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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Ethical Challenges and Professional Responses of Travel Demand Forecasters

  • Author(s): Brinkman, Anthony P.
  • et al.

Thirty years ago scholars first presented convincing evidence that local officials use biased travel demand forecasts to justify decisions based on unstated considerations. Since then, a number of researchers have demonstrated convincingly that such forecasts are systematically optimistic-often wildly so-for reasons that cannot be explained solely by the inherent difficulty of predicting the future. Why do modelers-professional engineers and planners who use quantitative techniques to predict future demand for travel and estimate its potential impact on built and proposed transportation facilities-generate biased forecasts and otherwise tolerate the misuse of their work? On initial consideration, it is tempting to surmise that corrupt modelers are responsible for biased forecasting. Indeed, corruption is the most common explanation of forecasting bias and tales of mercenary behavior are all too common in the field. Data from in-depth interviews with twenty-nine travel demand forecasters throughout the United States and Canada, how-ever, suggest new and different ways to understand the suspect behavior of transportation planning professionals. Those most likely to introduce bias and invite misuse of travel forecasts assume that their technical analyses have little, if any, impact on policy making. For many, this leads to disillusionment and requires responses to cope with feelings of marginalization. Others, untroubled by their apparent lack of influence, are complacent and need ways to avoid the ethical questions of practice. Both types of practitioners circumscribe professional roles and rely on the self-deceptive strategies of evasion and excuse making to mute their own disquieting realities that undermine positive concepts of self. The disillusioned wish not to see that they do not matter and the complacent that they do. Bias and misuse seem to be the unintentional byproducts of these attitudes. Beyond enhancing the understanding of the systemic failures of travel demand modeling, this research suggests practicable steps to reform and outlines an agenda for future work. Attention to these matters is important, not just to avoid expenditures on projects and programs that cannot be justified on the basis of sound utilitarian calculations, but also to restore and preserve the credibility of a profession.

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