Compromising sucks!


In a couple of months, Vancouver B.C. will undergo an important social experiment that will test transit users and drivers’ ability to coexist with bicycle riders. The Burrard Bridge, one of the three constructions that connect the west side of the city with the downtown area (see map), will have one of its lanes converted into a bicycle-only path. Approved by the city council in early May, this decision wasn’t free of controversy [1]: while a number of bicycle advocates were disappointed that only one lane will be converted, some drivers and transit users recalled with worry the traffic jams created by a similar experiment carried out a decade ago.

When I first read the news and learn that advocates of both sides where unhappy with the council’s decision, I remembered a classic conflict resolution example [2, 3]: two kids—brother and sister—are quarreling over the last orange in the house; as the responsible adult,  how do you cater these two seemingly incompatible demands?

  • If we say the core of the conflict is the orange, then the best and most obvious solution is to split the orange in half. As a result, we will have to put up with two disgruntled children.
  • If instead we ask the kids what the orange is for, we might discover that the boy wants to make orange juice and the girl wants to make orange peel candy. In this way, we might be able to come up with a better solution for both the kids: the juice for the boy and the peel for the girl.
  • If we further enquire about the kids’ intentions, we might discover more useful information. For instance, the girl might be planning to give the candy to uncle Bob, who also loves raspberry muffins. In contrast, the boy might just be thirsty, because he just played a very long football match.

In the latter case, we could forget about the orange and come up with a totally different solution for the same problem: raspberries for the girl and water for the boy. In conclusion, the more we know about the needs, desires and restrictions underlying a dispute, the more alternative solutions we can create.

Does this mean that the City Council decided to “split the orange” and chose the middle-of-the-road solution, neglecting other useful information? Certainly not. In fact, I think they took into account many underlying concerns: pedestrian and cyclist safety, the need of an immediate solution and, of course, the impact on traffic [1]. However, I will like to question whether there was more to be known and, therefore, more potential solutions outside of the Burrard Bridge.

If that wasn’t the case and the best possible solution was indeed “to split the orange in half”, then I think compromising was the best solution. It sucks! But sometimes this is the best we can do.

References

1) Hodson, J. (2009). Bike trial gets OK: Burrard Bridge test for safety. In Metro, Vancouver, May 8-10, pp. 1.1)

2) Follet, M. P. (1940). Constructive conflict. In H. C. Metcalf and L. Urwick (Eds.), Dynamic administration: the collected papers of Mary Parker Follet. New York: Harper.

3) Fisher, R. & Ury W. (1981). Getting to yes. Boston: Houghton Miffin.

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