Resiliency and Risk: Preparing for the Unknown

When you think about the future of transportation in Florida, what comes to mind? What do you envision for ports, railways, roadways, pedestrian and bike facilities, tourists, and residents? Taking another step further, what will impact and how can we prepare the state of Florida for the next 5, 25, or even 50 years? Can our transportation network withstand stronger and more frequent hurricanes and the evacuation orders they cause? Can it adapt to changing sea levels? Can it tolerate major crashes and still provide mobility for people and goods?

If you consider these questions, you may be interested in the Florida Transportation Plan. The Florida Transportation Plan (FTP) is a long-range planning effort that is guiding the future of transportation in the state of Florida and is updated every five years. These kinds of visioning questions are examined with statewide goals in mind, tested with theoretical scenarios and risk assessments, and addressed with policy recommendations.  The FTP update currently underway is expanding on the previous plan, exploring new and building upon existing issues.

As with any planning effort, the future is not exactly known. Planners can prepare as best as possible given certain assumptions; however, what if these assumptions no longer hold up or prove to be inaccurate? Uncertainty in these assumptions shakes resiliency in planning. After the 2015 FTP update was published, FDOT program administrator Dana Reiding and project manager Jennifer Carver considered this uncertainty while envisioning long-range planning in preparation for the 2020 update. How can FDOT plan for and respond to uncertainty? How can it incorporate risk in planning?

Risky Business: A Unique Approach to Research

Looking ahead to the 2020 FTP update, FDOT sought to better understand and determine how to incorporate risk and uncertainty in Florida’s transportation planning processes and wanted confidence that the state is well prepared with resilient plans and strategies for whatever may come.

Specifically, FDOT was asking, how might the FTP goals and visions change in response to changes in risk and uncertainty? How can planning for risk be incorporated across all FDOT work – from planning and design to project implementation? To address these questions, FDOT initiated research to explore resiliency planning for the 2020 FTP update with the goals of identifying risks, assessing planning implications of alternate future scenarios, and providing recommendations for how risk should be addressed in planning processes.

Instead of the standard approach of contracting with a single university to undertake the work, FDOT contracted with three universities – University of Florida (UF), Florida State University (FSU), and University of South Florida (USF). The researchers were in a unique position: the respective teams were provided with the same scope, but they were not allowed to communicate with each other throughout the majority of the research. “Each university has their own strengths. We [FDOT] really wanted them to work independently, to see what they would come up with and how we could combine their findings. There is no one right answer,” says Carver in explaining this approach. USF researcher Tia Boyd reiterates Carver’s rationale: “In a nutshell, the future is uncertain and risks are not static, so therefore, the process to plan for future risks should not be static either.”

Each university studied five areas of risk: population, economic, environmental, technology, and global issues. First, they identified different kinds of risk within each area: for example, economic risks can vary from a recession, decreased transportation funding, or even household income inequality, as shown below.  Using the five areas of risk, all teams performed vulnerability assessments, which assessed how the uncertainty of these identified risks could affect existing or future assets or infrastructure in certain regions of the state. Assets were categorized across types of risk on a scale of low-to-high vulnerability, and then assigned a risk score. Because Florida is a large state with different risks and assets, the asset vulnerability assessment revealed that some regions have greater vulnerabilities or larger assets to protect.

Five Areas of Risk and Inquiry. Source: Carver, 2020

All researchers also used risk registers or matrices to assess risk for each of the five areas above, which were critical in the research. Risk was evaluated in terms of vulnerability, likelihood and frequency (how often the risk can occur), thresholds (if the risk has a tipping point), and consequences (extent of impact). This process helped each team better understand the varying degrees and factors of risk. As shown in the example table below, the risk event is any potential threat or opportunity, while the overall risk is the product of the likelihood, consequence, and vulnerability. At the end of this evaluation, the risk event is designated a risk level and consequence management strategy. A more severe consequence with higher probability tends to result in a greater risk level. At the conclusion of this exercise, teams highly recommended risk registers be integrated into transportation planning processes.

Risk Register. Source: Williams, 2019
Risk Matrix. Source: USF (Bernico, 2002)

Another notable recommendation from the university teams is increased adaptability and flexibility in planning for increased resiliency. Evaluating risk can lead to changes in decision making, and it is critical that tools and plans are easy to update when new information becomes available. Moreover, to improve resiliency when developing subsequent FTP updates, it is imperative to determine if the overall FTP vision depends on vulnerable assumptions.

While the universities had a lot of commonalities and similar recommendations, they also concentrated on different specific risk factors, which reinforces the value of getting multiple perspectives. UF focused on risk through the lens of sea level rise, USF dived into increasingly prevalent technologies, like connected and automated vehicles and ridesharing services, and FSU looked at overarching analysis and policy-level implications. FSU was the only university to mention a topic which has become top of mind in the months following the completion of the project: global pandemics.

“Only one of the universities discussed a pandemic in this research, and it was not us,” says University of Florida’s principal investigator Ruth Steiner. “We thought about it but did not move forward with it. However, COVID-19 has raised thoughts and discussions in the planning circles about the challenge of planning for uncertainties, which is right at the core of what this entire study was about.”

Florida State University’s principal investigator Dennis Smith expands, “We did mention pandemics, but didn’t dive in too far because the probability of it occurring was rather low. Yet, we find that we are incredibly vulnerable, and it has had impacts on transportation resources.”

Smith reflects on the project, saying “When you undertake a comprehensive analysis like we did, it gives you the opportunity to recognize a wider range of risks and potential future impacts than you would with a traditional analysis. Multiply that by three universities – we see FDOT really set themselves up with the opportunity to benefit from out-of-the-box thinking through this effort.”

To Florida and Beyond

After the primary research efforts were completed, each university team was brought together to explore their findings collaboratively and participate in long-range visioning sessions focused on improvements in the development of the future FTP updates. Ultimately, this work benefits the future planning and visioning processes for the state of Florida. Planners can incorporate these risks and uncertainties so projects in the implementation and development stages are prepared to respond to them. Carver explains, “The research was really a first look at the things coming and a translator for how we should start tweaking things. We’re starting to look further into more specifics, like incorporating resiliency into design and researching uncertainty through quantitative data.”

Although this research was specific to FDOT, it can go far beyond the state. Boyd finds “the concepts, processes, and tools are general enough to be applied outside of Florida. The adaptive and iterative processes identified through this research are of significant value to agencies across the country as they plan for the future of their transportation systems.” Since completing their research and being awarded an American Planning Association (APA) Student Research Award, the research teams have presented to APA chapters across the country, from Ohio to Idaho, and held sessions at the 2019 Florida Planning Conference and 2020 National Planning Conference. As each and every state is prone to risk, this research provides much awareness and insight into how to improve planning processes for uncertainty.

Further Reading

BDV25-977-57 Assessment of Planning Risks and Alternative Futures for the Florida Transportation Plan Update
Final Report

BDV30-977-25 Assessment of Planning Risks and Alternative Futures for the Florida Transportation Plan Update
Final Report

BDV31-977-98 Assessment of Planning Risks and Alternative Futures for the Florida Transportation Plan Update
Final Report