Interview with Deena Platman

Deena Platman, Principal Transportation Planner at Metro in Portland, Oregon is implementing cutting edge solutions to a problem that is exceptionally common to large Indian cities today – inefficient traffic management. A transportation planner with over 15 years of experience, she currently leads a revolutionary programme called the Regional Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO), aimed at optimising the existing transportation system in the region.

The programme is of interest to the Indian context because it involves the use of suitable technologies to target congestion triggers like signal timing, mismanaged intersections, delayed incident management, and modal conflicts. In addition, it is also useful to understand the importance of regional cooperation to optimize traffic circulation and systems management, a crucial element missing from the Indian context.

Deena Platman plays a key role in facilitating and ensuring such cooperation within the region for implementing innovative TSMO solutions. She also brings with her a variety of experience in commonly ignored areas such as provision of high-capacity transit services, and freight management in the urban context.

In this interview with The Urban Vision, Deena Platman shares her insights about difficult areas of transportation systems management that impact all cities with growing transportation demand and traffic. She also shares her experiences of being a woman transportation planner, highlighting a massive increase in acceptance for women in the field.

Read on to understand an ideology and planning process that Indian cities could benefit from while planning for an ever-increasing dependence on road traffic.

The Beginnings

I was really interested in why you chose transportation planning as a career option, especially since it was not a conventional choice for women when you were deciding your career.

When I went to planning school, I had originally thought I was going to enter environmental planning. However, as I started progressing through the coursework at Portland State University (PSU), I realised  that I was really enjoying my transportation classes. Later, I did an internship in the transportation planning section at the City of Portland, and it resonated with me. Transportation is tangible to most people; they really understand it at a basic level and everybody needs it. So I felt transportation planning would make quite an impact and I loved the connection it had with everything else. Moreover, I got to be an environmental planner as well, worrying about environmental issues in a transportation context.

I started planning school in 1993, by which time one light-rail line had already opened and a second one was under construction. My first position involved planning the Interstate light-rail, which is operational today. So in the span of my career, I have actually been able to see transit projects built and used. It was pretty exciting to start my career with things that would have a long-run impact!

When I had started working, a new study called LUTREC had been released. It was a major study in land-use and transportation that pointed out that we could achieve our desired goals of compact, walkable and livable communities if we deviate from the conventional roadways model by trying to link transportation to land use. In essence, the study supported our concept of compact urban growth through the urban growth boundary (implemented as early as the 1970s when there was a pretty dramatic change in land-use planning in the region).

The other interesting thing that I entered into at the beginning of my career was the Region 2040 Vision, which has defined our regional planning efforts and which Metro at the time was finalising. As I transitioned from an intern into a professional planner at the City of Portland I was part of the effort to integrate that regional vision into our own policy framework, our comprehensive city plan, and our transportation plan.

Freight planning

You worked on freight planning while at City of Portland. Usually, freight is not a priority while planning for urban transportation. Is it different for Portland?

Looking at my career, the neat thing has been that I always pick the path less travelled because I think it is most interesting. While there were a lot of planners involved in light-rail and bicycle planning in Portland, there were not a lot of people in freight planning. It was kind of a challenge and I liked that.

I stepped into the role of freight planning at City of Portland at a time when we were having issues. The business community was unhappy with the way the City was ignoring freight issues. So I started working on this issue along with another planner who preceded me. Together, I think we were able to raise the bar and establish a dialogue to make people understand. Now, City of Portland not only has a freight master plan but is actually putting projects forward. They have a thriving advisory committee comprising 40-50 business people. The committee meets for two hours every month, and are serious about talking about freight and providing advice.

About five-and-a-half years ago I was asked to move to Metro to work on freight planning since the Federal Highway Administration had freight under its purview and was pushing Metro to do more. We rose to the challenge and I spent my first two years at Metro working specifically on freight. It was a really interesting opportunity. I led the development of the region’s first freight master plan and its integration into our long-range planning. I also launched an advisory committee that was active in allocating funds for freight planning.

When we developed the freight master plan, it involved trying to bring the ideas of land-use focus into freight planning by attempting to understand what was happening in industrial areas and what the needs were. The big issue was looking at the last mile; the access from major facilities.

