Tag Archives: social engineering

Response to an Editorial by the Editor of the Boulder CO Newspaper

By Dom Nozzi

July 2, 2017

On July 2, 2017, Dave Krieger, the editor of Boulder, Colorado’s major newspaper — the Boulder Daily Camera — published an opinion piece called “Traffic Engineering Rules Still Apply.” The piece contained several unfair misstatements.

Mr. Krieger refers to something he calls “basic traffic engineering.” One must assume by this comment that the reference is to the conventional methods traffic engineers have used for over a century: Widening roads and intersections to “reduce congestion” or “accommodate expected growth in area car trips.”

There is one small little problem with such “basic traffic engineering.”

It has utterly failed for a century.

The trillions spent on widenings not only failed to resolve congestion. By ignoring the well-documented, inevitable impacts of induced demand (caused by what Anthony Downs calls the “triple convergence”), the widenings over the past several decades have also worsened land use patterns, increased per capita car trips, decreased per capita bike/walk/transit trips, increased household transportation costs (they are now higher than all or nearly all other household costs), increased air emissions, and caused severe financial strain not only to households but to all levels of government.51df393d218c6-image

To call Boulder council members “ideologues” is inflammatory and ironic, since those calling for widenings have a much stronger ideological bent (the ideology of a car-based, high-speed, anti-city lifestyle). Similarly, to suggest that not widening is a form of “social engineering” is hypocrisy, given the fact that the most extreme form of social engineering engaged in by a society — by far — is the social engineering of compelling millions for over a century to be car dependent.

It is mis-informed to suggest that the “complete streets” road design tactics sometimes employed in Boulder and Boulder County are ineffective in modifying behavior, as a great many studies conclude that this form of “nudging” is extremely effective in guiding many motorists to drive in more socially desirable ways.

I choose the word “nudging” deliberately, as complete streets road design tactics retain the choice to travel by car. By contrast, pro-car design tactics such as widenings are much closer to forcing most of us to travel by car.

Which is, by definition, a strong form of social engineering.

Is it okay to engage in social engineering if doing so compels a lot more people to drive by car? (ie, the normalized way to travel)

It again is an inflammatory (yet common) falsehood to claim, as this opinion piece does, that not widening forces most or all motorists to abandon their car in order to walk, ride a bike, or use transit (which the author asserts is impractical for most). Such a claim is silly, unless one can make the case that a car trip that takes seconds or minutes longer will “force” people to abandon their cars.

It needs to be pointed out that many wrongly assume, as the author does, that a growing number of people inevitably requires there to be a growth in the number of travel lanes on local roads to accommodate such growth. If this were true, cities such as NYC and LA, which are home to several million people, would have needed to build roads that are hundreds of lanes in width to avoid gridlock.

Furthermore, the author forgets that transportation is a zero-sum game. That is, when conditions are modified to further increase the ease travel by a larger number of cars, traveling by walking, bicycling, or transit is made more difficult (what Todd Litman calls the “barrier effect”), The barrier effect recruits even MORE per capita car travel.

In addition, another overlooked, yet highly important impact – particularly for the residents of Boulder – is the highly negative downstream impacts of the larger volume of cars that road widening induces. By enabling and therefore inducing higher car volumes on Arapahoe, widening imposes more noise and air pollution on Boulder, puts more wear and tear on Boulder streets, consumes more parking (which obligates Boulder to build even MORE parking), makes Boulder streets more dangerous, and dramatically reduces overall quality of life in Boulder.

Finally, it is highly misleading to assert or imply, as the author does, that all trips on Arapahoe are long-distance, relatively important and time-sensitive commuter trips from small towns (ie, trips that can only be practically made by car). We know from many studies that a large number of trips on Arapahoe are relatively low-value (ie, trips to buy a cup of coffee). Such trips are induced at times that include rush hour by over-sized, non-tolled roads such as Arapahoe, and by the lack of compact, connected street, mixed use neighborhoods. These lower value trips are less affected by slower travel times due to the relative ease of shifting when such trips occur during the day.

