The Streetlight Effect
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete (The Freeman) - September 24, 2019 - 12:00am

(Part 2) 

Two weeks ago, we introduced a concept called “The Streetlight Effect.” If we are faced with a problem where there is no data available, but there are lots of data in another field, we tend to justify using the other field’s data. The anecdotal story goes like this: “A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, ‘this is where the light is’.”

Unfortunately, we, and society, but most frequently government, makes the same decisions often. I will leave it an open question whether this is acceptable or not but clearly, it would always be better to look for a coin around where it was lost, not where there’s light. And this pervades in almost every aspect in human endeavor, from finding cures for sickness in medicine to using big data for artificial intelligence. Sometimes, the existing data

are not exactly what we need but we use them anyway because that’s all we have.

This frequently happens in government services and infrastructure, too, resulting in building schools where there is available government land, instead of locating them near population centers so that children won’t have to walk or commute. We have funny cases of barangay halls located outside its boundaries – inside another barangay!

Again, these can be accepted if there are legitimately sufficient reasons for doing so. You can’t build an airport in a rugged mountain terrain no matter how much you need it – you might locate it somewhere else, and just ensure there is connectivity.

In transport mobility, this is often the case, but it’s also frequent that the reasons don’t stand scrutiny. We want to expand a narrow road but we can’t because it’s a built-up area and the price of land is high. So, we build another road in another area. In many cases in the Philippines, we have roads named circumferential road, or diversion road, or bypass road. True, there might be sufficient reasons for their existence but more often than not, it’s also because we are intimidated by the challenges of just widening the existing road.

At one time, the DOTr secretary said, “the BRT would only worsen our already congested roads.” In another recent forum, he argued, “Can you dedicate one more lane in a place where there are only three lanes? Can you dedicate a lane in a system like EDSA, where you have six lanes but are already overcrowded?”

And proceeded to say we should build in Clark because it’s wide there. And I remember Enrique Peñalosa saying, “Where your roads are narrow and congested, that’s where you need to build the BRT the most!” We need to build solutions where the problems are, not where it’s easier… (To be continued)

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