By Dom Nozzi
April 19, 2017
A Boulder transportation planner asked me if I knew of any effective education tactics Boulder could use.
Of course I do. I’m happy to offer my thoughts and suggestions.
I’m a cultural materialist, I told him, which means that I generally only see material conditions as effective levers in changing behavior or values. If we want to effectively educate people to change their behavior or values, the tools need to be exclusively or predominantly focused on price signals, changes in our transportation infrastructure, and changes in our land use patterns.
Conventional education campaigns such as media ads or signage tend to be utterly overwhelmed, subverted, and ignored in the face of the tidal wave of societal, infrastructure, and price signals. We can, for example, run ads or put up signs that urge people to bicycle or walk or use transit more, but that “education” is completely drowned out by counter messages in our world: Roads are too wide and too high speed, destinations are too far apart, and huge subsidies are granted to you if you drive a car everywhere.
Throughout every day, we are pounded with these pro-car, pro-speeding, pro-distracted-driving “education” messages. Even if Boulder spent billions to run thousands of “ride a bike for your health and for the environment” ads every hour of every day, the counter messages (material conditions) are so vast and so powerful that nearly all people realize it is completely rational to drive everywhere (and to do so at high speeds while on a cell phone).
Using the media to “educate” people to behave in a more desirable way is so temptingly easy for local governments. It is so easy, politically, because there is little or no opposition. No one is inconvenienced or forced to pay more to continue to do what they are doing.
It is also very cheap, financially. It creates the (false) impression that government is “doing something” about a problem.
The ease of education campaigns explains why governments have been engaging in such campaigns over and over again for centuries. But one must wonder: given the appalling track record in achieving meaningful results with such campaigns, are such campaigns not a form of insanity? (a common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results)
Indeed, I consider conventional education ads such as public service announcements and other media campaigns to be so utterly ineffective that when we opt to use them, we are essentially saying we are not going to do anything about the problem – except pay lip service.
In sum, I suggest the following education campaigns: priced parking, tolled roads, attentive instead of forgiving street design, higher gas taxes, unbundled parking, road diets, compact and mixed use land use patterns, location-efficient mortgages, traffic calming, converting one-way streets back to two-way, pay-at-the-pump car insurance, a land value tax (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax), adopting the “Idaho Law” for intersections, elimination of car level-of-service standards, elimination of street hierarchies, much higher street connectivity, elimination of required parking land development regulations, stop synchronizing traffic lights for motorist speeds, reduce the size of service vehicles, reduced pedestrian crossing distances, reduced building setbacks, and required parking cash-out for all future employers.
Yes, each of these education tactics are nearly impossible, politically, in Boulder (which shows the surprising backwardness of Boulder in transportation policy). But being effective is important if we want to do meaningful things, and there are quite a few meaningful things Boulder needs to do very soon, given all the enormous problems we face. This will require leadership. It will require courage.
Is Boulder up to the task?