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What is transportation planning?

A Guide to Transportation Planning

Well-connected transportation and optimized mobility are crucial for social and economic prosperity. Since society relies on a sound transportation system to access jobs, health care, education, and social connections, planning needs to take a strategic approach. 

Take the US as an example: The benefits of efficient transportation are why the U.S. continues to expand its roads. They have added 300,000 miles of new highways in the last 30 years. In fact, in 2019, the U.S. had a highway network with a total length of 4.17 million statute miles.

As transportation needs continue to develop, it’s essential to be meticulous in both the initial and continuous stages of design - no matter your location around the globe.

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What is transportation planning?

Transportation planning marks the initial stage of development for an area’s mobility. It merges disciplines to determine how to design the most functional transportation network based on current and anticipated transit patterns.

Transportation planning provides integrated solutions by balancing policy, investments, technology, and land use. These aim to support long-term growth and strategic accessibility.

Successful transport planning analyzes community needs, travel patterns, and demographics before developing plans. This involves examining the current infrastructure, anticipating transport needs, and providing recommendations for improvements. The planning process should also include any budgetary constraints.

Through the analysis of travel patterns and demographics, transportation planning enables policymakers to define their goals for a region. They’re able to anticipate how characteristics will change to define future policies. Spatial planning designs and investments can then be tailored to prepare for future needs and urban mobility requirements.

What does transport planning involve?

Transportation planning involves all the relevant aspects needed to increase the usability of transport systems. It begins with analyzing and assessing the current state of urban transportation and traffic patterns. Then, by using this data, proposals for plans and policies are drafted. These aim to provide integrated solutions that incorporate sustainability, safety, accessibility, and longevity.

Transport planning is carried out on multiple levels for the target geographic location. First and foremost, it needs to be addressed locally. However, some regions may also need to implement international policies to achieve substantial effects that catalyze improvements. For the most effective system approach in transportation planning, policymakers and engineers should examine local communities first, then expand to national site design before determining how to connect international regions.

Strategic transportation planning also needs to include safety and decarbonizing transport options to facilitate end-to-end services while working towards a net carbon zero. This is critical to the economic future and the state of the world’s environment. Sustainable regional transport planning can reduce carbon emissions and diminish the effects of climate change.

What are the four steps of transportation planning?


Step 1: Trip generation

Trip generation analyzes the general infrastructure of current transit in a defined region. It categorizes the frequency of travel in each zone based on origin, destination, and purpose. Individual segments can be further analyzed based on land use, demographics of inhabitants, socioeconomic factors, and other key characteristics.

Step 2: Trip distribution

Trip distribution aims to understand how many trips occur between an origin zone and a destination zone. This can be used to further understand mobility across a region to optimize traffic planning. Calculating trip distribution includes examining macroscopic relationships between locations. Analysis includes relative activity levels at both the origin and destination, travel costs associated with transit, congestion, and improvements to sustainability measures.

Step 3: Mode choice

Mode choice takes into account both trip generation and distribution when assessing mobility. It determines the most popular transportation mode for each transitory route based on region. This is done by computing the proportion of trips taken by each mode of transport within each zone. Mode choice often depends on availability, cost, and social preferences for transit.

Step 4: Route choice

Route choice involves analyzing the preferred travel pathways between origins and destinations within a given area. It assigns travelers to roads towards their destinations. The totality of estimated trips based on origin, destination, and mode are then loaded into the transportation network to understand the impact of route choice on congestion relative to the time of day. This allows planning to include transportation improvements based on existing transit networks. The goal is to minimize travel time and create more accessibility.

What does a transportation planner do?

Transportation planners are responsible for analyzing current patterns and developing a systematic approach to the future of sustainable transport.

They aim to address the demands and shortcomings of current infrastructures. This includes improving infrastructure for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists, while also considering the expected and unexpected environmental and safety issues. A transportation planner's primary responsibility is to increase the overall efficiency of any given area through comprehensive regional transport planning.

