Who Is Responsible for the Car-Happy Road Design America is Afflicted With?

by Dom Nozzi, AICP

Recently, I came upon an essay entitled “Confessions of a Traffic Engineer.” It was written by an engineer who had come to learn that nearly all of the road designs he felt obligated to recommend for his community were counterproductively creating roads that were unsafe and in other ways destructive of important community objectives such as quality of life.

Clearly, America’s road system is ruinous and miserable (not to mention unaffordable). And a bitter irony is that the more public money we spend on a road, the WORSE the road becomes. The more we hate it. Shouldn’t it be the reverse?

Are traffic engineers solely to blame for the awful road system that has been built in America? In my view, we are ALL part of the problem.

Engineers have flexibility with their road design manuals. It is therefore somewhat of a cop-out for the engineer to blame the design manuals — be “a good German” and recommend something they know (or should know) is counterproductive in so many ways.

In my work as a city planner, I often had an “obligation” to follow planner “manuals” (zoning codes, city policies, etc.). Many planners know that what we are recommending is counterproductive, but some of us decided not to be Good Germans and sometimes were able to object in various ways without threatening our jobs.

Both engineers and planners are hired to give a PROFESSIONAL recommendation about what the community should do. It is a violation of professional ethics to recommend actions that worsen the community. Sometimes it is a matter of the planner/engineer being patient. Waiting for the proper crisis or the right elected officials before making helpful recommendations.

Elected officials are sworn to represent their community to make it a better place. They have a fair amount of power to request their staff make recommendations that are in the public interest (more power than staff or citizens). They give engineers and planners PERMISSION to make important recommendations. Elected officials, when they are leaders, are willing to take actions that they know will make many people unhappy (at least initially unhappy). Those who don’t make such decisions generally don’t make anything meaningful happen. I am well aware of the fact that this power is significantly diluted when one is part of a 5- or 7-member elected body, instead of being, say, a governor or president.

Citizens, by and large, are enormous advocates for bigger, less safe roads, as most are adamant that they be able to drive at high speeds to minimize their travel time (its only THEIR neighborhood streets that they generally want to be narrow and low-speed). Citizens therefore strongly demand road widening to “ease congestion” and speed up traffic. This makes it extremely difficult for elected officials, in a democracy, to make decisions which are counter to road widening demands by citizens.

But citizens are responsible for keeping themselves informed on important community issues, and voting for quality elected officials. They have a responsibility to know what makes sense, overall, regarding community issues such as transportation. Ultimately, it is voters who decide if the community will elect people who “get it” regarding transportation (and other issues). Since elected officials, in turn, have a fair amount of power to direct the actions pursued by staff, one could say that it all starts with citizens.

Citizens vote to elect officials. Officials have the power to direct staff.

All three groups – traffic engineering staff, elected officials, and citizens — are powerfully affected by an overall car-centric system. A system that creates strong pressures and incentives to perpetuate a dysfunctional, unsustainable, car-happy world we find ourselves in. Corporations that make cars, that produce oil/gasoline, that sell car-related products and services and a great many other car-support companies creates a national economy where a huge percentage of all jobs are car-based jobs. It is therefore an economy that depends on our being completely dependent on car travel.

We have an economy, then, that is utterly dependent on perpetuating car-dependent sprawl. Engineers, politicians, and citizens are all powerfully influenced by this sprawl machine via advertising, huge campaign contributions, funding for research, local land development regulations, our dispersed land development patterns (caused by car subsidies), the price of gas and parking for motorists, taxes, etc.

Given all of this, we will need to see enormous and often quite painful changes in our world if we expect any meaningful, sustainable, positive transportation actions on the part of citizens, elected officials or engineers/planners. Gasoline, road use and parking prices will need to be a LOT higher, for starters. The cost of widening roads must also be a lot higher, although we are starting to see some parts of the country be “enlightened” about doing the right thing with transportation.

Not so much because they were educated by brilliant people or brilliant ideas, but because, for example, there is no longer an ability to be able to afford to widen a road from 6 to 8 lanes.

Overall, I’m optimistic. I believe that some of these costs are starting to influence thinking and actions in a positive way. There are faint hints that a tipping point is starting to be reached.

In the meantime, however, we are ALL responsible for creating an awful, shameful, car-crazed world.


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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Filed under Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

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