Engineering at its core is about producing an effective and efficient solution to a design problem. How can we make this water safe for drinking? How can we more effectively move people and goods from point A to point B while improving safety? Efficient, effective and practical solutions are beautiful things to an engineer.
In spite of the fact that practicality is already so important to engineers, there is a growing design movement in engineering to make transportation solutions even more practical. This movement is called Practical Solutions, Practical Design or Context Sensitive Solutions. I've written about Practical Solutions before, focusing on roundabouts and questions to ask yourself during the design phase. For this post, let's look at Practical Solutions from a higher-level perspective.
To help explain the Practical Solutions movement I contacted Nancy Boyd from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Nancy is the Director of Engineering Policy and Innovation for WSDOT. Her division was established about a year ago as one of ten reforms proposed by Washington State Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson, who Nancy described as the catalyst for change.
Nancy had some great insights and interesting ideas that are sure to provoke conversation.
Paul: What is the Practical Solutions movement and what organizations have been leading the charge?
Nancy: Practical Solutions, or Practical Design as some groups call it, has emerged in the last ten years or so. The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) drew some attention to the movement with a publication in 2002 in what they called “Context Sensitive Solutions”. Missouri was one of the first states to use the term "Practical Design." By 2013 six state Departments of Transportation (DOT) had adopted formal policies around Practical Solutions, but each state has done things a little differently. Missouri, for example, focused on modifying the existing design standards to implement Practical Design. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, focused on changing how they approach the project development process. Secretary Peterson's vison for WSDOT is that she wants Practical Solutions to permeate the agency, to really change the way people think. At WSDOT, we are implementing a comprehensive, two-pronged Practical Solutions strategy, with Least Cost Planning infusing the planning process, and Practical Design being utilized during the design process.
Paul: I had talked with Don Whitehouse, WSDOT Regional Administrator for the South Central Region, and he said the biggest driver behind Practical Solutions has been a funding shortage for transportation. What would you say the biggest driver is?
Nancy: As our society is changing, we are using transportation in different ways. For example, an aging population is starting to drive less, and the younger generation is utilizing transportation alternatives besides the car, such as cycling or mass transit. We are also transitioning out of an incredible construction phase for transportation in the US with the interstate highway system. We have built the highways initially envisioned and more, and we still have transportation problems to be solved. In part we are shifting away from building the system to maintaining and fixing the system. To some extent the interstate system has solved many of the problems that it can solve and we need to start looking at problems and solutions differently. With limited funding we need to be more selective about project prioritization. I don’t remember who said it, but we need to stop thinking about the best possible project, and start thinking about the best possible system. Let’s say we have two transportation problems, and for the cost of addressing 100% of the first problem we could address 80% of both problems. Addressing 100% of the first problem is the best project, but addressing 80% of both problems makes for a better system. And another factor is that we can’t predict the future. If we design a project based on a design horizon that is 20 or 30 years out, then you are trying to solve a problem that is decades away when who knows how transportation will have changed by then, and in the meantime you leave many of today’s problems unsolved at other locations. A big part of Practical Solutions is that while we keep an eye on the future, we focus on the immediate problem you are trying to solve.
Paul: So what will Practical Solutions look like to engineers in Washington?
Nancy: The idea is to help planners and engineers look at a wider range of possible solutions so they can choose the most cost effective one. In the past, standards ruled the day, and deviations were hard to come by. We want to change that. We want engineers to start by identifying the problem or problems they are trying to solve and then to design the most practical fix for the problem. We anticipate making changes to the Design Manual, but that is a long process that requires Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approval, so that is further out. For starters, we are pulling together policy guidance that will help steer people in the right direction.
Paul: And what will Practical Solutions look like to the public in Washington?
Nancy: I think something we need to work on with the public is to help them see that a big expensive project is not always the best solution to a problem. Sometimes we get the idea that a problem needs a major construction project as a solution, but sometimes the system would be better served by reworking the signal timing, or a multimodal solution, or possibly even improving another nearby facility. Moving away from this perception will allow us to concentrate our efforts and funds on solving the most pressing problems in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
I want to thank Nancy Boyd for taking the time to answer some questions about Practical Solutions, and also her efforts to make WSDOT more effective and efficient. I believe that the greater focus on developing a design solution that is tailor-made for the design problem will help stretch limited transportation funding further and better serve the end-users. And at its heart, the Practical Solutions movement is exciting because it brings engineering back to its roots.
How is your agency utilizing Practical Solutions principles? I'd love to hear about your experiences.
Photo Credit: canstockphoto.com. sparky2000.