While the future can be exciting and an adventure, there are unanticipated events that occur that can disrupt normal flows and operations (Maritz, 2019). On the extreme, there have been catastrophes that seemed “acts of god”, events that are not contemplated in this series of blogs yet provide some context (Maritz, 2019; Gibbons, 2018). More predictable and relevant to our lifetimes, the Cascadia Fault off the coasts of Oregon and Washington is predicted to rupture in the next 50 years and could be the worst North American human disaster on record with significant costs in lives lost and property damage. The damage to roads, bridges, airports, transit, railroads, and navigable waterways will significantly reduce the ability to respond and recover. This event is being studied and planned for (Bauer, et al, 2018; Roth and Thompson, 2018; Sounds, 2019; Steele, 2020).

Risk management is the identification, evaluation, and prioritization of risks followed by methodologies to minimize, monitor, and control the probability or impact of unfortunate events or to maximize the realization of opportunities. The U. S. transportation industry has enormous risk exposure and among the most risk-prone industries in the world. As such, the federal transportation act—Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act or MAP-21 and signed into law in 2012—established the requirement for states to develop a risk-based asset management plan. Risk management is a dynamic process and used routinely within the public and private sectors. Without such plans, organizations can be surprised by events that have negative financial impacts or missed positive opportunities with improved outcomes. The literature on risk management is rich and evolving. A Black Swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected and has the potential for severe consequences. Risks must be identified at the beginning of a project or program, discussed, and updated regularly. Some typical risks might include scope, schedule, and budget issues; safety issues; liability issues; site condition issues; dispute issues; quality issues; workforce turnover or other staffing issues; weather or other delays; contract interpretation disputes; rework; prompt payment; opportunities for additional work; priorities; owner readiness; and so on. Regardless, it is critical to identify risks, actions to prevent or mitigate new risks, probability of occurrence, and a champion/responsible party to take the lead. Various means of identifying the probability of risks are also important such as Monte Carlo simulation.

The Covid-19 Pandemic is a glaring and recent example of positive and negative impacts and could be categorized as a Black Swan. It could not have been anticipated although pandemics are a certainty. As risks do, it is also having positive and negative impacts. For example, remote work and quarantining are reducing CO2 emissions (IEA, 2020;  Figure 9), online shopping continues to increase versus brick and mortar stores (Ali, 2021), costs associated with commuting and office space (Boland, et al, 2020; Ambrose, 2020), and reducing traffic congestion (Ronan, 2021). Some reports are that certain categories of online shopping and delivery increased 50-125 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.  However, already disadvantaged populations are disproportionately negatively affected and transit faces an existential threat in 2021 and beyond due to the reduction of ridership and associated revenues.

As many as 572 airports are also threatened by global warming and associated sea level rise by 2021 (Yesudian and Dawson, 2021). A record number of hurricanes, wildfires and floods cost the world $210 billion in damage in last year, much of it due to global warming. The six most expensive disasters of 2020 occurred in the U.S. (NOAA, 2021; Kann, 2021). There is also the threat of land subsidence that may affect 19 percent of the world population by 2040 (Herrera-Garcia, et al, 2021).

As of this writing, over 30 million U. S. citizens have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 500,000 deaths. That is more than 1 in 9 that have been diagnosed with the disease. Under more normal conditions before the pandemic, there was not a public transit system that was not subsidized. Even with vaccines being fielded, the future of transit ridership and revenues is far from certain. The course for the foreseeable future, without federal help, is to reduce services. Black Swans and other events may be giving us a “pause” to rethink transportation/mobility.

FIGURE 9. Estimated world CO2 reductions during pandemic in 2020. Reductions were 17 percent during the first peak in spring but have declined to 7 percent, the biggest drop ever, over the course of the year, with negligible long-term climate improvements (Sourced from: München, 2020).

As weather patterns change, commodities and other flows are interrupted and delayed. The recent Texas utility debacle from unusual winter weather is yet another risk that could have been precluded and mitigated. People and companies lost heat, potable water and waste water services, and have and are experiencing injuries, death, and economic hardships—a series of cascading failures (Northey, 2021). During the crisis, unregulated utilities charged a market cap price of $9,000 per mega-watt hour  (McGinty and Patterson, 2021). The lack of preparation was made worse by delaying commodities including food and Covid-19 vaccinations. Moreover, Texas utilities were warned 10 years earlier of the preparation needed but they ignored the risks (Blunt and Gold, 2021). This is a failure of leadership.

In addition to individual risks typically identified in risk assessments, there can also be risk correlations between work breakdown structure (WBS) elements, events, risks of projects, across projects, and programs. Some of these might include (modified from Prieto, 2020):

  • “Money Allocated Is Money Spent”
  • Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time allotted
  •  Overconfidence in assessing uncertainties
  • Complexity with hidden coupling – risk events are likely to affect multiple cost elements with the potential for cascading impacts
  • State of technology – common new technologies/materials
  • Common management, staff and work processes
  • Optimism bias and other biases consistently applied
  • Overly simplistic probabilistic cost analysis (PCA)
  • Wages, benefits, payroll taxes Productivity
  • Raw material costs
  • Design development
  • Means & methods
  • Uncertainty factors/known unknowns
  • Budgeting and contingency management strategy and approach
  • Packaging and contracting strategy
  • Schedule precedences
  • Shared/common assumptions
  • Failures/delays at interfaces
  • Location factors
  • Trade actions
  • Regulatory changes/actions
  • Low frequency high impact events of scale
  • Archaeology finds

So risks, associations of risks, and Black Swans can be complicated and reflect the nature of the mobility ecosystem, systems, and systems of systems, in general. Megaprograms and projects (over $1 billion) are particularly prone (Denicol, et al, 2020; Vartabedian, 2021; Garmo, et al, 2015; Irimia-Diéguez, et al, 2014; Zidane, et al, 2013; Flyvbjerg and Bruzelius, 2014).

Dr. “Kevin” Bao also provides an interesting perspective on how leaders should respond to crises and opportunities (Steele, 2021).


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