In sum, the author criticizes Boulder for failing to follow “basic traffic engineering rules,” yet ironically, it is he who is unaware of a great many basic engineering rules, such as the triple convergence, the barrier effect, the travel time budget, the variable nature of trip value, downstream impacts, the zero-sum game, and the social engineering that compels car travel. Worst of all, the author ignores something that has been known for several decades and is so invariable that it can be considered not only a “basic rule” but an iron law: We cannot build our way out of congestion. Widening a road to reduce congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. It wrongly assumes that car traffic behaves like water flowing through a pipe. In fact, for reasons I cite above, car traffic behaves like gas. That is, when the pipe is enlarged (widening) — car traffic — like a gas, inexorably expands to fill that larger pipe.

It is a great disservice to Boulder that we have an editor-in-chief of our local newspaper that is writing poorly-informed opinions that severely undermine many important community objectives, convince many citizens that Councilmembers and their adopted long-range plan are wrong-headed (to the point of being evil and undemocratic), and make it more likely that there will be increased political will to have the community adopt ruinous tactics that have almost universally failed for over a century.

Someone on Facebook responded to my comments by asking what to do about the 50,000 commuters that drive into Boulder each morning. We don’t have a clean slate, he told me. My response:

A fundamental principle is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Stop treating Boulder like a doormat repeatedly (by continuing to widen, as Boulder has done over and over again historically), in other words.

There are several tactics that can be employed to positively address the large number of commuters. An obvious tactic is more housing — particularly more affordable housing. We can also start tolling major roads, provide more transit coupled with more park-n-ride, provide more compact and mixed use development, make major roads more like complete streets (rather than the car-only stroads they are), create more priced parking and parking cash-out (particularly at workplaces), reduce the quantity of free parking, convert minimum parking regulations into maximum parking requirements, and reduce the size of over-sized roads and intersections. NONE of those things PROHIBIT a person from continuing to in-commute by car to Boulder.

A person can continue to do that.

What each of these equity-enhancing tactics do is NUDGE travelers toward more socially, economically, and environmentally desirable travel. Some motorists will be inconvenienced in the short term, which many of us consider to be a very fair trade-off, since the inconvenience creates more equity, less air and noise emissions, lower taxes, less wear and tear, more safety, and less per capita car travel. In the long term, such tactics will improve the region, as they will induce more commuters to live closer to their destinations, enhance transit service, increase the amount of in-town housing, reduce higher speed car travel, improve conditions for smaller stores (rather than Big Box stores), and increase Boulder’s ability to shrink oversized parking lots, roads and intersections.

Note that most all of the motorists would be commuters, but it must be kept in mind that a large number of motorists on Arapahoe are NOT commuters (which means they will have more flexibility about where or when or how they travel).

Economists have calculated the approximate financial cost of travel by car, bike, walk, or transit. Those calculations show that each car trip imposes a financial COST on the community (a cost that most or all in the community must pay, regardless of whether they drive a car or not). Each bike/walk/transit trip results in a positive financial BENEFIT for the community (a benefit that most or all in the community enjoy, regardless of how they travel).

Knowing this, what should we do to be fair and to achieve community objectives? In other words, how do we make our community more financially sustainable?

Many of us believe that should one choose to travel by car, one should compensate for the cost imposed on the community. The most fair way to do this is to deploy user fees such as a gas tax, tolls, a VMT fee, etc. (rather than have everyone pay, through sales taxes, property taxes, higher grocery bills, or lower quality of life, regardless of whether they travel by car or not).

Again, user fees are nudges. They do not force people to stop driving a car. Therefore, they rightly acknowledge that many trips must be made by car. User fees simply make transportation more equitable, and nudges those with a choice to consider traveling in more socially desirable ways.

Note, too, that traffic congestion is a form of nudge. As Todd Litman would say, congestion imposes a “time tax” on the rush hour motorist, which nudges those with a choice to consider driving at non-rush hour times or live closer to their destination, or choose a different route. A time tax is obviously easier to achieve than a more effective and efficient tolling of the road, of course.

Temporarily reducing congestion by widening short-circuits that relatively affordable and achievable form of nudging.

