The future rarely moves in predictable, incremental ways. Often seemingly small changes in technology, demographics, regulations, economics, or a myriad of other factors have dramatic and unintended impacts on how companies source, manufacture, distribute and operate in general. These non-linear impacts are very difficult to predict using traditional forecasting methods and techniques since they, by definition, do not follow any historical patterns.

Scenario Planning Toolkit

What is Future Freight Flows?

While any attempt at forecasting in this environment is difficult, planning for freight transportation infrastructure investments is especially hard.  Infrastructure projects of any magnitude typically take decades to go from inception to actual use.  Planners must satisfy and accommodate a wide variety of diverse and vocal constituents – most of which do not want development in their location but want the benefits of better infrastructure.  Because freight moves in corridors from production to consumption, the infrastructure projects also usually involve multiple modes and cross numerous jurisdictions.  Finally, and most importantly, as a derived demand, freight patterns (and the resulting infrastructure) are subject to numerous exogenous and uncontrollable factors ranging from fuel costs to trade agreements to consumer whims.

The Future Freight Flows (FFF) initiative was launched as part of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Project 20-83(01).  View the project description.  Its objective is to provide the planners and decision makers at the federal, state, regional, and local levels with a better method of strategic planning for freight infrastructure investments.

How does it work?

The Future Freight Flows initiative is primarily concerned with improving the way in which freight infrastructure investments are made and enabling informed discussions of national, multistate, state, and regional freight policy and system investment priorities.

In order to achieve this, the project has focused on four key areas:

  • Creation of a set of fully realized future scenarios that can be used for any size organization in any geographic region.  The scenarios include a complete set of immersive and descriptive materials to include videos, narratives, trends, etc. 
  • Jointly conducting a number of workshops across the country at different levels of planning organizations.
  • Development of a “Scenario Planning in a Box” that can be used by planners to run a Scenario Planning engagement with little or no outside assistance. 
  • Identification and monitoring of leading indicators or sensors in the ground that provide insights into future trends. 

It is important to point out that this project will not develop the “official version” of the future for the US freight transportation system to be used by all decision makers.  As mentioned above, the system is too large and complex and faces too many uncertainties for this to be possible.  Also, the planning and assessment of policy and management strategies should be an on-going process involving as many stakeholders as possible – not a one-time event.  Therefore, the project will not simply provide a static list of actions that a federal, state, or local Department of Transportation (DOT) planner should undertake to prepare for the future.  Instead, it will provide a set of customized tools and procedures that can be adopted and immediately implemented by the various decision makers across the stakeholders.  The primary methodology that we will be adopting is called Scenario Planning.

Scenario Planning is a technique that overcomes the challenges associated with the long-term planning of complex projects that involve a large number of diverse stakeholders.  Rather than trying to predict “the” state of the world thirty or more years in the future, Scenario Planning allows one to prepare for a range of plausible futures.  This plays to the strengths of the planners and allows for comparison of strategies and investments across a variety of possible outcomes.

What are the key benefits?

The FFF initiative is changing the way organizations think about long-term planning.  The scenario planning workshops have demonstrated how divergent and convergent thinking can be used within the infrastructure investment planning process.  It has also enabled closer and more meaningful discussions across the various stakeholders involved in freight transportation.

How do I participate?

Any stakeholder involved in freight transportation is encouraged to participate in the FFF initiative.  Potential stakeholders include shippers, carriers, third party logistics providers as well as government planners at the federal, state, regional, or local levels.  There are several ways to get involved.

The first is to participate in one of our planned workshops. Currently, workshops are planned to occur in Atlanta, Minneapolis, California, Seattle, and Washington D.C. in 2011.  Alternatively, if interested, the FFF team could run a Scenario Planning event for your own organization.

Another way to get involved is to participate in our weekly Sensor in the Ground survey.  Each week we distribute out a recent news event or development and ask our Future Freight Flows community to assess its relative importance.  The combined insights are collected and shared within the community. 

Where can I find out more information on how to get involved?

For more information, send an email to

Who is on the Future Freight Flows team?

Principal Investigator:  Dr. Chris Caplice,

Core Research Team:

  • Dr. Mahender Singh,
  • Dr. Roberto Perez-Franco,
  • PhD Candidate Shardul Phadnis,
  • MEng Candidate Miguel Sanchez-Valero,
  • Loic Lagarde,
  • Luis Blackaller,