Transportation: Planners versus Modellers

As a former transportation planner, I want to write a story about transportation planning, but which will still resonate with other people. Where we find conflict, peril and personal growth, we can create stories that engage people. This article is the result of my search for these elements in transportation planning.

Planners and Modellers

Transportation planning is, as the name implies, the development of plans for new transportation systems. This involves many people besides transportation planners, such as developers, politicians, land use planners and the public. Within transportation planning, people can be subdivided into two groups.

Transportation planners plan the roads, transit lines and bicycle paths. Most, but not all, of these people are engineers.

Transportation modellers develop and apply the computer models used to predict how many people will use the roads, transit lines and bicycle paths that planners plan. While many are engineers, most come from different backgrounds such as geography and mathematics.

Conflict between planners and modellers has long been a problem in transportation planning. Modellers often resent planners because they feel excluded. Transportation planners sometimes talk about transportation models as “Black Boxes” or make comments like “Lies, damn lies, and transportation models”.

The Roots of the Conflict

Why is there such conflict between planners and modellers? In some organizations it can be traced back to personality clashes. This can’t always be the cause though. A better explanation is the nature of transportation models themselves and the types of people who become planners and modellers.

Transportation models were created to predict how people will behave. It is a challenge to understand how people think and react. That, coupled with limited information, creates a lot of uncertainty. Planners, like most people, find it hard to deal with uncertainty and do not like answers with “ifs” or “maybes”. Sometimes they ignore the problems and other times they use the uncertainty as an excuse to ignore the advice.

Transportation planners and modellers are well aware of these problems and many have looked for ways to solve them. One example is the Ph.D. thesis Ethical Challenges and Professional Responses of Travel Demand Forecasters by P. Anthony Brinkman. There is a short review of this thesis available online.

Brinkman’s thesis considers the accusation that transportation modellers deliberately distort their predictions. His research suggests that the problem is not corruption, but is the result of the isolation of modellers from planners.

Three Types of Modellers

Brinkman identifies three types of modellers. These are defined by how well they interact with planners and how they react to that interaction.

Complacent Modellers do not work closely with planners and do not contribute directly to plans and recommendations. These people choose to delve deeply into the details of models to find job satisfaction. They often see the needs of planners as distractions from their “real work.”

Disillusioned Modellers do not work closely with planners and do not contribute directly to plans and recommendations. Unlike complacent modellers, they are dissatisfied. They want to contribute, but are not allowed to. While their desire to contribute is desirable, it can create conflict and draw them into unethical behaviour.

Engaged Modellers work closely with planners and contribute directly to plans and recommendations. These people had high levels of satisfaction because they feel their contribution makes a difference.

Opportunities for Stories

Conflict arises between planners, developers, politicians and the public when they talk about transportation plans. A transportation modeller’s struggle for relevance can create conflict between planners and modellers.

The audience wants to see characters grow and change over the course of a story. The journey from complacent to disillusioned to engaged that transportation modellers want to make is a story of personal growth. In my short story The Glencoe Project, a complacent modeller starts on his journey to become an engaged modeller.

The pressure on disillusioned modellers to “give the right answer” creates an ethical dilemma for them. On one hand they want to remain ethical, honest and professional. On the other they want to become relevant which can put them in peril of corruption.

Although these conflicts are specific to transportation planning, I believe that many people can relate to the personal challenges that transportation planners face.

Note: I first published this article on a different website on 2011 May 13

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