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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Planning Styles in Conflict at the San Francisco Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission

  • Author(s): Innes, Judith E.
  • Gruber, Judith E.
  • et al.

Planning can be a contentious process. Most of the time it involves many players and many interests all seeking different outcomes or protecting different turf. The authors of this report have concluded, after a 5-year study of transportation planning in the San Francisco Bay Area, that the contentiousness can be due as much to differences in planning styles as to substantive disagreements or power struggles. The authors have identified four planning styles that coexisted in the transportation decision making process, which they label "technical/bureaucratic," "political influence," "social movement," and "collaborative." Practitioners of each style tended to believe deeply in their approach as the right way to do things and, by the same token, to regard with suspicion, if not actual hostility, those practicing different styles. Indeed, they typically did not recognize the others’ approaches as planning at all.

Each of these styles implied different ideas about information, public participation, and what a good plan would be like, as well as about the process of planning. The authors found that each style had strengths and limitations and each was suited to different situations. Yet few individuals, agencies, or interest groups tailored their approach to suit the problem. Instead, they routinely used one planning style regardless of the situation.

The style in use at any time was the product of at least two forces. Most obvious was the influence of long habits and expectations among the players. But such habits and expectations do not provide the full explanation. The authors found that state and federal legislation governing transportation decision making reinforced, and at times almost required, particular planning styles. It is particularly ironic that legislation ostensibly designed to encourage collaboration in regional decision making often, in fact, promoted the political influence and technical/bureaucratic approaches which, in turn, encouraged the development of an oppositional social movement.

These findings emerged from a study of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) from late 1995 to early 2000. The study had a dual purpose. The first was to see how this agency -- widely regarded as one of the leading Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) in the country and a potential model for others -- was implementing ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act), the pathbreaking federal transportation legislation passed in 1991. The second was to find out the degree to which the collaborative planning group MTC had set up, the Bay Area Partnership, was producing decisions that were designed to benefit the region as a whole rather than simply individual jurisdictions. The authors were interested in the conditions under which interagency and interjurisdictional planning can actually be done. They wanted to test the hypothesis, based on preliminary findings from their earlier research, that genuine regionalism would require collaborative dialogue among the key players. This case allowed them to observe the actual deliberations over time and to find out how, when and why decisions were made.

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