Characteristic Description Transport System
Adaptability Elements adapt to the action of other components and to changes in their environment. Transport companies competing in offering services.
Self-organization Autonomous adaptation to changing conditions as a result of the adaptability of the individual components. Routing. Supply chain management.
Attractors A recognizable dynamic state of a system that may continuously reappear. Land use. Transport terminals.
Non-linearity Changes in one property or component may have a disproportionately large effect on another property or component. Congestion. Distruptions.
Phase transition A system's behavior may change radically, and sometimes irreversibly, when a certain “tipping point” or phase transition point is reached. Containerization. Peak oil.
Source: adapted from OECD (2009) "Applications of Complexity Science for Public Policy: New Tools for Finding Unanticipated Consequences and Unrealized Opportunities", Global Science Forum.
Complex Systems and Transportation
Transportation, as a complex system, shares many of its characteristics, including:
  • Adaptability. This is a standard characteristic that is best reflected by the concept of competition where transport firms adapt to their competitors and to other socioeconomic changes (demand).
  • Self-organization. Routing within a transport network is representative of the characteristic of self-organization as the intermodal sequence is the outcome of the consideration of all the respective advantages of modes and terminals. Supply chain management is also illustrative of self-organization as sourcing and distribution strategies change to reflect complex changes in input and distribution costs.
  • Attractors. Represent the stable components of the transport system having a long term influence on the nature and extent of flows. Land use is a particularly stable component of spatial interactions since its characteristic are slow to change. The same applies to transport terminals that are long term locations in the convergence of flows.
  • Non-linearity. Congestion is a good example of a non-linear characteristic of transportation as each degree of additional congestion results in exponential delays. Various disruptions over transport networks are also an instance of non-linearity as a relatively simple event such as the shutting down of an airport hub (e.g. a snow storm) will trigger disproportionate disruptions through the whole network.
  • Phase transition. There are several events that may trigger substantial changes in transport systems. One type relates to technological (or technical) innovations that historically have been paradigm shifts for transportation system. For instance, containerization is linked to entirely new flow patterns, modes and terminals. Issues related to peak oil are also considered to be a highly susceptible factor triggering a phase transition for 21st century transport systems.