Metropolitan Transportation Planning 101

Metropolitan transportation planning is the process of examining travel and transportation issues and needs in metropolitan areas. It includes a demographic analysis of the community in question, as well as an examination of travel patterns and trends. The planning process includes an analysis of alternatives to meet projected future demands, and for providing a safe and efficient transportation system that meets mobility while not creating adverse impacts to the environment. In metropolitan areas over 50,000 population, the responsibility for transportation planning lies with designated Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO).

What is a Metropolitan Planning Organization?


A Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has authority and responsibility for transportation policy-making in metropolitan planning areas. Federal legislation passed in the early 1970s requires that any urbanized area with a population greater than 50,000 have an MPO. MPOs ensure that existing and future expenditures for transportation projects and programs are based on a continuing, cooperative and comprehensive (3-C) planning process. MPOs also cooperate with State and public transportation operators to set spending levels for Federal funds that are meant for transportation projects.

Because MPOs typically neither own nor operate the transportation systems they serve, most MPOs will not be involved in implementing the transportation project priorities they establish. Rather, MPOs serve an overall coordination and consensus-building role in planning and programming funds for projects and operations. The MPO must involve local transportation providers in the planning process by including transit agencies, State and local highway departments, airport authorities, maritime operators, rail-freight operators, Amtrak, port operators, private providers of public transportation, and others within the MPO region.

By law, an MPO is defined as a policy board comprised of local elected officials. Representatives from local governments and transportation agencies serve on MPOs and perform the six core functions that follow:

Establish a setting for effective decision-making


  • Establish and manage a fair and impartial setting for effective regional decision-making in the metropolitan area.

Identify and evaluate transportation improvement options


  • Develop transportation improvement options and use data and planning methods to evaluate whether those options support criteria and system performance targets. Planning studies and evaluations are included in the Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP).

Prepare and maintain a Metropolitan Transportation Plan


  • Develop and update an LRTP for the metropolitan area covering a planning horizon of at least 20 years. MPOs prepare LRTPs using performance measures and targets. These are the planning factors that MPOs and departments of transportation consider to guide their planning processes:
    • Support the economic vitality of the metropolitan area, especially by enabling global competitiveness, productivity, and efficiency.
    • Increase the safety of the transportation system for motorized and non-motorized users.
    • Increase the security of the transportation system for motorized and non-motorized users.
    • Increase accessibility and mobility for people and freight.
    • Protect and enhance the environment.
    • Promote energy conservation.
    • Improve quality of life for the community.
    • Promote consistency between transportation improvements and planned State and local growth and economic development patterns.
    • Enhance the integration and connectivity of the transportation system for all modes.
    • Promote efficient system management and operation.
    • Emphasize the preservation of the existing transportation system.

Develop a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP)


  • Develop a short-range, four-year program of priority transportation improvements drawn from the long-range transportation plan. The MPO creates the TIP with spending, regulating, operating, management, and financial tools. The TIP represents immediate priority actions to achieve the area's goals and associated system performance targets.

Identify performance measure targets and monitor whether implemented projects are achieving targets


  • MPOs coordinate with State and public transportation operators to establish performance targets that address performance measures, as set forth in Federal law, related to surface transportation and public transportation. MPOs prepare plans that include performance targets addressing performance measures and standards. When updating the plan, MPOs also prepare a System Performance Report that tracks progress in meeting performance targets. In addition to Federally required performance measures, MPOs may identify additional, locally significant performance indicators that support decision-making.

Involve the public


  • Involve the general public and other affected constituencies related to the essential decision-making elements listed above.
In accordance with Federal requirements, MPOs must cooperate with the State and providers of public transportation to create metropolitan transportation plans. The MPO approves the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP), while the governor and the MPO approve the TIP.

The metropolitan transportation planning process must engage the public and stakeholders on an ongoing basis in all facets of planning, to spur dialogue on critical issues facing regions and provide opportunities for the public to contribute ideas. This is especially important in the early and middle stages of the process, when the plan and the TIP are developed. Special attention should be paid to groups that are underrepresented in the transportation planning decision making process or have been under-served in terms of the expenditure of transportation dollars.

Source: The Transportation Planning Process Briefing Book