Transit infrastructure: from vision to reality

As our urban areas grow, decision-makers and planners grapple with the challenges of congestion, air quality, and longer-term climate change trends. Transportation disruptors, autonomous vehicles and other mobility providers are adding choices, but investment in transit infrastructure remains a key component in the urban planners’ toolkit.

To some, the benefits of new transit infrastructure seem obvious: fast, high-capacity, efficient, reliable and safe alternatives to the automobile, helping to realize wider city-shaping objectives. However, transit project delivery is often mired in controversy, triggering high profile political debates, polarized responses from the public, objections and legal challenges, and not to mention, the need to secure funding and environmental approvals, complex procurement, delays and budget over-runs. Despite these challenges, many transit infrastructure projects have had a transformative impact on cities, their communities and businesses.

What are the lessons learned from successful transit projects? Here is the Steer checklist to ensure successful delivery of transit projects, drawn from our extensive experience in supporting transit infrastructure project delivery around the world.

  1. Understand that all transit infrastructure projects are political projects, with varying degrees of technical content. Aligning federal, regional and local views, or giving state and local government the power to determine and deliver transit projects is critical, ideally with a political champion to lead the case for the investment.
  1. Utilize municipal planning documents to provide the context for any transit infrastructure project.
  1. Develop a vision for the transit project, and make sure the vision can be translated into tangible components of the project and measurable goals. Be clear on the objectives and the outcomes. Know what success will look like.
  1. Make evidence-based decisions. A demand-led approach is required to guide the discussions and decisions on transit technology choice. Make sure the analysis is thorough and well-documented. Revisiting the transit choice at subsequent stages is distracting and time consuming. Business cases and multiple account evaluations should be deployed to support decision making. Use a ‘business case tracker’ as a tool for regular checks that the transit project, as it evolves, will still deliver the vision/outcomes.
  1. Consult widely and ensure the silent center voice is heard. Extreme views for and against transit can generate much attention, but thorough and well-informed consultation with stakeholders, communities and businesses should be used to ensure there is a consensus for change. There will be groups with genuine concerns and their issues should be addressed as far as possible within the project design process.
  1. Develop the detail. Planning a transit infrastructure project is complex and detailed designs, studies and robust cost estimates for construction and operations are central to defining the project scope. A ‘no surprises’ approach, with all components covered (utilities, urban design, environmental impacts) is the best guarantee of success.
  1. Secure the funding. From grant funding to private finance to value capture, funding sources and requirements vary. Start early on assembling the funding, using the project evidence base and business case to justify the investment. Consider the entire project lifecycle, including extended operating contract/concession periods.
  1. Plan the procurement. The detailed design, supply, construction and operation of a transit infrastructure project is complex and there are multiple options for project procurement, increasingly through P3s. The project vision/goals must frame the procurement approach, avoiding the different viewpoints of contributors to dilute or value-engineer the project away from its critical components.
  1. Work towards an integrated outcome. Successful transit infrastructure projects are not developed in isolation. They contribute to wider city-shaping initiatives and should complement related policies and plans, transit-oriented development (TOD), wider transit network re-structuring and urban realm improvements, creating thriving places for people and businesses.
  1. Tighten the timescales. The average political lifecycle does not encourage the long view required for the coherent roll-out of a transit network, or even an infrastructure project within a single corridor. This creates a real prospect of changing political views delaying or even canceling a transit project. Cross-political consensus can reduce the risk, with the evidence-based approach used to ensure continuity. At the same time, scope the project to speed up the technical project development process where possible.

Transportation infrastructure may be challenging to plan and implement, however if you keep these guidelines at the forefront, the results can be transformational.


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