Interestingly, the Portland region is a major export port in the US for grains and resource material. We provide the port out from our Columbia basin where a lot of agricultural products and food supply originates. We are also at the confluence of two rivers so that we have a deep water marine port for international trade. We also have a major airport, as well as the confluence of two interstate freeway systems that connect us out to the east as well as the west coast. We have two Class I railroads and we are the favoured route for moving goods east from the west coast, typically northwest because of our route through the Columbia gorge. So we are really heavily connected to freight and to the movement of goods.

Earlier, I don’t think our elected officials really understood this, since our industrial areas are a little bit hidden. Our primary port facilities are actually on the edges of the community along the river and were not integrated. Subsequently, we really had to think about freight planning.

Today, we have really strong relationships with the Port of Portland as well as the Port of Vancouver, because we are a bi-state and have interconnected freight activities on both sides of the river. We work very closely with our partners across the river northwest to make sure that we are looking at the same things.

What is the biggest challenge in this region for freight management in the urban context?

Freeway issues are huge and we have a lot of issues with trucks. Trucking is still king, whether for moving goods from the port, or just simply getting deliveries back and forth. So we focused a lot on the design of our roadways to integrate trucks in a way that is supportive of the other livability issues that we want resolved.

A lot of concerns were raised early on about bike-truck conflicts. We were able to bridge some of that animosity by coming up with good designs and actually keeping people talking to each other. So there is a lot of interesting stuff that we are doing, and a lot more that we need to be doing.

Systems management

What is the programme that you are currently working on?

About five years ago, the agency embarked on planning for Regional System Management Operations. About three-and-a-half years ago we decided to house the programme here at Metro and create an actual position for managing it.

I was very interested in moving into technology and personally thought that this was perhaps the best solution to address some of the concerns that the freight community had. After all, significant additional capacity is not going to be gained by building more roadways – there are not enough resources or interest, and such investments have other adverse impacts. So managing what we have more efficiently is clearly the solution. This is the logic that we have really adopted as policy in this region.

I basically started the Transit System Management Operations (TSMO) programme at Metro. We have a federal fund allocation for system management operations, and I oversee the allocation of those funds to projects across the region. In addition, we are also leveraging different funds that we had applied to and have received grants from. So after years of toiling quietly, all of a sudden it is raining cash for systems management. It is really interesting and we are seeing a lot of new projects happening right now.

How do you allocate the funds across the region to ensure optimal spending?

The allocations are made through the regional committee TransPort, which has representation from all regional and local jurisdictions. The committee has representation from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), our counties, and city jurisdictions responsible for managing transportation. In addition we have representation from PSU, Metro, Port of Portland, and consultants from the private sector. They have actually been meeting since 1993 but it was very ad-hoc. We stepped in, formalised the committee as part of our advisory committee structure here at Metro, and got that focused.

But it is not so much about spreading the money evenly. It is more about funding projects that make the most sense at the time. The great thing about this committee and the fact that they have worked together for so long is that the priority of each jurisdiction is not “I have to get my share”. Determining where the money is invested is more about “this is where I think the demonstration project would have the greatest impact or is needed the most”. We link the investment decision to existing land-use patterns accounting for industrial areas and high traffic flows. It is understood that different parts of the community have different needs.

The committee really does have a regional outlook and members always consider how any investment in their jurisdiction supports the movement of everybody else. They are probably the most thoughtful about seamless transportation, recognising that the average road users do not realise that they have moved into a new jurisdiction and somebody else might own the traffic signal.

The committee has been conscious of this from the start. The whole purpose of forming the committee was basically developing an ITS plan for the region. As they worked on the plan, they realised that such a committee is really valuable. Much before Metro got involved with the committee, it had created a joint fibre optic network to share data across the region. City of Portland bought a central signal server and is working with the jurisdictions so that everybody in the regions on that central signal system. We even coordinate the type of equipment we buy to not only make sure there is comparability but also to facilitate joint purchasing agreements. We also have a lot of inter-governmental agreements to be able to work in each others rights-of-way. So there is a lot of resource sharing and knowledge sharing. With this regional vision, the committee asked Metro to step in and provide regional support.

What projects are under implementation under TSMO?