This integral perspective requires an understanding of current infrastructures, as well as the projected growth and evolution of a city, town, or region. Some of the primary responsibilities include:

  • Recommending transportation improvements and solutions to ongoing problems, such as congestion, vehicle emissions, inaccessibility of public transport, etc.
  • Working to decarbonize transport networks for future sustainability.
  • Enhancing user safety within the transportation system.
  • Assessing the impact of recent or anticipated building developments. This includes transport systems, housing, or corporate structures.
  • Designing efficient research methods and survey techniques.
  • Modeling traffic flows using mathematical techniques.
  • Running simulated computer applications to determine the impact of recommended transportation improvements.
  • Analyzing and interpreting data.
  • Preparing reports and publications to share data with policymakers and city officials.
  • Giving presentations about proposed transportation improvements and regional plans.
  • Acting as the subject matter expert during public inquiries.
  • Staying up to date and knowledgeable about ongoing government transport and planning policies.

Depending on the regional requirements, transportation planners can be employed at either a public or private level. At either level, their roles remain vast and varied.

What tools do transportation planners use?

Transportation planners spatially analyze various regions to understand current challenges. They’re then tasked with creating action plans that improve travel information, accessibility, public transport, and the overall design of infrastructure. Plans need to be tested to avoid wasting time and money on inefficient construction. 

For ongoing analysis and testing purposes, transportation planners have a variety of tools available, including:

Traffic simulators

Traffic simulators mimic complex vehicle interactions on a microscopic level. It can vary the model demand, supply, and behavior in detail so transportation planners can determine the most effective long-term strategies for change. Using PTV Vissim, the world’s most advanced and flexible traffic simulation software, planners can benefit from detailed, realistic simulations with seamless integration and flexibility. It provides a detailed view of the traffic flow and its impacts.

Traffic planners

Alongside the traffic simulator, planners need a tool that provides all of the traffic information of a region in one, easy-to-use software. PTV Visum enables a holistic overview of the traffic situation to help forecast and measure the effects of development and traffic planning. This software integrates the four-step travel demand model into a stable test environment. Traffic planners allow for testing multiple what-if scenarios for different modes of transport such as private, public, shared, and autonomous vehicles.

Transportation Demand Management Evaluation Tool

This data collection tool is used to capture the real-time effectiveness of a region’s transportation behavior, demands, and shortcomings. Useful information can be gleaned by capturing the relevant data, which is fundamental to improving infrastructures going forward.


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Examples of transportation planning

Abu Dhabi uses PTV Visum to create a sustainable bus planning model.

DoT of Abu Dhabi

PTV Visum helps Swiss Federal Railways transport millions of goods and consumers.

Swiss Federal Railways

Transportation planners in Copenhagen apply PTV Vissim to realistically simulate current and future motor traffic to support their bicycle-friendly city.

City of Copenhagen

FAQs about transportation planning

What is strategic transportation planning?

Strategic transportation planning is a method of examining ways to cater to mobility needs within a region. This includes all mobility demands, from pedestrian traffic to motorized traffic. It also incorporates the movement of goods and services required for a thriving economy.

What is urban transportation planning?

Urban transportation planning analyzes current infrastructures within metropolitan areas and suggests ways to make improvements. This includes curating an efficient, balanced transportation system for optimal urban mobility within a city.

What is transport policy?

Transport policy refers to how government officials review and amend changes for particular transit issues. The level of government that takes this responsibility depends on the region, the challenges, and the scope of proposed improvements. This can be either private or public policy aimed at curtailing adverse effects on inhabitants’ health and overall well-being.

What are the objectives of the transportation planning process?

The specific objectives of the transportation planning process depend on the challenges a region faces. Most commonly, these include:

  • Improving the efficiency of transportation for businesses and transport providers.
  • Improving economic efficiency of transport for consumers.
  • Creating a more reliable transportation system.
  • Providing positive long-term, sustainable economic impacts on the region.

What is a transportation planning engineer?

A transportation planning engineer is tasked with simulating transport problems based on the current infrastructure of a region. This is done through computer models, software, and simulations of proposed solutions. Transportation planning engineers must begin with analyzing and interpreting data gathered to examine various schemes to manage traffic and propose improvements. They’re also responsible for forecasting the impact of future developments on transportation.

What is a transportation analysis?

A transportation analysis is an overarching way of evaluating and analyzing issues related to the infrastructure of transport. This includes everything from travel habits, transit preferences, modes of transportation, and their impact on the region. It’s a comprehensive overview of how transit affects a defined area.

Try your first steps in transportation planning.

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