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January 13, 2020 10:00 AM, EST

Metropolitan Planners Encouraged to ‘Go Out in the Field’

Becky BradleyBecky Bradley by Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics

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WASHINGTON — Planning organizations can better grasp transportation needs by hearing from a wide array of industry representatives and visiting communities that are affected by freight movement, according to planning experts.

Daniel Studdard, principal planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission, emphasized the importance of going out in the field to witness traffic issues firsthand. Studdard, who spoke at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting Jan. 12, developed the commission’s program of Freight Cluster Plans, which assess the needs of communities that experience heavy freight activity. The plans weigh local issues pertaining to roads, railroads, signage and truck parking.

While on a field trip to get photos for a presentation he was working on, Studdard ran into a situation where two trucks were in a standoff at an intermodal facility. One truck was trying to enter; the other one was trying to exit. There was no room to back up because passenger vehicles had queued up on the road leading to the facility. After the two trucks finally negotiated around each other, two other trucks immediately ran into the same problem. The passenger vehicle drivers, meanwhile, got frustrated and started driving on the side of the road.

Daniel Studdard

Daniel Studdard by Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics

“This is something I really dwelled on as we started these plans. Go out and see what is really happening,” Studdard said. “Data’s not going to tell you the whole story. You really have to go out in the field.”

Studdard said the Atlanta Regional Commission conducts plenty of outreach efforts, talking with Georgia Department of Transportation representatives, truck drivers and warehouse workers to gain perspective.

Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, said she adopts a “build a bigger table” approach when meeting with people as the group plans for freight and infrastructure needs. The commission has developed CEO partnerships, makes radio appearances and joined the Metropolitan Area Planning Forum, which is made up of counterparts in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, located 65 miles north of Philadelphia and 89 miles west of New York, is an important area for warehousing space and freight movement. The area houses operations centers for numerous companies, including Mack Trucks, Sam Adams, Ocean Spray, Entenmann’s and FedEx Ground. Bradley, who described the area as the “Northeast’s inland empire,” said the region has had a steady population growth for the past 70 years.

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission crafted FutureLV, a regional transportation plan that provides guidelines through 2045. The commission and its partners organized the long-range transportation portion of FutureLV around a concept of centers and corridors. Bradley explained the plan was designed to be easily understandable for everyone, noting that it contains no acronyms.

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“It is one of the inherent flaws of transportation planning and transportation as an industry overall that if we can’t communicate with the people that we need to serve, they’re never going to buy in to what we need them to do,” Bradley said.

One idea presented in FutureLV is redeveloping shopping malls to be used as industrial housing and office space. Another concept outlined in the plan is a commuter trail system, which Bradley views as a freight strategy.

“If we can get people out of their cars, then that allows for more of the commercial traffic to utilize our road system,” Bradley said. “We need to find ways to get people out of their cars.”

Both the Lehigh Valley and Atlanta are expected to see growth in the coming years. By 2040, the flow of freight in the Lehigh Valley is projected to increase by 96%, to more than 80 million tons a year. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects that the metro region will add more than 2.5 million people and 1 million jobs by 2040.

“There’s a lot of transportation needs and a lot of freight-specific transportation needs in metro Atlanta,” Studdard said.

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