Thinking about Equity-Based Transport Systems: Get Ready to Embrace Complexity (or Get Off the Bridge)

As is or at least should by now be well known, a transportation “system” is well more than a collection of largely free-standing bits of infrastructure, modes, links, agencies, institutions, operators and more, concerning which decision scan be taken on a piecemeal basis. .  It is in fact a textbook example of a disorganized complex system, or more specifically a vast, chaotic but ultimately manageable ecosystem.  And if it is our ambition — which it should be — to construct, or rather reconstruct, our city transport systems into functional high-performing sustainable ecosystems. it can help to build up our understanding of the process in steps.

In the “mind map” that follows, we present a first level of goals, which have been abstracted from a far more complex map which at present identifies roughly five hundred system components, values and targets. But let’s see what happens if we take this process one step at a time.

Map 1 showing 12 key values driving the project

We can talk about why those particular values are there.  And yes they do represent what we hope is a complex, consistent and ultimately effective philosophy and value set clearly laying out what we believe to be important and determinant.  At this stage these are only words, but in the context of our EBT program. each of these values is subject to analysis, discussion and of course considerable differences of opinion.  The value of the exercise above all is probably that it is explicit and open.  No hiding going oni here.

When you see that short list at the very least you can see what we are trying to get at with the project, a sort of bottom line of what we view as the most important values driving the whole operation .

But now let’s jump up a level and see what our “system” starts to look like at a higher level of complexity — this times in the form of a mind map showing the fifty most critical components;

Map 2: 50 Values (Note: click maps to magnify)

Now things are starting to get more complicated, but once again the map points up what we belive to be the most important values that will ultimately  drive policy, investments  and the performance of the system.

And if we move up a notch to bring in the first one hundred fifty key words, we get something that starts to look like  this.

Map 3: 150

Now as you dig into this map you really start to get an idea of the level of complexity of which we must be aware and operational.

Now our final step (for now).  This is what our ecosystem start to look like when we expand it to some five hundred components.

Map 4: ca. 500

This is as far as we have taken this process at this point.  But if your mind works this way, this can be a handy device for organising your own mind maps and thoughts on this challenging  subject.

Let me end with a slightly more aggressive thought on our subject, which is this. If you are not prepared to handle this level of complexity, then city transport policy is not for you.  It’s that simple.

#  # #

PS. What do you do if you are a mayor, ultimately responsible for transport policy and investments in your city, when (a) you are not a transport expert (though you do almost certainly have your opinions) and (b) you have probably less than 5% of your time available even to think about this part of your demanding mandate?

That’s a good question and one that is well worth asking.

About the editor:


3 thoughts on “Thinking about Equity-Based Transport Systems: Get Ready to Embrace Complexity (or Get Off the Bridge)

    • Hi Eric,

      This is all brilliant work. And I will use it here in Halifax – we’re about to elect a new Mayor and City Council in six weeks.

      I’d like to suggest a small but important semantic shift in conversing about our situations and solutions, from using the word “transportation” to using “mobility”, going from “Thinking about Equity-Based Transport Systems: …” to “Thinking about Equity-Based Mobility Solutions: …”
      “Transportation” is first about the tools, is the semantic cloud of hardware (cars, roads, bridges) and rules of the road, …. .
      “Mobility” is the human objective, as is equity. What are we looking to do? Move ourselves, our families, friends, possessions from hither to yon… with human equity, as conveniently, safely, ecologically, & sanely as possible.

      Peter Zimmer
      General Manager, co-owner
      CarShareHFX , Halifax NS Canada

      • First Peter, Thanks for those encouraging words. As you know I am swimming against the current in much of my work, so it is very heartwarming to know that there are others who share my concerns. Especially when it comes from people like you who are showing with the courage and brains that it is possible to make difference in their communities.

        Transport Vs. Mobility. More than of course. For now at least, I am taking aim at the “transportation” community, exactly as you describe them. People looking at the wrong stuff. If you look at the second mind map in the article you will see over on the right the triptych Transport/Mobility/Access, and yes that is where my heart is on this. At one point I may make the shift, but for now this is how I am playing it.
        our mayor and the elections. did you happen to see my couple of pieces on mayors and our sector? If interested you can catch them at

        Six weeks? Oh dear, if I were not overloaded and underbrained I would propose to work with you to write a “Halifax Mobility Pact” which could serve to make as no-prisoners’ statement on “transport” policy and what you expect from your mayors and local government more generally. The model might be Nicolas Houlot’s Pacte Ecologique” which got such strong public support in the presidential elections of 2008 that all the major candidates had to sign on. The fact that President Sarkozy later ended up running away from the challenge is a lesson form the past, but at least he did try to set up something a bit different with the Grenelle de l’environnement.

        Thanks again/Eric


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s