Applying “Systems Intelligence” to Transport

Commentary, Environment, Owen McShane

Background and Introduction

A Presentation in Three Parts

This is Part A of a three part written presentation to the Annual Land Transport Summit, 2007. Part B is “Halle Neustadt – the Sustainable City; a Cautionary Tale.” Part C is “Alternatives to Smart Growth.” I was asked to give this presentation only a few days before the conference opening and have not had the time to write a new paper to cover the whole topic. I have updated these three “parts” and my verbal presentation will combine the three into a hopefully coherent whole.

Sustainability – an unsustainable test.

For most of the many years during which I have been involved in transport issues, both traffic engineers and urban economists tested their transport investment decisions against an analysis of “net public benefit”. If benefits exceeded costs, then the project was worth doing, and the size of the ratio determined the priority of the project.

These days, the new concept of “sustainability” has entered the lexicon, and traditional benefit-cost analysis appears to be taking a back seat.

However, I submit that the test “Is it sustainable?” has little utility, if only because the term “sustainable” is undefinable, and hence means whatever anyone wants it to mean. Indeed, in my opinion, “sustainability” is so much in vogue only because it allows politicians and lobbyists to conceal their prejudices and preferences behind a multitude of “sustainable” smokescreens.

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