Many cities in the past put all of their “eggs” (their trillions of public dollars) into the conventional “basic engineering” tactics that the author promotes. They did so while being in precisely the same situation that Boulder is in: What to do about congestion? What about all the in-commuters? They all greatly worsened their transportation situation and their quality of life. Examples of those cities include Phoenix, LA, Houston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.

I don’t want the Boulder region to go down the path of any of those unfortunate cities by opting for “basic engineering” tactics that the author urges, because those “common sense” tactics greatly worsened the situation.

We can do better. Let’s not keep making the same ruinous, bankrupting mistakes.

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Is “Restricting” Traffic Unfairly Forcing People to Live in a Town Center?


By Dom Nozzi

September 4, 2012

By re-introducing equity into our transportation system, we should provide a balance in the public tax revenue and public space so that the War on Bicyclists, Pedestrians, and Transit Users comes to an end.

For nearly 100 years the US government has powerfully encouraged an artificially high percentage of Americans to live in suburbia and be car-dependent. This artificially high demand for car-dependent suburban living would be much lower if we did not allocate 95 Carmageddon highwaypercent of our public transportation dollars to cars. In the name of restoring fairness and discouraging artificially excessive car-dependent sprawl, the US would need to allocate a lot more public dollars to bicycling, walking, and transit and a lot less to motorists. That would mean, in part, that cars would be allocated less road and parking lot space.

Would that mean “restricting traffic flow”? (a common criticism of some of the transportation reforms I call for)

Yes, if by “restricting flow” one means slowing down car travel and making car parking more scarce and more expensive.

In other words, having motorists fairly pay their own way, rather than to continue to enjoy government welfare handouts.

Would that mean we would “force people to live in cities and take the bus”? No, unless we take hysteria-mongering liberties with the definition of “force.” A much more accurate and fair word than “force” in this case is that some people — in the more fair, sustainable and balanced transportation system I recommend – would start to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of their choice of housing and travel (in both the short term and long term).

Rather than being artificially influenced to live in suburbia and be car-dependent, some will opt to live closer to town, and consider travel options such as car-pooling, car-sharing, transit, bicycling and walking. Others will opt to pay the higher (yet fair and balanced) costs of suburban, car-dependent living.

In sum, this scenario in no way “forces” anyone to live in cities or take the bus. I call for no laws that would obligate people to live in cities or take the bus.

Consider a hypothetical example of a community where a high percentage of residents opt to send their children to a private school, in part because large government vouchers are provided to parents who decide to send their kids to the private school. If the government voucher for private schools is ended, some parents will opt to send their children to public instead of private schools due to the more fair, balanced system where there are no government vouchers offered for private schools. Other parents will continue to send their kids to private school despite the loss of vouchers.

This is in no sense a way to “force” people to send their kids to public school. It IS a way to end a government practice that artificially encourages more parents to send their kids to private school than would be the case had the voucher subsidy not existed. And it IS a way to end the unfair practice of having parents who send their kids to public school to pay higher taxes in order to subsidize other parents who send their kids to private school.

Similarly, if the government ends its century-long practice of allocating “free” multi-million dollar multi-lane (and free-to-use) roads, artificially low-cost gasoline and gas taxes, and “free” seas of asphalt parking (each of which are transportation versions of school vouchers), some would opt to live in less remote, far-flung housing, and would opt to bicycle, walk or use transit more. And again, others would opt to continue to live in sprawl and be car-dependent.

Choice therefore remains in place. Fairness in government allocation of public dollars and resources is increased when we put less than 95 percent of the public dollars and resources into car travel (i.e., when we don’t only offer government “vouchers” to those who opt to drive).

I stand for fairness in government allocations for travel choices. To call my approach an example of “force” is absurd.

Not to mention unsustainable and ruinous.


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Effectively Increasing the Number of Bicyclists, Pedestrians, and Transit Users


By Dom Nozzi

December 20, 1999

To effectively encourage more bicycling, walking, and transit use, the first order of business is to put a firm, permanent moratorium on widening roads or intersections in urbanized areas. Each time we widen a road or intersection, we drastically increase the number of car trips and substantially decrease the number of non-car trips.

