Part of the Disruptors Series
Jan. 7, 2022
Long one of the fastest-growing states, Texas could see its population nearly double by 2050, putting intense pressure on infrastructure already struggling to safely move residents, tourists, and goods.
A local stretch of U.S. 67, the national highway that starts near the Mexican border in Presidio, Texas, and runs all the way north through Iowa, is already feeling that pressure. A surge in tourism, freight traffic, and economic activity is already resulting in more traffic — and more collisions, injuries, and fatalities.
To improve safety along the corridor, the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) El Paso District brought in engineering firm CDM Smith. Their task: Create a long-range, community-driven master plan for a 142-mile stretch of the highway, which winds through a variety of communities and landscapes.
While the plan's goals are familiar — increased safety, sustainability, and pedestrian and cycling access — CDM Smith took an innovative road to reach them. The project team supplemented traditional engagement tactics like public meetings with mixed-reality technology, which allows users to experience a blend of virtual and physical spaces simultaneously. The addition was instrumental in prioritizing residents' feedback.
"Mixed reality was essential in presenting the proposed improvements as if they were being built," says Robby Guthart, AICP, CDM Smith's lead transportation planner for the U.S. 67 Corridor Master Plan. "Without spending money to build anything, and without having to be physically outside in traffic, stakeholders and the public were able to experience virtually three or four different design options and provide their input."
Planning spoke with Guthart to learn more about the project — and how mixed-reality technology can help communities take a more active role in planning their future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PLANNING: What was the overall aim of the master plan?
GUTHART: From the onset, we focused on short-, mid-, and long-term potential projects that could be implemented by the communities and TxDOT to help resolve safety issues and improve mobility. The study closely aligned with TxDOT's goal to end all fatalities on Texas roadways by 2050.
PLANNING: How was virtual technology brought into the process?
GUTHART: Stakeholder and public engagement were essential in achieving the project goals, and the application of mixed reality helped them inform the proposed improvements. We used a program called Infraworks to depict design alternatives in 3D, then imported them into Microsoft HoloLens, an immersive mixed-reality technology, so users could experience the designs at a real-world scale within the mixed-reality environment.
PLANNING: What was the impact?
GUTHART: It helped us translate otherwise complex ideas that the public could see, literally walk through, and react to, which was especially useful in building public understanding. For the design process, it assisted in refining conceptual safety and mobility improvements. For the community engagement process, it educated the public, helped them provide more informed feedback, and ultimately resulted in more buy-in from the public, stakeholders, and local elected officials.
PLANNING: Did using this technology make the planning process more inclusive?
GUTHART: Initially, the HoloLens got the public excited about the project. It served as a tool to attract the attention of community residents and draw in strong attendance and participation at public outreach activities. Plus, using the HoloLens, residents and stakeholders were able to walk through 3D holographic models of intersection design alternatives that were projected onto the public meeting floor. Without spending any money to build anything, and without being physically at the site of the proposed improvement, residents could experience the project and easily provide their feedback. And they didn't need a background in planning or engineering to comprehend it. Instead of using traditional visualizations like cross-sections that can be challenging for the public to translate, this tool just literally mirrored the real world, with the proposed improvements added in. Overall, it democratized high-level concepts by turning them into visuals that transcend language and age.
Plenty of other tech developments are poised to change planning practice. Drone technology already is allowing for reliable surveying and real-time mapping of cities. Illustration by Jason Schneider.
PLANNING: What role can mixed-reality tools play in transportation planning, especially in areas anticipating significant growth?
GUTHART: This tech provides the opportunity for transportation planners to effectively communicate and refine multiple alternatives, both through design and public feedback. Plus, mixed reality provides the data to make the right investment decisions.
PLANNING: We're in a time of rapid change. How do you think this tool can
help us prepare for what's ahead?
GUTHART: Overall, it helps planners model a variety of alternate futures. It can test how transportation improvements might withstand disruptions, or serve as a useful scenario-planning tool to help communities plan improvements and adaptation measures that better withstand the impacts of climate change. And with adequate outreach strategies, mixed reality can be seamlessly incorporated into planning efforts to ensure more inclusive conveyance of information with socially, economically, and culturally diverse communities.
PLANNING: Why should the planning field embrace mixed reality?
GUTHART: It's an effective and useful tool for multiple aspects of planning: refinement of conceptual recommendations; communication of improvements to residents; more informed public feedback; and better modeling of alternative futures, scenarios, disruptions, and disasters. The list goes on.
PLANNING: Do you have any tips for pulling mixed reality into the planning process, especially in communities with limited budgets?
GUTHART: Consider incorporating it early on in the public involvement process. Demonstrate the technology and proposed improvements to key community leaders and those leading the planning effort first, then achieve buy-in for the new technology during outreach. While the upfront costs of mixed-reality hardware can be steep — the HoloLens starts at around $3,500 — they are far more affordable than the cost of investing in the wrong improvement.