Making decisions is hard and I found decision-making skills challenging to practice. One exercise that I’m currently exploring is the deliberate use of mental models to analyze case studies. This one is about the article “Like knocking down the Eiffel tower, battle to save historic Prague bridge“.
Summary of the main points
- The Vyšehrad bridge in Prague is facing demolition due to a plan from Czech Railways to replace it with a modern structure.
- This has caused backlash from local campaigners, the Prague city council, and a petition with over 6,000 signatures.
- The Czech transport minister has called a special meeting of bridge engineers and the railway administration to find a solution.
- Critics of the demolition point out that the bridge can be repaired and that doing so is the more environmentally friendly option. It also would preserve the bridge as a valuable cultural and historical site.
- The railway administration says that the repairs are way too expensive and wouldn’t allow for an increase in traffic. It also would only extend the lifetime by several decades.
I’m only going based on this one small article here. I don’t assume that I know anything about this topic outside of the outlined facts in the article. My goal is, to evaluate the current state of the discussion and decide on a path forward if I’d be the decision-maker in this issue.
Another thing to address is the bias of the article. This is important since they might lead me to a biased view of the issue. First, the language in the article is framed in favor of the preservation group and against the railway administration. In addition, there are three parties mentioned on the preservation side, while the railway administration is the only party mentioned on the other. This makes the reader likely to converge on the seemingly popular opinion.
I’ll try to build the analysis from the ground up and try to question the assumptions made in the article.
The opposing sides
The fundamental question of the article is: Should the Vyšehrad bridge be demolished or not? This question is approached from different angles by the stakeholders. Let’s look at the different parties mentioned in the article and their views:
- The people of Prague voiced their criticism of the demolition plans with 6000 signatures. They want to preserve the structure because of its cultural, and historical value.
- The preservation group lobbies for their view to preserve the bridge because of its cultural and historical value.
- The railway administration is responsible for the maintenance of its railway infrastructure. It wants to demolish the bridge because the repairs are too expensive and wouldn’t allow for its increased traffic plans. It cares about economic value.
- The structural engineer Ian Firth is a non-native and hence, an outside perspective. He too is interested in keeping the bridge alive out of historic and cultural value. He offers a third solution to retain and move the existing structure while building a new one nearby.
The issue is essentially two different cost/benefit analyses clashing:
- Pro demolition camp: The economic benefits (because let’s be real, the railway administration doesn’t consider cultural and historical benefits highly) of a repair don’t justify the costs.
- Preservation camp: The cultural, emotional, and historical benefits justify the economic costs.
As in any decision, I want to find a problem statement that includes all the stakeholders’ angles. If this isn’t done, discussions will be fruitless, since people are talking about different issues. It also increases the chances of finding the best possible solution.
The problem statement is: How might we increase the railway capacity and keep the old bridge while keeping the costs acceptable to every party involved?
Evaluating the arguments
Let’s look at the different arguments and try to poke holes in them:
The economic argument by the railway administration is very relative. What is the cost-benefit analysis here that implies that repair costs are too high? Maybe a repair is too expensive when they must pay it in full, but what if the public supports it? There is certainly more room for solutions here than they led on.
However, they argue that a repaired bridge wouldn’t cope with the increased train traffic they forecast. This would mean that an extension or another bridge would be needed in any case, if this is true.
The environmental argument is only mentioned briefly in the article and I think the reason is that it isn’t a strong one. Yes, repair sounds more environmentally friendly than building a new bridge, and Ian Firth, the external engineer, confirmed as much.
Still, a second bridge is needed to cope with increased rail traffic. Together with the repair of the old bridge, 60% of which would’ve to be completely renewed, it isn’t as clear cut. Maybe a completely new one wouldn’t be so much worse.
Finally, rail is considered an environmental transportation method, hence, the increased capacity would benefit the environment in any case.
What about the cultural/historical argument? Preserving historical sites is a relatively new idea. The Vatican is built partly out of Roman ruins. Also, the comparison with the Eiffel tower is a terrible example since the people of Paris wanted the tower gone after the World Expo. To innovate or make progress, sometimes the old has to go.
But if there is inherent value in cultural and historical artifacts, it’s difficult to quantify it and do cost/benefit analyses here. It’s easy to fall into the “priceless” category and make any discussion impossible.
Finding the best solution
With the options presented in the article, only Ian Firth’s solution of moving the old bridge and building a second modern one would satisfy my problem statement: How might we increase the railway capacity and keep the old bridge while keeping the costs acceptable to every party involved?
This solution would likely be even more expensive than repairing the old bridge (to which the railway administration is already opposed). There would be ways around that. For example, the preservation group could support funds to get the repair costs at a level everyone feels comfortable with.
At this point, I can say that there is much more room for exploring solutions. The stakeholders are too fixated on their own goals and don’t consider solutions outside their limited view. If you look at the arguments of each party under a holistic problem statement (as Ian Firth did), they become much less final, and discussion to find a good solution could go on. The goal at this point should be to get all parties at the same table and develop a shared understanding first, then consider additional solutions.