Transportation Planning and Path Dependence

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Transportation Planning and Path Dependence

On March 20, 2017, Posted by , in Research, tags , With No Comments

One of my graduate seminars here at WU was taught by Dr. Kurt Dopfer, a leading thinker and writer on evolutionary economics. This is a theory of economics that focuses on processes of decision making and market formation rather than outcomes of decisions structured by a strict (and unrealistic) set of assumptions. That markets are about social rules and these rules are emergent. One of the ideas about how these rules of the market form is via path dependence.

I developed a paper on path dependence for the seminar. The paper offers an introduction to the idea:

“The concept of path dependence has been proposed as a framework for understanding dynamic processes in evolutionary economics. The ‘path’ is a metaphor for a sustained trajectory that results from a series of interrelated and cumulative events—in short, history matters. ‘Dependence’ conveys the idea that the path itself is contingent upon and conditioned by its own existing trajectory. Path dependent processes thus involve increasing returns; ‘each move down the path strengthens probability for additional steps along the same path’ (Lagerholm and Malmberg, 2009, p 88). Further, paths can branch off on new trajectories when an event occurs at a critical point. Change is, therefore, contingent and probabilistic rather than deterministic, with alternative outcomes entirely possible.  At the same time, just as for biological adaptations, the set of potential next steps in a given path is limited to those possible from the current position on that same path. Of course this resiliency is no guarantee of continual positive change; problems and inertia can be persistent as well.”

It turns out that transportation is full of path dependency, both literally and metaphorically, although this usually is in terms of technology. ‘Dependence’ might have some negative connotations, but ‘lock in’ can be positive. And planning in general holds that plan-making is a way to create a virtuous ‘lock in’.

In my paper, I develop a short case study of the regional rail project in the Research Triangle of North Carolina and path dependence.

In thinking about the Triangle experience, I find several features of path dependence:

  • Seemingly unrelated historic events affecting outcomes
  • Technological persistence reinforcing a trajectory
  • Incremental technological innovation sustaining a trajectory
  • Institutional innovation sustaining a trajectory
  • Institutional persistence sustaining a trajectory

The full working paper is posted over here:

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