The research I’ve seen shows that even modest shifts of 5 to 10 percent from car to non-car travel are extremely unlikely in our current transportation environment. So no, I do not believe public facility or service enhancements for green transportation will give us a measurable shift.

I saw a study about a year ago, that I think I have in my files, that looked at factors in various US cities that created meaningful bike trips. In its conclusions, it talked about what it felt were the correlations between various treatments and shifts to bike trips. I have not seen reported correlations for pedestrians.

For transit, it is a broken record: End free parking, reduce parking supply, increase density, and let congestion happen. If you do all those things, you can get something on the order of a 30 percent shift at selected businesses. The literature does not show any meaningful shift by using commonly suggested strategies such as increasing bus frequency or using cleaner buses or adding bike lanes or adding sidewalks.

Connector paths or sidewalks or streets between neighborhoods and shopping and schools would be enormously helpful. Unfortunately, as has been learned in countless proposals to install greenway bike trails, it is nearly always politically impossible for government to initiate such connections, due to fear of crime, black people, etc. All we can hope for, in most cases, is for the neighborhood to ask local government to install the connector. Had we been wise in the past, our codes would have required such connectors up front, as a part of development approval. If the connector is there before the homes, people are much more likely to accept them than if they are retrofitted. Sadly, nearly all American communities are mostly built out, so code changes to require such connectors up front will not help much.

Tragically and bizarrely, major opponents to connectors and greenways (to connecting schools with neighborhoods) has often been the school board! Their fear is security and liability. This opposition is astounding, given how much school board transportation costs have skyrocketed in recent decades, and nearly all public schools have a traffic jam near the school each morning. It is also shocking because schools are now well aware of the obesity epidemic their students are afflicted by.

What has frustrated me in the past is that too often, the bike/ped advocates usually prioritize bicycling and walking improvement projects in outlying areas with such a low density that such projects will inevitably attract only a small number of users, instead of 141104-harding2focusing on higher density urban settings (such as a town center, where we can be confident there will be a large number of users. I believe the reason for this is that appointed bike/ped advocacy board have had a long tradition of being dominated by recreational, long-distance bicyclists, whose main interest is to see that they have better access to long recreational rides on rural roads.

Another problem common in community prioritization of bicycle and pedestrian projects is that there tends to be an oversized influence from the local home builders, so that local governments tend to prioritize things in outlying, low-density areas to support new subdivisions.

Communities, as a result, regularly spend enormous amounts of public dollars to build sidewalks that almost no one uses (because it connects to nothing and is near only a tiny number of residences). Local governments squander large sums for infrastructure that hardly anyone uses in sprawl, car-oriented locations, instead of spending money on more urban sidewalks that could have helped a great deal.

In my work as a town planner, I attempted to set up a criteria-driven ranking system to get us away from this horrible prioritization. Of course, the system was ignored.

The common bleeding heart attitude in many communities means that it will just take one sprawlsville homebuilder to warn that if local government does not build sidewalks and bike lanes out in sprawlsville, kids will die. Such vested interest crying is hard to resist, and often means that there will be little change in how local governments spend their meager bicycle and pedestrian dollars.

Where are the best locations for new bike lanes in a community? As a lifelong bicycle commuter and researcher, it is clear that the most important places for local governments to provide bike lanes is on the major streets that draw a lot of cars. Why? Because bicycle commuters have the same travel destination desires as motorists, and major streets (absent a citywide greenway network) are, by far, the fastest, most efficient way to travel.

Let us not trivialize bicycling. Bicycle commuters want to save time, too. Local government cannot, for example, build an off-street connector path between most neighborhoods and, say, a shopping center, which is a place commuter cyclists often need to bike to.

So while I agree that the off-major-street connectors and greenways can be enormously helpful for certain neighborhoods, local governments need to realize that for a large number of bicycle commuters — who tend to be perfectly comfortable riding on a major street with a bike lane, and strongly prefer such routes due to time savings – local governments need to fill in the gaps on major streets (with bike lanes or “protected” lanes).