The first project we completed was a Regional Strategic Plan for System Management, formulated in conjunction with our advisory committee for systems management. Approved in June 2010, the Regional TSMO Plan will be our guide for making investments over the next few years for the entire region. We are now in the process of spending allocated funds. I spend an awful lot of time working with partners to help get the projects off the ground.

Metro has maintained a few projects that are getting ready to kick off. We have a ‘Concept of Operation’ for gathering performance data on our arterial roadway system. Currently, we do a good job of data collection on the freeway system, but we do not have a lot of data for the arterial (main) roadway system in the region. Performance data includes traffic counts, speeds, travel counts, classification counts, weather-based counts, and accident data. Instead of getting occasional traffic counts on a need basis, we would like to get continuous traffic counts across the region. As of now there is inconsistency across the region in terms of the time of the year when we might get counts from various areas. With the new project though, we are all of a sudden going to create continuously streaming regional data.

We are working very closely with PSU and spend a lot of money enhancing our state archive system there. I strongly believe in maintaining a relationship with your research university; it is tremendously important for any region that wants to be innovative. You have to work with your researchers and then be able to translate that into the real world. I think we are doing a great job in this area.

This demonstration project will define the parameters of how we are going to achieve continuos regional mobility data – the type of equipment required and the performance data we need to measure. This is Metro’s first project to be implemented under the Systems Management Plan, and I am very excited about it.

There is a huge demand for performance data since our region has adopted the mantra of ‘outcomes-based planning’. Performance data is necessary to actually gauge the outcomes and the gaps in achieving those outcomes. Archiving such data is essential for long-range planning. On the other hand, operators have a different need for the performance data in terms of getting real-time data for their current operations. But both planning and operations require the same data. My programme is essential to develop the mobility data required and is definitely a regional project that everybody is helping with.

Signal timing is another area we are looking into. A problem, not just with our region but most regions across the country, is that updating old signal timing plans is costly and difficult. Timing plans are sometimes not changed for over ten years. Meanwhile, traffic patterns might change completely with new developments coming in. Hence, several of the jurisdictions are working on adaptive signal projects in places where it makes sense. Under this system, signal timing adjusts using algorithms based on the presence of cars and other road-users, so that the signaling system truly adapts to existing traffic conditions. It still requires attention and calibration, but not the traditional upgrading of signal timing plans. We are doing several demonstration projects in adaptive signaling across the region. We are also comparing different vendor systems, so that we have an assessment about which ones we think are working better and where adaptive systems do not work.

However, we will not have adaptive signaling everywhere. Hence, updating signal timing alongside signal upgrades is necessary. Hence, we have also been spending a lot of money on upgrading basic signaling infrastructure. Recently, we completed a big signal upgrade project. The computer systems that run our traffic system are old and the regional committee outlined a base level that they want to get the signal system up to.

We had the opportunity with some federal stimulus money coming in a few years ago. Literally within the course of five days we had brought the committee together and informed them of the project. The good news about the committee is that individual jurisdictions already have their systems management and ITS plans in place and already knew the projects they wanted to do. So we asked them to come together, and we set the parameters of the equipment we wanted to buy to upgrade controllers and update the signal timing as well. All jurisdictions identified their highest priority corridors, we worked out the cost estimates and we were able to get to a baseline cost of about $3 million. Eventually, we were able to deliver a project that upgraded about 11% of traffic signals in the region along the highest priority corridors with multiple ownership.

We will do a similar project again with funds allocated to the region. We are looking now at doing a little bit more of equipment upgrade. There are a lot of elements of ITS such as transit signal priority on frequent bus corridors, truck priority signals for smooth traffic flow, and installation of bike signals that we can implement to achieve 21st century traffic signal systems.

However, TSMO is a broader term than ITS, and includes additional components like demand management and traveller information systems. We are in fact doing a lot of work on traveller information right now. We have a project that is harnessing ODOT’s web portal (used by ODOT to push media out to local media and businesses) in a way that local jurisdictions are able to put local information on it as well.

The Regional Approach

Why is it important to manage transportation systems at a regional level instead of local level?

