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Transportation planning is a vital aspect of a region’s economic well-being and residents’ quality of life. State measures like the recent California Complete Streets Act (AB 1358), which mandates plans for the “development of multimodal transportation” for its cities and counties, emphasizes the ongoing motivation for progress in transportation planning. While state laws give general guidelines for planning, each city and county control much of the planning process, which leads to a wide variety of different approaches resulting in a similarly wide variety of outcomes. In a Pacific Southwest Region (PSR)-funded report, “Transportation Plans: Their Informational Content and Use Patterns in Southern California,” University of California, Irvine (UCI) Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Jae Hong Kim, along with UCI student researchers Xiangyu Li, Tanjeeb Ahmed, and Victor Paitimusa sought to identify key differences between transportation plans for California cities that could potentially impact the comprehension of plans, as well as their execution by cities, and potential use by stakeholders.

Kim’s project investigated the structural characteristics that can affect a plan’s utilization through a content analysis of sample transportation plans from cities in Orange County. The content analysis of the eight cities chosen (Costa Mesa, Fullerton, La Habra, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Mission Viejo, San Clemente, and Westminster) focuses on the circulation/transportation and land-use elements of the plans as well as the composition, integration, and adaptability of each city plan. The content analysis is comprised of the following steps: development of the coding schemes/procedures; pilot coding and scheme/procedure revision; plan content coding by two independent coders; and reliability assessment and analysis of the coded data.

Along with the analysis, Kim and his team also designed a plan use survey to collect information on how user groups utilized a plan’s contents and to determine the kind of formats that would be useful to them. Through the online survey platform QuestionPro, Kim sent invitations to numerous members of the Orange County Section of the American Planning Association. Comprised of five sections, the survey reviews criteria addressing whether or not the plan is comprehensible. The survey also asked the participants about the comprehensiveness, organization, and visionary aspects of the plans, as well as the clarity of actions each plan supports, and the relevance to daily life.

Through their research, Kim and his team found that the plans had wide variety in composition. This allowed the researchers to separate the plans centered around visions or goals (e.g., Fullerton) from the plans more focused on implementation and detailed policies (e.g., La Habra, La Palma, and San Clemente). In order to capture the importance of the Facts category of each city plan, something missed by a hierarchy-based approach, the team also classified the city plans by the richness of their factual information, creating three groups: Group 1: Los Alamitos and Westminster; Group 2: Costa Mesa, La Habra, La Palma, and Mission Viejo; and Group 3: Fullerton and San Clemente.

While both the hierarchal and grouping approaches can both be used to understand the patterns of plan composition, definite composition patterns cannot be attributed to any one city characteristic. It would appear that the general plans for cities rely not on a standardized process but on collaboration and deliberation that makes each plan unique. Pertaining to the integration of each plan, the team found that circulation elements focused more on consistency than land use elements, while all circulation elements concentrated more on their relationships to outside entities and plans than interactions with other plan elements, depicting a focus on external consistency. Adaptability was not a major focus in the plans as little attention was given to alternative futures/scenarios, or the spontaneous nature of urban development processes in circulation and land use elements. Kim and his team noted that the reaction of plan users to the inflexibility will depend on their use of the plans.

The plan-use survey section of the report had a low response rate of 38 individuals, with only 23 of the participants responding to the entire survey. Most of the participants identified as planners from either the public or private sectors, which suggests that the low response rate may stem from the limited use of plans outside of the planning sector. Kim and his team found those that completely responded to the survey were positive about the use for the plans, with 90% of respondents viewing the plans as (moderately-very) useful and 46% viewing the plans as very easy to understand and use. While the positive outlook was also seen in the detailed evaluation criteria, particularly the 89% who agreed or strongly agreed that the plans were well organized and the 86% who viewed the plans as comprehensive enough, respondents responded more negatively when asked about the clarity of actions and relevance of the plans to daily life. Only 64% of respondents thought the plans clearly stated what future actions would be taken and when, and 55% thought the plans were relevant to everyday life and/or their work. Respondents also noted that visuals in different formats as well as the utilization of alternative textual formats would be beneficial additions.

Kim and his team’s project identifies the gap between transportation planning and implementation., highlighting the current planning process and contributing to the work being done by city agencies. Despite the narrow focus on a small number of cities and the small number of survey respondents, the report makes a contribution to a better understanding of the transportation planning process and ensuring the easy utilization of plans for a broader audience.