3. Stage 2: Problem assessment

This stage involves assessing the scale and extent of the problem, as well as its cause and effect. It aims to answer the question: to what extent does (or will) the problem impact upon the goals and objectives set out in Step 1, and what causes the problem?

Problem assessment should primarily be in the form of quantified estimates to demonstrate the scale and extent of key problems and issues. Qualitative descriptions will also play an important role, especially where problems are not quantifiable due to a lack of quality information and data.

Problem assessment focuses on examining and validating the problem statements identified in Stage 1 of the analysis.

3.1 Why is problem assessment important?

Developing a sound understanding of the extent, scale, cause and effect of problems provides a strong evidence-based foundation for developing options. Failure to do this may result in a mismatch of problems and solutions and/or solutions that don’t adequately or effectively alleviate the problem in the long term.

Understanding the nature of the problems facing the transport system will also enable practitioners to prioritise the worst problems first.

Without a sound understanding of the problem, practitioners will be limited in their ability to fully explore possible solutions and identify the most appropriate solution. Completing problem identification and assessment is critical before proceeding to the options generation and assessment step.

3.2 Key steps in problem assessment

It’s critical that practitioners develop a sound understanding of multifaceted transport problems. Figure 2 illustrates the dimensions of problems that need to be considered by practitioners in undertaking this step of work.

Figure 2: Steps in problem assessment

Steps in problem assessment

Each of these steps is described in more detail below.

3.3 Cause and effect of the problem

Once the problem statements have been developed, identifying and validating the cause and effect of the problem is required. Effective action can only be taken once the underlying cause and effect of a problem has been diagnosed.

The critical element at this stage is to understand cause and effect: that is, to probe the causes or explanations behind the observed problem and to identify the fundamental causes rather than the symptoms of the problems. Assessing a problem in terms of its symptoms obscures the real cause and leads to solutions that fail to correct the basic issues and conditions.

Practitioners should be able to demonstrate an understanding of why the problem has arisen or will occur and directly link this understanding to the identification of potential solutions in the next step of the framework.

Possible causes for transport-related problems may include a market failure of some kind, a government failure in terms of planning, incorrect pricing, a lack of investment signals or poor governance arrangements.

It is important to identify the fundamental causes of the problem with as much precision as possible. For example:

  • The root cause of road congestion should not be identified broadly as a ‘lack of capacity’. Further investigation is needed to determine what has caused the lack of capacity. It may be a demand/supply mismatch caused by incorrect pricing and excess demand or a lack of supply side investment due to the absence of price signals or targeted revenue streams.
  • When shop owners in a suburban shopping centre complain about inadequate parking for their customers, the root causes may be broader than insufficient parking supply. The problem may also be defined as too many vehicles at certain times of the day, inefficient management of available spaces, land use planning that has permitted too many car-dependent businesses to locate together or a lack of adequate public transport or active transport offerings.

Accurate identification of the cause and effect of the problem is crucial to developing well-targeted solutions.

Consideration should also be given to the nature of the cause of the problem and whether, on balance, it is a positive or negative development. This will affect the way in which a problem is addressed. For example, economic growth - generally a positive development - may have caused an increased demand for freight movements along a transport corridor, placing road and rail links under unexpected pressure. In this instance, the solution is unlikely to involve limiting economic growth; rather, the emphasis will be on managing the transport system to respond to the growth.

Considering the cause and effect of problems will often lead to identifying interdependencies between problems. More guidance on interdependencies is considered in F3.

3.4 Scale, extent and cost of the problem

Once the cause and effect has been identified, systematic mapping is required to understand the scale and extent of the problem, and its cost. Qualitative and quantitative data should be used to estimate the social, economic and environmental costs of current and future problems. In effect, this analysis aims to answer the question: how much does the problem matter?

Mapping the scale, extent and cost of the problem should be an objective, data-rich and transparent exercise. Many specific datasets are available to support this exercise. For example:

  • Transport for NSW provides comprehensive statistics and datasets for a range of topics, including Journey to Work data, travel and population forecasts, and information about rail, bus and ferry modes.
  • The ABS provides nationwide statistics and data on travel to work or study, number of registered vehicles, road traffic accidents and motor vehicle use.
  • BITRE produces monthly and annual statistics related to road deaths, road trauma, heavy vehicle crashes and international road safety comparisons.
  • Other state transport bodies such as the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads and the Western Australian Office of Road Safety collect and publish road statistics in their respective jurisdictions.

3.5 Current and future problems

Current problems and their context should be described accurately. This should not be limited to problems but also examine constraints on opportunities. This requires the systematic mapping and quantification of problems. It should include an objective identification of deficiencies in the condition and operation of infrastructure networks and the services they support (see the Policy Choices and System Planning chapter for discussion of network deficiency assessment). Generally, this will involve analysing and explaining data obtained through studies on development trends, demographic forecasts, land use requirements, infrastructure systems, feasibility studies and other aspects.

Problem identification should not be confined to existing situations or issues. Given the scale and long asset life of many transport investments, it is important to consider whether a problem today will become a larger problem in future. This means that the full range of factors (or ‘drivers’) that may shape the future should be considered. Failure to explore these drivers may lead to poorly considered transport decisions and investments that do not stand the test of time.