The roadway does not stop when you cross the jurisdiction line; you just keep going. So you have to make sure when you are doing, for example signal coordination, that it is continuous. You cannot have one jurisdiction implementing one set of timing and another jurisdiction doing something completely different.

Besides, there are cost savings in managing transportation systems at a regional level. You are able to enter joint purchasing agreements that make equipment cheaper. There is also the opportunity for joint staff training and learning from each others’ experiences.

This also lends itself to regionalism of travel information. If you are trying to bridge people across the region, they need to understand the whole concept. You can’t keep travel information in watertight compartments. That really is the critical need of regional transportation systems planning.

What were the challenges you faced in coordinating amongst multiple agencies?

The members on the committee are all human beings and have different personalities. So you need to be flexible in understanding what their limitations are to be able to contribute fully. It is a little bit of psychology really to understand the best ways to move forward. I spend a lot of time brokering between agencies and trying to make sure that everybody is talking to each other and is aware of what is going on. Otherwise, it is really easy for a jurisdiction to limit their focus to only what they are doing.

My primary job, for which I was hired, was to make sure everybody is talking and sharing information. If I come to know of something that is happening in one jurisdiction, I would tell them of similar things happening in another jurisdiction and initiate a discussion. This job is not always easy, but it is important. It is about building relationships. My boss calls me the ‘den mother for boy scouts’!

Personal Planning Experience

You commute everyday. Do you use personal experiences on roads to feed into the planning process?

I actually have used my husband as the ‘typical person who doesn’t work in planning’ for reference, getting his layman opinion on various things we do. I am a firm believer that planners should not be sitting at their desks but actually get out there. I use multiple modes to commute throughout the day and I am able to use those experiences to deal with anything from a minor signal failure on my route (for which I would know who to call) to ideas about how to improve mobility on the arterial I commute on everyday to work. And then my kid is using the Trimet bus system. So it is kind of hard not to incorporate these personal experiences into the planning process.

How would you rate the change based on the work you have done based on what you have encountered through personal experiences?

I am not sure I can answer that. I actually came into this programme just at the peak of travel demand and then we had the big recession, leading to a decline in travel demand. It is just starting to come back up. Moreover, we are just getting projects headed out of the door, so we have not had the opportunity to test if they are working or not. For example, in my community two of the corridors where we upgraded the signals are just now in place. We are adding an adaptive signal system in there. I’ll be able to actually experience any changes because of that once it is in place.

Transportation systems planning and management is a very dynamic field with technologies changing everyday. How do you deal with that?

My strategy is to make sure that I stay connected with industry journals and periodicals such as ITS America. I stay in touch with the professional information that surrounds us. I do the same thing for freight. Any time you are in an industry that is kind of unusual like this one, you have to stay current with what is going on and keep up with the research. I try and actively follow the Transportation Research Board committee. I read Wired magazine articles because they make a connection back in. So one does need to put in a lot of extra work.

On top of staying connected to my focus area, I also need to stay abreast with what is going on in the general planning world, because I need to be able translate this niche area into what our agency is doing and what the region is doing in broad terms. An example of that would be that we are embarking on climate change scenario building work. My work is very much related to this programme. I just finished writing a white paper that talks about the benefits of some of the strategies that we are implementing on carbon emissions. I can supply them the information; but also the projects that we are going to put in place are very likely to contribute to the success of our desired reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Further, I think one of the benefits of TransPort is that we bring experts and vendors in from the outside to talk to us about latest technologies. I would argue that the planners in the region are maybe not as up to date with latest technologies as maybe the traffic engineers are. We are trying to bridge that gap and make them more interested.

What motivates you to take the road less travelled?

I love the challenge. I am really curious and I like to learn new things. I find things that have not really been done before very interesting, because I get to lead it. You have a whole line of people doing traditional things in transit, who have been doing that for a long time and specialise in that. There’s less competition for freight! So there is this niche there where you can actually adapt yourself into a leader fairly quickly. But the bottom line is that I like to work with a bunch of different people and learn new things.

Do you think transportation has become a more viable career option for women?

You know, it has gotten easier. I would have to say that when I came in in 1995 into the field as an intern, the first wave of women who had just established themselves in transportation planning were just ahead of me, and they paved the way. Just having conversations over years  with my older women mentors, I can say that what they experienced was dramatically different from what I experienced. I never really felt like being a female was a hindrance because I just had so many great women role models ahead of me. We speak of it as being a male dominated industry, but if you look at Metro staff, you will see there are a lot women employed.

