The Orwellian Era of Transportation Planning

By Christopher M. DiPrima, NMA Board Member

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #629, emailed in January 2021. If you would like to receive the weekly newsletter, register today at the NMA! 

George Orwell’s seminal 1984 has defined political discourse for over 70 years. Among the book’s most prescient concepts is doublethink, the practice of using contradictory terminology to obscure the government’s actions. In 1984, the Ministry of Peace propagated war; the Ministry of Plenty rations goods; the Ministry of Love incarcerates and tortures; and the Ministry of Truth distributes the state’s official lies.

Americans across the political spectrum recognize that we live in an era of doublethink, certainly when referring to our governments’ brazen lies to its people on any number of topics. While the country’s political left, right, and center can come up with their lists of examples, here I point to only one among many: the Vision Zero movement.

In attempting to reach the noble goal of eliminating all preventable traffic deaths, the Vision Zero movement has propagated one of the most pernicious and effective forms of doublethink in use today: “traffic calming.” People subjected to traffic calming know well that the actual mechanisms of “calming” should more accurately be called by their opposite name: traffic aggravating. In classic Orwellian style, the term “traffic calming” almost always refers to roadway design changes which worsen, rather than alleviate traffic, and causing aggravation, not calming, for motorists and other users of the public right-of-way.

Credit: Jason Ilagan

A hallmark of doublethink is that it forces the user to accept odd contradictions as gospel like the famous “WAR IS PEACE” slogan of 1984‘s Oceania. Here again, Vision Zero excels in doublethink:

Vision Zero teaches that moving more people requires fewer traffic lanes—a half-truth at best which obscures assumptions about coercion and mode choice elasticity. “MORE IS LESS.”

It asks that we increase the price of driving by claiming this is meant to increase economic and social equity. It decries motorists’ subsidies but ignores that all mass transit is, and always has been, heavily subsidized. “CHEAP IS EXPENSIVE.”

It advocates “complete streets,” then attempts to remove motorists—often the largest user group—from those streets. “INCOMPLETE IS COMPLETE.”

Credit: Dan Burden

It advocates accessibility but then removes parking and encourages dangerous bicycling behaviors that prevent elderly and disabled people from accessing their cities. “LESS ACCESS IS MORE ACCESSIBLE.”

It claims that faster speeds always lead to more fatalities, ignoring the mediating factor of crash rate and thus disregards the fact that the fastest roads, freeways, are also the safest. “SPEED KILLS.”

Most recently, Vision Zero extremists have added the term “traffic violence” to the lexicon, painting any traffic collision as a deliberate attack on innocent people. We live in a world with real traffic violence, from car bombs to the horrifying use of automobiles as weapons against protestors and other mass gatherings. Yet, Vision Zero advocates insult the memory of those victims of actual violence by equating all traffic collisions to these acts of terrorism—and by extension, all motorists as murderers-in-wait.

Credit: Junior Libby

The broader anti-automobility interests use doublethink in an attempt to dupe voters into supporting their programs. For decades, these advocates have pitched mass transit improvements to motorists as a way of reducing traffic congestion. The sales pitch is that improved access to transit will take people off the roads, thus reducing congestion for those who choose to remain. They then make sure to take away general-purpose travel lanes, cut back traffic signal timings, and prioritize slow and inefficient street-running buses rather than grade-separated transit. They fight against any measure that would improve traffic congestion because they believe that transit will become less appealing if traffic is less congested. So, congestion mitigation through transit improvements isn’t allowed to mitigate congestion.

Motorists who have been subjected to Vision Zero doublespeak know better than anyone that the tenets of “traffic calming,” “road diets” (a euphemism for lane reduction), shortened signal timings, arbitrary turning restrictions, and unnecessary and unsupportable speed limit reductions—all serve to aggravate rather than calm traffic, and all road users suffer. Motorists in cities which have implemented “traffic calming” know that the driving mindset has changed from a relatively polite and orderly world to a Hobbesian war of all against all—where every second of delay cascades into gridlock, and where courtesy becomes the enemy of efficiency.

Credit: Caribb

I posit that this is the primary reason why Vision Zero has been such a spectacular failure in our cities, failing to reduce traffic deaths and failing to deliver meaningful transit improvements or congestion mitigation. All that Vision Zero has offered American cities is a state of perpetual warfare between modes. Is it any surprise traffic aggravation techniques have failed to produce calmer, safer streets?

Far from being a fringe set of ideas, Vision Zero is now embedded into the transportation philosophies of many major cities. We now live fully in the Orwellian era of city transportation planning. This is doublethink’s most complete victory: cities’ Ministries of Transportation now attempt to prevent us from transporting ourselves.

It was all right. Everything was all right—the struggle was finished.

They love Vision Zero.

Here are some other NMA posts on Vision Zero:

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