So it is a two-pronged approach: (1) Build an off-street network to train novices to walk or bicycle so that they can eventually “graduate” to being able to do so on major streets; and (2) fill in the gaps on major streets with bike lanes or protected lanes, and calm streets so that the higher car speeds do not occur in the urban areas.

Local governments need to stop squandering money on projects that will not EVER carry many users in remote, low-density areas that do not connect to anything (and are only used to support sprawl developers and their recreation-minded customers).

And local governments should be very careful that we do not use a big cost, high visibility green transportation project to prove that we can get a decrease in car travel, and have the project flop with low use, thereby giving such an idea a black eye because the local government failed to account for critical things like density, price signals, and parking supply.

Probably an important reason why so many conventional transportation planners resist recommending effective tactics to reduce car travel is that the dominant societal paradigm does not see any feasible way to shift a meaningful number of trips away from car travel, nor do most even think it is appropriate or desirable, since many transportation planners are motorists themselves.

To conventional planners, the only legitimate behavior modification is the massive social engineering we’ve engaged in for over a century: widening roads and intersections, requiring low-density development, and heavily subsidizing car travel. All of this has artificially increased car travel far beyond what it would have been had we not pampered car travel so aggressively. Encouraging more car travel is perfectly okay and desirable.

But using effective behavior modification to reduce car trips is not even on the table. It is unAmerican and a Marxist-Leninist conspiracy.

But like prison reforms, we will be forced to use more effective car reduction tactics eventually, once we reach the limits of how much we can afford to spend to widen roads. Cost limits will suddenly and miraculously allow us to be enlightened.

A big part of what I do as a town and transportation planner is to try to encourage my community to start the transition early, since the longer we wait, the more painful and costly it will be to do what we will eventually be forced to do.

Sadly, much as we desire it, there are no easy magic bullets for making our travel sustainable.


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Filed under Bicycling, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

Social Engineering is Okay When It Promotes Our Economic System


By Dom Nozzi

May 23, 2005

In America, “social engineering” (deliberately influencing the behavior of people to achieve a public objective) is always “un-America” and most be opposed at all costs. It is Carmageddon highwayun-American to design communities or roads or regulations or prices to REDUCE consumption of energy, cars, sprawl areas, etc.

There is, on the other hand, a double-standard: It is REQUIRED and morally upstanding that we do everything we can to manipulate citizen behavior or purchases or consumption to INCREASE consumption of energy, cars, sprawl areas, etc.

Manipulation is good if used to have us consume more. It is bad if used to have us consume less.

And this is what we should expect in a market economy.

But is it sustainable?

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Good and Bad Social Engineering

By Dom Nozzi

In American society, there is a near consensus that citizen behavior (or citizen purchases or citizen consumption) should not be manipulated (what some disparagingly call “social engineering”). It is utterly un-American to design communities or roads to nudge behavior in a more sustainable direction. Or establish regulations (or set prices) to reduce consumption of energy, cars, sprawl areas, etc.

There is, on the other hand, an enormous double-standard.

It is required and morally upstanding that we do everything we can to manipulate citizen behavior to be less sustainable (by, for example, obligating citizens to drive a car everywhere). It is necessary and ethical to induce Americans to purchase and consume more. It is appropriate and laudable to encourage people to consume more energy, buy more cars, live in a more dispersed and sprawling location, and so on.

Manipulation is good if used to have us consume more. It is bad if used to have us consume less.

And this is what we should expect in a market economy that depends on ever-growing consumption.

But is it sustainable?

When I lived in Florida and worked as a long-range town planner for Gainesville, people were often surprised when I tell them that the Gainesville area is on the road to ruin. This quote from the May 2005 Gainesville Sun says it all.

“[Ed] Braddy, who took pride in being called one of the most vocal members of the [city] commission, pledged at the [swearing in] ceremony to continue advocating the stances he has taken thus far, whichspaghetti highways include wider roads, a more streamlined development review process [i.e., ensuring that Gainesville continues to be a doormat] and more road construction.”

This from a man who was re-elected for a second term of office by a city that some people continue to insist is “progressive.” This from a man who vigorously opposes “social engineering.”

Except when it is to modify human behavior in a direction he favors.


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