a single session with a flip chart and a facilitator can open a good discussion about different futures.

Anticipate, Don’t Predict
For the public sector, a contingency-based approach to scenario planning for new mobility is likely the most appropriate. This means developing multiple plausible futures and testing a range of potential actions or decisions against them. This is in contrast to end-state scenario planning, which works well when we can control or strongly influence future outcomes. With new mobility evolving largely outside the sphere of infrastructure owners and operators, public agency staff don’t have control over what the technology companies are doing and need to focus instead on managing impacts and harnessing benefits. A contingency-based approach allows an agency to identify the best actions or investments – those most likely to be relevant and useful, regardless of how and when the technology emerges.

Envision What’s Possible
In identifying potential future scenarios, focus on those that are possible and likely, regardless of whether they are viewed as desirable. Scenarios can include a range of assumptions regarding technology, demographics, funding, public-private cooperation, driver behavior, and more.

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Focus on a Few
Too many scenarios will complicate your process and take more resources. It will also tax your participants. Three to four scenarios is a good number. While you might have pressing reasons to do more, ask yourself whether each one will really deliver significant new information.

Differentiate
For the purpose of generating useful discussion, scenarios should be significantly different from each other. Scenarios that are too similar will be harder for stakeholders to understand and, more importantly, discussion will generate feedback that isn’t well differentiated.

Model Later
While we might use a spreadsheet to model scenarios of future traffic growth, typically the wide range of uncertainties and potential responses with new mobility are too many to fit well in a black box. Instead, starting qualitatively reduces the risk of oversimplification and allows for a more accurate representation of future uncertainty. That said, quantitative analysis and forecasting may be an appropriate next step following initial scenario planning.

Identify Common Responses
Given that development and presentation of scenarios is only the first step in scenario planning, an important next step is developing potential responses to the issues identified in the scenarios. Responses can range from gathering more information to developing policies to making new investments. The most powerful and resilient actions will be those that apply to the most scenarios. This can be the ultimate value of scenario planning: identifying those actions that are responsive to as many futures as possible.

Understand Your Audience
Because qualitative scenario planning is an interactive exercise, it’s important to build in an understanding of how real people might react and respond.

  • Using personal stories – such as describing an individual’s unmet transportation needs and how new mobility could address them – helps people see outside their own experience.
  • For participants, engaging in a future scenario requires letting go – putting aside opinions and assumptions and reacting to the scenario as stated.
  • While animations or other visualizations aren’t required, they can help people more easily envision scenarios that are unfamiliar.

Scenario planning assumes multiple possible futures. Illustration developed by WSP for connected and automated vehicle scenario planning process conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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Exploring System Dynamics

On Oct. 21, right before the opening of the ITS World Congress in Singapore, WSP will host “Exploring System Dynamics to Guide New Mobility Decisions Today,” a lunch program about system dynamics and how the platform can guide new mobility decisions today. Click here if you’re interested in attending.

ABOUT WSP
WSP is at the forefront of the development and testing of transportation infrastructure for connected and automated vehicles and is currently advising transportation agencies across the U.S. on the development and implementation of infrastructure and policies to proactively plan for these vehicles of the future. The firm’s comprehensive capabilities with respect to connected and automated vehicles are presented at www.advancingtransport.com. To find out what we can do for you, contact us at advancingtransport@wsp.com.


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