Solving complex policy issues, such as improving travel time reliability, are challenges facing transport professionals. Policy analysis, however is not a common skill among transport professionals.
Transport policy problems are complex
Transport problems are increasingly complex and dynamic, making them difficult to fully comprehend. These complex multi-actor problems usually don’t have a simple solution and dealing with them may require new policy to be developed.
As professionals we all have our preferred solution to major transport problems – what is called ‘problem-solution’ thinking.
The way to solve congestion is … “to build more lanes on the freeway”; or “use ramp metering, variable speed limit signs and other intelligent technology”; or “introduce congestion pricing”. All of these may be an alternative, but not the only, or best solution, or even feasible in the current political context.
This is the first mistake – jumping to the solution immediately after the problem is raised and then vigorously defending, not leaving open the opportunity to consider other viable options.
The first step is to make the problem explicit, disconnect it from potential solutions and define the issue resulting in the problem statement in specific detail – describe cause and effect. Traffic incidents are a major cause of congestion, and the cause could be speeding, or driving too fast for the prevailing conditions. What immediately comes to mind are potential solutions!
Then identify the key stakeholders (or actors) involved and what they each want to achieve (objectives). Focus on those actors who have a significant interest in the problem, plus have influence to help solve the problem.
Mistake number two is forgetting key stakeholders. When considering traffic congestion, the focus is usually on cars, while public transport and freight interests not considered.
The actors you engage with should be able to contribute to the solution. Other actors may have strong views, and if they have influence, it would be smart to at least hear their views.
Each key stakeholder will have their objective for a specific policy issue, but can be in conflict with other’s objectives. By going through the process of detailing each actor’s views we have a much better chance of understanding the complexity of the problem and identify opportunities to find complementary parts to a solution.
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 what is the downside.
To illustrate, traffic congestion is an undesired situation and more reliable traffic flow is a desired situation, so the difference is the gap, however as there are often competing interests by different actors, the downside means someone loses out. Priority for road freight transport might be one way of best use of limited road space, however this means that other road users are provided less capacity.
Every problem statement should contain both a gap and a downside (which is really the reason that the problem isn’t easily solved). A common mistake is that the downside is not made explicit, for example “how can we reduce traffic congestion?”
This can result in not knowing where, or what, the problem really is from that actor’s perspective and can result is a simplistic or unrealistic ‘solution’. Many politicians deliberately use this approach to ‘appear’ to be solving the problem or to get their preferred solution funded.
Transport policy best practice means a well defined problem statement, which focuses thinking on the problem, rather than a preferred solution, and engages key actors.
After making the problem explicit, possible solutions to the problem can be developed and evaluated using agreed criteria.
Developing policy 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.