procrastination and innovation
- A couple of interesting essays posted to this group though their relevance to
transport issues is not clear.
I think that the example used to illustrate procrastination -- the economist who
delayed sending a parcel back to his home country -- was a bad one, as there the
argument that if the task was delayed sufficiently it might cease to be
necessary did actually apply.
One case which is frustrating to people is when organisations skimp on the staff
they provide to deal with their customers, and as a result the customers have to
queue. Where queues are long one thinks to oneself "it will require no fewer
people-minutes to deal with my problem now rather than later, so why do they
think they are saving money by not doing so now ?". There is of course the
possibility that the customer may give up, i.e. that the task of dealing with
the customer may no longer be necessary, but does the organisation really
benefit by this ?
Of course the organisation can make sure it benefits. The typical example is
when one has to ring a call centre on a premium rate number which gives the
organisation a share of the cost of the call -- the longer one has to wait the
more the organisation benefits.
Another case which does directly link to transport is when one presses a button
at a light controlled pedestrian crossing and has to wait ages for the light to
change. The pedestrian asks why it wouldn't be better for all concerned if the
crossing gave pedestrians the right of way immediately. There is in fact every
likelihood that delaying the change might make it no longer necessary -- the
pedestrian may find a gap in the crossing in the meantime -- but here this
doesn't benefit the traffic as the cycle which causes the light to change will
still be under way. In well used crossings making the pedestrian wait means that
more pedestrians will join him/her thus reducing the number of times the traffic
would have to stop, but one sees light controlled crossings even in areas where
pedestrians are relatively few.
Then there are governments that procrastinate about delivering transport
investment. Are they hoping that some magic button will appear in the meantime
which makes that investment no longer necessary ? If it remains necessary its
cost is more likely to increase than to decrease. One of the worst examples in
the UK is the restoration of rail links, where if this is delayed the result can
be that the route is lost to building. The public purse is then indeed spared
the cost of restoring the line but the public lose out even more from lack of
the relevant transport links and, sometimes, the emergence of more expensive
solutions to get round the problem.
Road builders have, however, found a simple way to escape this problem. In the
UK there has been a procedure for the designation of green belts with the
nominal purpose of avoiding sprawl. In practice a common result has been to make
it much easier to build orbital motorways.
Now let me turn to innovation. The problem with applying innovations to
transport is that the type of innovations that are needed rarely lend themselves
to commercial exploitation. Furthermore they often won't work on a small scale
because of network effects which makes it impossible to apply the procedure,
common in the commercial sector, of starting small and extending. Here are some
examples of innovations might be happening if it weren't for these problems.
(a) Coordinated transport networks
(b) Car-free housing (the problem with applying this on a small scale is what to
do with residents who need to get to other areas, or to visitors from other
(c) Comprehensive bus priorities (i.e. ones that are sufficient to reverse the
tendency for cars to be faster than buses).
All these do exist but on a far smaller scale than would be necessary to make a
difference to the world's transport mix.