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procrastination and innovation

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  • Simon Norton
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 2, 2010
      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.

      Simon Norton
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