Hubris or humility? Accuracy issues for the next 50 years of travel demand modeling

Hartgen, David T.
November 2013
Transportation;Nov2013, Vol. 40 Issue 6, p1133
Academic Journal
This study reviews the 50-year history of travel demand forecasting models, concentrating on their accuracy and relevance for public decision-making. Only a few studies of model accuracy have been performed, but they find that the likely inaccuracy in the 20-year forecast of major road projects is ±30 % at minimum, with some estimates as high as ±40–50 % over even shorter time horizons. There is a significant tendency to over-estimate traffic and underestimate costs, particularly for toll roads. Forecasts of transit costs and ridership are even more uncertain and also significantly optimistic. The greatest knowledge gap in US travel demand modeling is the unknown accuracy of US urban road traffic forecasts. Modeling weaknesses leading to these problems (non-behavioral content, inaccuracy of inputs and key assumptions, policy insensitivity, and excessive complexity) are identified. In addition, the institutional and political environments that encourage optimism bias and low risk assessment in forecasts are also reviewed. Major institutional factors, particularly low local funding matches and competitive grants, confound scenario modeling efforts and dampen the hope that technical modeling improvements alone can improve forecasting accuracy. The fundamental problems are not technical but institutional: high non-local funding shares for large projects warp local perceptions of project benefit versus costs, leading to both input errors and political pressure to fund projects. To deal with these issues, the paper outlines two different approaches. The first, termed ‘hubris’, proposes a multi-decade effort to substantially improve model forecasting accuracy over time by monitoring performance and improving data, methods and understanding of travel, but also by deliberately modifying the institutional arrangements that lead to optimism bias. The second, termed ‘humility’, proposes to openly quantify and recognize the inherent uncertainty in travel demand forecasts and deliberately reduce their influence on project decision-making. However to be successful either approach would require monitoring and reporting accuracy, standards for modeling and forecasting, greater model transparency, educational initiatives, coordinated research, strengthened ethics and reduction of non-local funding ratios so that localities have more at stake.


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