Wicked Problems: Part I, TRAFFIC CONGESTION

Peter Gorrie at the Toronto Star asserts that traffic congestion is a wicked problem. Is he right?

A ‘wicked problem’ is a phrase used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Says Laurence J. Peter: “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

The following comments prescriptively follow the opening chapter of a book by Dr. Jeff Conklin called “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems”. While the architecture of the argument and indeed many of the passages forming the matrix of the discourse are Conklin’s, the assertions and analysis are mine. So, in a fundamental way, this series is jointly authored, but the blame for errors and weak assertions rests solely with me.

Wicked problems, according to Jeff Conklin, have six critical characteristics:

  1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation'.
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.


Let’s look at congestion through the lens of Conklin’s six descriptive characteristics to assess whether Peter Gorrie is correct.

1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

Many solutions are proposed to solve congestion. More roads, more transit, fewer trips, car-pooling, higher density, eat local, telework, smaller cars, roundabouts, removing stop signs, synchronizing signals. The list is very long.

The innumerable ills of congestion are well described, and a great number of solutions have been offered, but we have not tried a solution that has taken hold and that shows more than a temporary or local relief such as the London Congestion System or continuous-flow intersections, respectively. Perhaps this is because the greatest determinant of congestion – an increase in the number of cars – continuously overwhelms our otherwise sensible, local solutions to keep up.

Every solution offered eases the problem a bit while exposing new aspects or another layer of the problem. A new lane invites more traffic. A new transit service or an HOV lane is underused. An increase in bicycle use creates a safety issue.

Perhaps congestion is not necessarily the problem we should tackle, but rather just a symptom of problem we could solve. So what is the problem? To say ‘too many cars’ states the obvious. To say we feel entitled to a private vehicle or that we ‘have earned it’ or prefer it to another mode of travel says why the problem is entrenched, but does not lead to a solution. To say we ‘ought’ to change our travel choices (carpool, bike, transit) moves only a small minority to change.

To say ‘driving is not correctly priced’ may help but that changes the problem domain completely exposing a host of other problems. I will return to this in Part II because it is its own wicked problem.

While there are thousands of papers decrying and detailing the problem of congestion there is no single agreed definitive statement of ‘The Problem.’ As a problem, traffic congestion is ill-structured, a complex and arguably evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Horst Rittel said, “One cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve.” Moreover, what ‘the Problem’ is depends on who you ask – different stakeholders have different views about what the problem is and what constitutes an acceptable solution.

This tells us that there is no ‘perfect solution’ or even one good (in every sense) solution to congestion.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

Since there is no definitive ‘The Problem’, there is also no definitive ‘The Solution.’ The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources, such as time, money, or energy, not when some optimal or ‘final and correct’ solution emerges.

For congestion, no ‘The Solution’ has yet appeared. It is hard to envision a solution that we would like that has the roads we have be enough for the cars we want to use.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

They are only ‘better,’ ‘worse,’ ‘good enough,’ or ‘not good enough’ solutions to Congestion. The determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula. Solutions are assessed in a social context in which “many parties are equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge [them],” and these judgments vary widely and depend on the stakeholder’s independent values and goals.

I have yet to read any description of a solution to congestion in an online newspaper article or blog that is not followed by a plethora of varying opinions vehemently for or vehemently against. If you want to increase your facility for insulting other stakeholders, these comments are a great place to start.

4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social, political, geographical and economic context, that no two congestion problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted. Rittel: “The condition in a city constructing a subway may look similar to the conditions in San Francisco, say, . . differences in commuter habits or residential patterns may far outweigh similarities in subway layout, down-town layout, and the rest.” Over time one acquires wisdom and experience about the approach to wicked problems, but one is always a beginner in the specifics of a new wicked problem.

Surely, transit works in some urban geographies, but not in others. Sometimes you can add a lane for cars or bikes, sometimes not. Sometimes what you can physically or politically achieve will have no impact in any case.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation.’

Every attempt has consequences. As Rittel says, “One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.” This is the “Catch 22” about wicked problems: you can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution you try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.

Many solutions to congestion are large and expensive. Urban rail is a huge undertaking. Is it the best solution? Not all agree. Even if they did, what route should it take? How long should it be? Should it follow the majority path of current commuters or will transit-oriented development make it worthwhile to lay track where no one currently goes?

6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions that are devised, and another host that are never even thought of. Thus, it is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgment to determine which are valid, which should be pursued and implemented.

Who can say that we have thought of all solutions to congestion? In any one location we visit, we might be surprised at a local solution. I was recently in Springfield Missouri, and was surprised to learn of the effectiveness of a continuous flow intersection. This system, which I had never seen before, is now projected to reduce gridlock delays by over 70% rather than the original 32% projected.

So, I would say Peter Gorrie was right.

See the entire whitepaper, here.

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