Alternatives Analysis Thought Experiment

Post by Steven Dale

A thought experiment:

Imagine a city that wishes to build a medium capacity transit system in a specific, given configuration. Due, however, to the unique geologic, social, political, cultural and economic state of the area the following applies:

An LRT, BRT or CPT system (for the sake of argument, you could include any technology you wish) built in this time-place will all have the exact same performance-cost package as one another.

That is, the estimated speeds, capacities, costs and safety levels – everything! – are identical.

Is this impossible? No. Highly unlikely, yes, but not impossible.

After all, a technology’s performance-cost package is not determined solely by the technology itself. Rather, (at least half) a technology’s cost is determined by the geologic, social, political, cultural and economic environments in which a given infrastructure technology is built in.

If we accept the previous idea to be true, then there is certainly some infinitely unique combination of factors that could result in the former scenario. That is, that a time-place exists whereby the strengths and weaknesses of LRT, BRT and CPT would all cancel each other out and we’d be left at a state of equilibrium. In this state of equilibrium, no technology is superior or weaker than another in any quantifiable way.

Imagining such a bizarre and unique time-place exists: How would you determine which technology should be built?

For most, the answer would be obvious. Some would say bus, some would say rail and a far, far, far fewer group would say cable or gondola. It would be a gut reaction. Of course you should build rail! Of course you should build bus! Of course you should build gondola! But why? In our imaginary scenario, there is no competitive advantage to choosing any technology. Why choose one at all?

In such a scenario, luck of the draw, surely, would be the only fair and equitable way to award this contract. But – rest assured – the bidders, planners, consultants and policy-makers would refuse this lottery. Instead they’d invent all sorts of specious and spurious arguments hoping to demonstrate why their technology was better, even though there was no serious manner to do so.

Assuming the lottery idea is – as it most assuredly would be – drawn, quartered and left for dead, what then guides whatever decision is made? The only reasonable thing to expect is bias, personal preference and payola. What you like and what you’re paid to like is all that really matters. How else would you choose?

If we start from the assumption that all technologies are equivalent, we quickly see that the decisions we make are not guided by rationality at all. They’re guided by a whole host of other reasons that have nothing to do with merit.

Of course no city is faced with the scenario laid out above. But as transit technologies – in terms of capabilities – grow closer and closer to one another, how can we expect our decision-makers to act on facts alone? And when a decision-process is under way, do you seriously expect nothing but facts to come into play?

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  1. It is always a political decision. And politicians will chose the most popular solution. In a place with a strong bus industry they will chose bus. A place with a long rail tradition will chose rail. etc.. I guess there is no place which have the industries of all modes in equal strength. Thus any mode has to cooporate with local companies to build the system.
  2. If they all cost the same, all have the same capacity and speed then they are all the same system. There have to be differences though. If you say you will use the technology every system provides, then it would be at least no views for an underground and no additionally space on earth's surface. It would be about 2.5 meter lines for train and tram between houses and else - and good views for cable (maybe for some a little scary too). If they are all equal I'd a gree with what matthias said. But I disagree if the systems aren't all equal. I'm pretty much sure people will head for the biggest and coolest option (or most popular). If you analyse the given situation and let rationality make the decision then there is no connection between what is popular in that area and what's being chosen. Honestly: in the end only the one making the decisions has to be convinced (in any kind of way) and maybe this person (or these people are) is lucky or neat the handle all the others which have to live with the decision... that's policy (and it happens so often and also often not in best intentions for the citizens).
  3. I get the point, but I don't think you need hypotheticals to demonstrate that politics and personal biases--and sometimes corruption--have an undue influence on transit investment decisions. So I guess I am more interested in solutions. For example, if you can identify politically-potent stakeholders who actually have an interest in outcomes and get them involved in an important way in the planning process, you might have a better shot at getting a more rational result.