How to avoid three common transport planning mistakes

Solving complex policy issues, such as improving travel time reliability, are challenges facing transport professionals. Problem analysis, however, is not a common skill among transport professionals.

Transport Problems are Complex

Transport problems are complex and dynamic, making them difficult to comprehend fully. They usually don’t have a simple solution, and dealing with them may require a combination of solutions to resolve effectively. Consider three common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1. Problem-Solution Thinking

As professionals, we often have our preferred solution for specific transport problems – what I call ‘problem-solution’ thinking. This is the first mistake – jumping to the solution immediately after the issue is raised and then vigorously defending it, not leaving open the opportunity to consider other viable options.

For example, the way to solve traffic congestion is … “to build more lanes”; or “provide more public transport services”. All of these may be an option, but not necessarily the only or best solution.

To avoid this mistake, the first step is to make the problem explicit, disconnect it from potential solutions and describe cause and effect. For example, consider the major causes of congestion, the root cause could be not enough employment opportunities in the vicinity of a new residential area; hence people have to travel.

Mistake #2. Forgetting Key Stakeholders

When considering traffic congestion, for example, the focus is usually on cars, while freight interests may not be given adequate consideration. This is the second mistake, forgetting key stakeholders.

So, identify the key stakeholders and identify what they each want to achieve. Focus on the key stakeholders or those who have a significant interest in the problem or may have significant influence to help solve the problem.

The stakeholders you actively engage with should be able to contribute to the solution. Others may have strong views, and if they have significant influence with politicians or the media, then it would be smart to hear their views at least.

Each key stakeholder will have their specific objective for an issue, but this may conflict with others’ objectives. By going through the process of detailing each stakeholder’s views, you have a much better chance of understanding the complexity of the problem and identifying opportunities to find complementary parts to a solution.

Mistake #3. Downside Not Explicit

A well-defined problem statement has three elements: (1) the undesired situation, (2) the future desired situation, and (3) in getting from one to the other or the gap; there are downsides.

To illustrate, traffic congestion is an undesired situation, and more reliable traffic flow is a future desired situation, so the difference is the gap; however, as there are competing interests for travel along a corridor, the downside means some lose out.

For example, the priority for road freight transport can be the best use of limited road space. However, this means cars and buses have less capacity.

Every problem statement should consider both a gap and a downside, which is usually why the problem isn’t easily solved. A common mistake is that the downside is not made explicit.

This can result in not knowing what the problem really is from different stakeholder perspectives and can result in a simplistic or unrealistic ‘solution’. Many politicians deliberately downplay the downside and ‘appear’ to be solving the problem.

Key Concepts

  • focus thinking on the problem rather than a preferred solution
  • engage key stakeholders
  • makes the downside explicit.

Developing solutions to complex transport issues is not a simple task, and as transport professionals, we need to avoid the traps and mistakes that can lead to poor results.

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