Complexity rears its head in many forms in America’s urban transport sector -– in the marketplace, methodologically, institutionally, and technically. One unmistakable outcome has been delays and a certain tentativeness in advancing change and innovation. This is principally because complexity makes problem definition and resource-allocation choices difficult.
As the world’s most car-dependent culture, America’s ecological footprint is gargantuan by global standards. With just over 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes more than 25 percent of petroleum used in the urban transport sector and is responsible for a similar amount of transport-based greenhouse gas emissions. Such disproportionateness raises fundamental questions about ethics and fairness and the threats posed as other countries of the world continue to mimic US consumption habits, particularly with regard to automobile ownership.
As motorization rates in countries like China and India continue to escalate, the earth's ability absorb astronomical increases in greenhouse gas emissions will be pushed to the limit. If there is any one variable that explains rising car ownership and usage, it is personal wealth. All countries aspire to modernize and all people of the world seek prosperity; thus a more modern, affluent world invariably is a world with more cars.
To discourage motorization in developing countries is to discourage a modern western lifestyle. The automobile is a powerful symbol of wealth and prosperity, and no amount of sustainable transport policy and plan-making, however well-intended, is about to change this. Lessons can be gained by studying the complex nature of transportation systems in advanced economies of the US, not only for framing American-based policies but also for conjecturing about transportation futures in many places around the globe whose land-use patterns and travel habit are mimicking those in America more and more.
This paper explores multiple dimensions of complexity in a US transportation-policy context, discusses the implications of these dimensions for policy change, and to the degree appropriate, suggests strategies that might be pursued to overcome, or at least better “manage,” complexity. Three major spheres of complexity that are addressed relate to mobility markets, problem definition and analysis (technocratic complexity), and decision-making. The paper closes with a review of promising developments in coping with the panoply of complex problems faced in America’s urban transport sector, with a particular focus on progress made in better integrating public transport and urbanism in the world’s most car-dependent cities.