Rational Urban Planning

It is our official position that long-range government planning cannot work no way no how. But it is a mark of how bankrupt the planning profession has become that many of its members never seem to bother to follow its standard planning system, which is known as the Rational Planning Model.

As defined by Wikipedia, the Rational Planning Model “is the process of realizing a problem, establishing and evaluating planning criteria, create alternatives, implementing alternatives, and monitoring progress of the alternatives.” This model, Wikipedia adds, “is central in the development of modern urban planning.”


If it is so central, then why do so few urban planners follow it? In particular, most plans that I have reviewed leave out step 3, “create alternatives.” They also leave out what should be step 4 (but which goes unmentioned by Wikipedia), evaluate alternatives. Which isn’t surprising if they don’t have any alternatives to evaluate.

Today, most planners follow what I would call the “Irrational Planning Model.” That model (to paraphrase Wikipedia) “is the process of thinking a utopian scheme, establishing planning criteria that are foreordained to support the scheme, creating a constituency of special interest groups that will benefit from the scheme, implementing the scheme, and proclaiming victory.” Notice that they leave out monitoring as well as alternatives, because there is no need to monitor when you know you are going to succeed.

My first exposure to the idea of a Rational Planning Model was when the Forest Service began writing plans for each of the national forests under the National Forest Management Act of 1976. The agency issued planning rules in 1979 that specifically followed the Rational Planning Model. Over the next decade, I read nearly all of the 100-plus forest plans issued by the agency. Nearly all of them had at least five alternatives. Some had as many as ten. Even though I didn’t agree with most of the agency’s decisions, the alternatives were very useful in identifying cost-efficient solutions to national forest issues.

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Nowadays, I review urban land-use and transportation plans. Most plans don’t contain any alternatives at all.

Some plans have token alternatives, usually because they are required by some federal rule, that everyone understands have no chance of being selected.

Take, for example, long-range transportation plans, which all metropolitan areas have to write to be eligible for federal funding. I recently happened to download such plans for the nation’s 65 largest urban areas. Only two — Jacksonville and Salt Lake City — included two or more real alternatives and compared the effects of those alternatives on such things as congestion and air pollution.

Most of the plans had no alternatives at all. A few had what they called the “no-build” alternative, which presumed that no new facilities would be built for 20 years. Some had something you might call (and one of the plans did call) the “wish-list” alternative, which included every transportation project that every transportation agency in the region could think of to build in the next 20 years.

Plans compared no-build and wish-list alternatives against the “financially constrained” alternative, which became the plan. This which only included projects for which funding was available. But neither no-build nor wish-list could be considered serious alternatives, since no one expected nothing to happen any more than anyone expected that every possible improvement would be funded.

So the question is: how do planners go from the wish list to the plan? Ideally, you would develop alternatives that included different combinations of projects on the wish list and then do an analysis to see which alternative works best.

I happen to have a 1958 book called Better Transportation for Your City (11 MB pdf) that was put together by a group called the National Committee on Urban Transportation, which consisted of a variety of planners, engineers, transit managers, and other transportation experts. The book describes the Rational Planning Model and recommends (on page 57) that cities and urban areas consider at least three alternatives: predominantly transit, predominantly automotive, and balanced transit-automotive. Planners from Jacksonville must have read this book for those are similar to the alternatives they used.

Many national forests followed a similar system: because timber cutting and wilderness were considered polar opposites during the forest planning process, they typically had a timber-emphasis alternative, a wilderness-emphasis alternative, and a supposedly balanced alternative. They usually also had a no-action alternative (meaning no change from previous plans), and at least one more, perhaps a wildlife-emphasis alternative.

I didn’t like this process. For one thing, it was polarizing: it made everyone defend “their” alternatives (which were, in fact, Forest Service caricatures of their alternatives). For another, it ignored many win-win solutions that could have protected more wilderness and wildlife while still cutting lots of timber.

I would suggest that, instead of focusing on inputs (how much land to manage for timber, how much for wilderness, how much money to spend on highways, how much for transit), plans should focus on outputs. Here is my four-step process for developing alternatives.

First, identify the goals of the plan. They might include safety, congestion relief, reduced air pollution and other environmental effects, energy efficiency, and so forth. Goals must be outputs, not inputs. Things like “multimodalism” and “walkability” are inputs, not outputs. Goals should not be biased towards any particular mode but should focus on the things that people consider important.

Second, measure the effects of every possible transportation project in the region on each of the goals. How many lives will each project save or destroy? How many hours of congestion relief will the projects provide? How much pollution will they prevent or generate? How much energy will they consume or save? In addition, how much will each project cost?

Third, rank all of the projects using each goal. Planners should divide the benefits of each project by its dollar cost to get a cost-efficiency estimate. Then sort the projects from high to low cost efficiencies.

Fourth, create an alternative from each goal’s ranking. Planners know roughly how much money the region will have to spend on transportation improvements. So pick the top projects ranked according to each goal until all the money is spent.

The result would be alternatives emphasizing Safety, Congestion Relief, Clean Air, Energy Efficiency, and any other goals planners considered important (and quantifiable). None of these alternatives are biased toward transit, autos, bikes, or whatever. Instead, they each focus on an important community goal. Moreover, it is likely that there will be a lot of overlap between alternatives, because some projects that improve safety will also reduce congestion and air pollution. By finding such overlaps, and weighing trade offs when goals conflict, planners can put together a preferred alternative.

All this supposes that planners really want to develop the best possible plans for their communities or regions. But it seems that few do, which is why so many use the Irrational Planning Model instead. If they don’t develop alternatives, then no one will know how much money they waste and how poorly their plans perform.

At the risk of repeating myself, I don’t think that the Rational Planning Model can save government planning from all the insurmountable problems with planning that the Antiplanner has identified. But it would go a long way toward keeping planners honest and keeping the public better informed about the benefits and costs of the often inane plans that planners propose.

If anyone knows of urban land-use or transportation plans that really do follow the rational model, I would love to learn about them.

About the author: Randal O’Toole is the author of Reforming the Forest Service, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, and The Best-Laid Plans, and edits the website The Antiplanner. This article originally was published on The Antiplanner on March 17th, 2008, and is republished here with permission.


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