Issues in Transportation Planning #6: The Stick and The Map

Over the years, I came to believe that people held two very different views of transportation models. I call these views The Stick and The Map.

My goal is to write a fictional book or make a movie about transportation planning. My interest is not to advocate one or the other view, but to use the conflict to drive my story. That isn’t to say that that I do not have strong opinions about the right way to view a model.

The Stick and the Map

One view is the stick model. In this view, people see the model as a stick or weapon. It is something they can use to attack people. In this way, they hope to force others into agreement with them.

The other view is the map model. In this view, my view, people see the model as a map. A model, like a map, provides a simplified view of the lay of the land. In the case of a map it is the real land, while in the case of a model, it is a metaphorical land of the future.

These two views are in conflict.

Stick Models

Stick modellers want the model to make the decisions. To be effective as a weapon, the forecasts it produces must be unquestioned. If there is any doubt about the validity of the model, it has failed.

Stick modellers add more and more features to the model so that no one can say they have missed something. This approach will not work. The more complicated the model, the harder it is to understand. People will not trust a model they can’t understand. In the end, stick modellers will always miss some important factor, so they can never make a model that no one can question.

Map Models

Map modellers want the model to help them and others understand the implications of the decisions they must make. Map modellers accept that the model isn’t reality, but it can help them and others understand the real world. Map modellers may even deliberately leave things out of a model if it helps them better inform the decision at hand. They believe that credibility lies with the modeller, not with the model.

When you think of the model as a map, you change how you use it. Map modellers use the model to explore possible futures. They learn to recognize problems and opportunities when they arise in the real world.

They also recognize that the model is not the only tool they will need. When you go for a drive, no map can be a substitute for looking out of your front window as you go down the road. If you don’t know where you are, a map isn’t much help. In the same way, no model can be a substitute for a monitoring program. Every now and then, you need to have a reality check.

The Nature of the Conflict

Stick modellers are afraid of map modellers, because of their openness about the shortcomings of transportation models. This is a threat to stick modellers. The map modeller’s insistence on monitoring is an anathema to stick modellers.

Map modellers are disdainful of stick modellers. Where the stick modeller believes they have a big stick, the map modeller sees only a rolled up map. A rolled up map isn’t a very impressive or effective weapon, and it isn’t much use as a map either.

Story Conflict

Since these two views are often subconscious, the people in conflict would not necessarily understand why they are in conflict. None of the characters could address it directly, since they would be unaware of it. People will see it as a personal conflict, which would lead them to discount the importance of the conflict.

In a story, we want to have the hero resolve the conflict. Since I never found a way to resolve this conflict when I worked as a transportation planner, it is hard for me to imagine how it can be resolved in a story. In my experience, stick modellers do not like to discuss what they see as an esoteric philosophical point. On the other hand, in a fictional story I can create a wish fulfilment fantasy where I solve a problem that I couldn’t in real life.

An analogy helps to understand the complex. However, like a model, any analogy has its limits. The analogy of the stick and the map does not capture the full complexity of transportation models. When I write a story though, I can use poetic license to ignore some of the complications.


This post is a part of a series. The other posts are:

Issues in Transportation Planning #1: What I Want to Say

Issues in Transportation Planning #2: The Limitations of Models

Issues in Transportation Planning #3: Political Interference

Issues in Transportation Planning #4: It’s All Bad News

Issues in Transportation Planning #5: The Public and the Media

I have several other posts that are closely related:

Transportation Planning Movies and Stories

Transportation Infrastructure as Status Symbol

Transportation Planning Humour

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