Denying Reality: When Politics Trumps Engineering

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

I used to watch my city’s Traffic Council meetings every month. It was amusing to see the difference between rumor and reality.

Once a resident said her street was packed with parked cars every day and nobody could get out of the driveway. Field observation by city DPW showed one car parked on the entire block. There was supposedly car after car racing down a street before dawn every day. A traffic counter showed one car during the entire hour before dawn, and it was doing the speed limit. Constant rumbling of heavy trucks meant one truck per hour. And so on.

One lesson is to always measure.

The other lesson is to use your measurements. If you ask a question and ignore the answer, you aren’t asking a question. You are begging for confirmation.

There’s a typical dispute going on now in my part of the city. Some residents don’t appreciate outsiders driving on their streets. It’s the usual complaint heard in thousands of places around America.  Cut-through commuters are speeding past kids and I can’t back out of my driveway — can’t you do something before something.

The real problem is that there is an intersection a half mile away that is over capacity and the city won’t fix it. If you’re heading west you can skip the half mile traffic jam by making a right turn to get to the next street over.

The Traffic Council recognized these complaints as typical. Field observation showed the supposedly heavy, fast commuter traffic was 30-40 cars per hour going the speed limit during morning peak.

Traffic obstruction petition denied.

Aldermen, who never met a nuisance traffic sign they didn’t like, persuaded another committee to overrule the Traffic Council and run a trial. The trial was a temporary “no right turn 7AM-9AM” sign (pictured above) designed to prevent outsiders from entering the streets in question. After 60 days the committee would see whether the sign worked.

The results of the trial were presented last Wednesday.

Cut-through traffic increased when the sign prohibiting it was posted. The trial was worse than a failure.

Committee members spent a half hour trying to explain why this failure was really a success and the sign needed to be made permanent.

To politicians, one of the axioms of traffic regulation says that more rules are good. When the evidence conflicts with this belief, the evidence must be changed. The committee postponed the vote for 30 days to give the chair time to make the traffic counts come out the right way. They’ll do something like counting how many cars turn when a police officer is watching.

The traffic studies don’t matter. What matters is, some residents like their placebo and it’s worth ticketing other residents to keep their favor.

You might wonder why politicians favor one group of residents over another. One street is mostly apartments and two family homes. The other is mostly single family homes. You can guess which is which.

This is the difference between engineering and politics.

There’s probably a similar story from your city.

Image Credit — John Carr

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