Depending on the interplay between these drivers, current problems may persist and become more difficult in the future, or they may diminish. Other problems may arise, even though they do not exist at present. For example, current or previous strategic land use plans may create mismatches between population and employment growth that will require future investment in transport infrastructure.

Best practice planning requires these future drivers - and the links and interplay between them - to be identified and analysed to understand their influence on the nominated goals and objectives over the longer term.

While the drivers that influence transport problems will be unique to each problem, some potential drivers to consider are:

  • Socio-demographic change – total population, population mix (especially age profile), population distribution, values
  • Economic change – size and mix of the economy, growth, globalisation, labour markets
  • Land use planning – the allocation of growth across the city/region will influence transport demand
  • Energy prices – particularly the potential mix and cost of energy sources for various sectors of the economy
  • Climate change – the impact of change in climate patterns such as temperature, run-off projections, sea level rise and storm surge probabilities on the demand for infrastructure and the maintenance of existing infrastructure networks
  • Technological change – whether change in technology will reduce or increase the demand for certain transport systems, create entirely new demands and/or change the way infrastructure systems are built, managed and operated
  • Governance change – changes in the wider system of government that may shape the demand for services and/or the way in which government responds to those demands.

3.6 Analytical tools

A number of analytical tools are available to support practitioners in problem identification and assessment. Some of these are shown below.

Scenario analysis Deficiency analysis Data and modelling Gap analysis

There are limited precedents for the use of this tool in Australia.

Sources on scenario analysis include:

  • US Federal Highway Administration, Scenario Planning Guidebook
  • Oregon Sustainable Transportation Initiative (OSTI), Scenario Planning Guidelines
  • Infrastructure Australia, Better Infrastructure Decision-Making

This analysis compares a network and its components with specified benchmarks such as average vehicle speed, level of service, track availability, transit times and crash rates.

Examples of sources of data for deficiency analysis include:

  • State/Territory transport agencies
  • ABS
  • OECD

Transport modelling may yield useful data (such as travel times, origins and destinations of trips, vehicle operating costs and choice of travel mode).

Modelling tools include surveys, the conventional four step trip generation model, network models and integrated land use and transport modelling.

Example transport models that may be used include:

  • aSIDRA
  • EMME

Gap analysis may be a helpful tool to establish the degree to which actual outcomes (measured by performance indicators) short fall of desired outcomes (measured by performance targets).

This gap comparison can be undertaken for the present year, and for any future year.

Infrastructure Australia notes in its Reform and Investment Framework (RIF) that policy and investment decisions should be made having regard to potential views of the future and that scenario analysis provides a strong platform for robust decision making and the realisation of goals and outcomes. Through the RIF, Infrastructure Australia looks to the proponents of initiatives to assess whether the problems identified are likely to be enduring and significant under a range of scenarios. Infrastructure Australia expects proponents to present some scenario analysis at the problem identification/assessment stage of the RIF.

TOOLKIT Scenario analysis

Although there are limited precedents for the use of this tool in Australia, scenario analysis is an important tool that can help to identify transport problems and assess their implications.

What is scenario analysis? - Scenario analysis is a structured way to think about the future. It has been described as ‘stories that can help us to recognise and adapt to changing aspects of our environment’. It provides an assessment of the links and interactions between various drivers of change and the future impacts on transport infrastructure and networks.

How is it achieved? - Usually, the drivers of change are applied to establish three or four alternate views (scenarios) of the future. Using data-rich information about forecasts, these drivers are clustered and ranked to identify those that are most important for the goals and objectives defined during Step 1. A range of ‘shocks’ (scenario attributes) is set against these drivers to test the scenarios through quantitative and qualitative approaches that look for ‘tipping points’, which can then be compared with the defined goals and objectives.

What scenarios should be explored? - Scenarios should be plausible and varied. Importantly, they should not be restricted to minor variations to a central ‘business as usual’ scenario: futures where the drivers of change operate in a materially different way to that used for the ‘most likely’ or ‘business as usual’ scenario should also be explored.

What timeframes should be used? - Strategic planning should take a long term view. In developing scenarios, the time horizon for analysis should reflect the nature of the problems and challenges likely to prevent the achievement of the defined goals and objectives. For example, some challenges, such as those associated with climate change and the availability and cost of various energy sources, have long-term implications that extend beyond 25 years. Transport networks also tend to have long lives. For these reasons, scenario analysis frequently involves an assessment of the future beyond the next 20, 30 or 40 years. However, it should be noted that medium term horizons (of five to 10 years) are generally considered more plausible and certain than longer term horizons.

What are the limitations of scenario analysis? - The most significant practical limitation in undertaking scenario analysis is likely to be the resource implications of testing numerous quantitative scenarios. Where resources are constrained, practitioners may need to very carefully consider the number, nature and scope of scenarios to be tested. There may also be difficulties in establishing a planning baseline against which alternative scenarios can be tested: in some instances, this may render scenarios analysis a largely pointless exercise and make other forms of data collection more useful.