How can we tame the wicked traffic congestion problem?


Traffic congestion is a wicked problem. What steps can we take to tame congestion?

Wicked problems

A wicked problem is difficult, if not impossible to solve. The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined by Rittel and Webber back in 1973 in a social planning context. [1] They observed that a whole realm of wicked problems cannot be successfully addressed by traditional linear analytical approaches – that is gathering and analysing data, formulating options, selecting and implementing solution.

By contrast ‘tame problems’ are complex problems that can be tightly defined and readily solved by traditional approaches. A useful discussion on tackling wicked problems is provided by the APSC.[2]

Traffic congestion can be considered a symptom of a series of complex interconnected issues:

  • Travel demand, which results from population growth, changing demographics, economic activity, etc
  • Cost of road use compared to alternatives; willingness to pay, etc
  • Mobility, ie the time (and cost) of getting to a destination; unexpected delays, etc
  • Accessibility, ie the ability to readily access desired destinations; availability of transport services, infrastructure etc.

While this is not meant to be a comprehensive list, you get the idea. Traffic congestion is a complex and difficult to define problem, and varies according to city context. There is no simple ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Many suggested solutions to traffic congestion such as a new motorway or rail line are very large, expensive and difficult to change if they don’t work. They require ‘courageous’ decision by politicians.

However, just focussing on trying to solve traffic congestion won’t necessarily solve the complex web of underlying issues – hence we have a ‘wicked problem’.

Fixing traffic congestion

Numerous countermeasures have been put forward to address traffic congestion, such as: build more motorways, provide better public transport, encourage more people to walk and cycle, reduce the need to travel, get people to shift travel to off-peak times, introduce congestion charging, facilitate transit oriented development, quicker clearance of incidents, increase parking pricing, and more – a very long list.

Each of these measures may ease the problem a bit, at least for a short time, but can also have unintended consequences – solve one problem and create another!

And there are certainly other solutions, some not even thought up yet. A logical approach would be to try a package of these measures.

Keys to success

Collaboration. The potentially most effective approach to dealing with the traffic congestion wicked problem is a collaborative strategy. This will require the involvement, commitment and coordination of multiple layers of government and key stakeholders.

The challenge is to align the various layers of government, both vertical and horizontal in a win-win, collaborative problem-solving approach. National, regional and local governments will have different priorities, budget situations and political agendas. And horizontally within a transport agency there are silos, which don’t necessarily collaborate effectively.

Progress towards an accepted solution requires consultation, discussion, negotiation and iteration. Obviously this approach has high transaction costs, and requires a team with high levels of facilitation and negotiation skills, and patience!

Broad. Taking a broad approach to the problem will ensure that unintended consequences, from a narrow focus, can be largely avoided.

Innovation. Government bureaucracies tend to be risk averse. Solving a wicked problem like congestion requires innovation, flexibility and managed risk taking and employs the use of trials, and multiple iterations of solutions. It also requires careful building of understanding and acceptance of the proposed approach by the community and elected officials.

Engagement. In the community there are vocal single-issue groups, and the media is intent on promoting controversy and debate. Effectively engaging a full range of stakeholders is developing solutions is crucial. Be prepared for controversy.

Changing human behaviour is especially difficult and requires careful discussion and education to support proposed changes, especially where changes to pricing is involved. Active participation will result in debate and opposing views, so prepare for the challenges that make politicians uncomfortable.

Toolkit. Tackling traffic congestion requires not only technical, analytical and project management skills, but also change management and stakeholder engagement capabilities. The Canadian ‘Tools of Change’[3] is a useful toolkit for changing community behaviour in relation to wicked problems.

Traffic congestion is a wicked problem. By careful planning and management there are steps we can take to tame congestion.

[1] Rittel, Horst and Webber, Melvin. 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences Vol4 No2, June 1973
[2] Australian Public Service Commission (ASPC). 2007. Tackling Wicked Problems. A Public Policy Perspective.
[3] Tools of Change

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1 thought on “How can we tame the wicked traffic congestion problem?”

  1. Congratulations to the author of this short but excellent perspective on congestion and the often poorly understood view of stakeholders.

    It certainly sums up my transport management career at local/regional government levels spanning 3 decades in 3 commonwealth countries!


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