In addition, Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) has been an incredible resource for us. I was on the board with them for six years and am still very active. It is kind of the premier transportation planning organisation in the country. I think that because the organisation has been so strong, it has nurtured the next wave of women, making it very comfortable to be a woman in transportation.

In fact, the reason WTS was started in Washington DC 27 years ago was that men were getting together for ‘boy’s lunches’ and the women were being excluded. So the women were feeling that they were missing on an opportunity for advancement through peer exchange and they wanted to create their own organisation. They organised this huge seminar without any official funding support and thereby created an organisation through which they could have peer exchanges. Today, there are so many women role models in the field, and it is because we have some really tough people who had to endure circumstances that were not terrific. But today gender has become a non-issue in the field.

The future

What are your goals and vision for Portland transportation management?

At this point in my career, it is interesting to study the impact of things that i helped implement to see where we have been successful as well as things where we have not been successful. We are currently at a point where we are refreshing the first generation of reforms and it is as exciting as developing second generation software.

Within systems management, we already have a strategic plan which really looks at upgrading to a multi-modal traffic management system in important areas. Multi-modality in the real sense would have to accommodate not only trucks and buses but also pedestrians and bicyclists and things that don’t get considered in the traditional model. Making sure that the system caters appropriately to the land-use that it serves is also important.

In terms of travel information, my philosophy is that the public sector provides the data and I am very much a believer in open-source data. Equipped with data, the private sector is quite creative in innovating new tools. So our role really is to provide the data and maybe some direction as to what we want to see. There is scope for public-private partnerships in this area. We already have a large number of transit applications available and the public can select the one that works best for them.

Incident management is another area that we are working on. We are responding as quickly as possible to incidents on the freeway and arterials, to ensure quicker traffic flow.

So in these three areas, we want to take a leap. In addition our partner programme, which is the Reginal Travel Options programme, handles demand management. They have also done strategic planning work, and are taking a big run on how to support multi-modalism through non-motorized activities. They are involved with a lot of individualised marketing efforts. That is kind of where we are heading, and it is going to keep us busy.

Which is the next road less traveled that you want to take?

I’m not sure yet. Right now, my personal life is transitioning into it’s next phase with children off to college. So personally for me, the field is wide open. I love what I am doing right now. I love technology and I can see taking a path into the technology side. There are some really interesting applications and software packages that are coming in around sustainable transportation. I think that might be where I go next. Talk to me in five years, because I am myself really curious as to where I would be but am not sure as of now.

My Takeaways:

  1. Adopting the concept of compact urban growth and linking land-use planning with transportation planning early on has today allowed the Portland metropolitan region to manage the flow of traffic better in the region. Optimal use of technology and existing infrastructure support management of traffic that is definitely huge, especially in the light of significant freight activity.
  2. Establishing dialogue on a continuous basis amongst stakeholder groups and government agencies, along with a two-way dialogue and information exchange with research institutes is critical in ensuring efficient solutions and conflict resolutions.
  3. A regional outlook in traffic management by bringing on board all affected communities and jurisdictions leads to targeting of solutions to areas that would be amenable to seamless travel options rather than equally dividing funds among jurisdictions for making scattered and uncoordinated investments. This is particularly true for traffic management systems such as signals, because the commuter does not know when he crosses a jurisdiction’s boundary and would only care about uniform signalling practices.
  4. Continuous performance data, including travel and traffic counts, is important on both real-time basis for engineers and as archives for planners to achieve outcomes-based planning and actually gauge if the outcomes are being achieved.
  5. Signal timing updates and adaptive signaling are the way to go to respond to ever-changing traffic situations. These tools can also be used to enhance bike and pedestrian safety and comfort.
  6. Staying up to date with technologies and vendors, as well as joint purchasing agreements by multiple jurisdictions, allows the implementation of suitable and advanced traffic management technologies and equipment in a cost effective manner. In addition, peer exchange within niche planning areas as well as a broader planning horizon allows planners to adopt best practices in a broader context.
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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.