Last week in Part 1, we shared some posts made on the Institute of Transportation Engineers Member Forum that started a debate about the efficacy of the Vision Zero goals. The discussion in that thread — “A ‘War on Cars’? Let there be Peace!” — was too varied and interesting to fit into the contents of one newsletter.
So here, picking up after Post #4 of Part 1, in which the writer argued that, “those who think they can legislate, mandate, or design away all the inherent danger from any activity we do on a day-to-day basis . . . are fooling themselves,” are additional responses in the forum to the premise that there is no war on cars, but cars are the problem.
Our attempts to embrace and put into practice the tools and design that have proven to reduce roadway fatalities, injuries, and property damage is completely undone by the misleading sloganism of “Vision Zero.” That is the TRUTH about Vision Zero. It misguides the public and officials into thinking that ‘zero’ is attainable when it clearly is not.
The problem with universal statement is that they rarely apply universally. Maybe the issue is distinguishing between multi-modal planning vs. multi-modal retrofits that put the car before the horse.
I’ll use New York City as one example of a city that penalizes drivers:
- Congestion pricing (regressive because if you have to drive in rush hour, you can’t reroute or reschedule to avoid the fine).
- Bridge tolls up to $19.
- Restrictive parking practices such as “alternate side of the street” regulations in place two midday hours a week for street cleaning that happens less often.
- Vehicle travel lanes removed and repurposed for bicycle storage, with no thought to replace the lost parking supply.
- Resistance to assigning blame to bicyclists and pedestrians who were inattentive or failed to yield the right of way.
There is indeed a “war on cars,” and has been for decades. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people, when given the option, will choose the freedom, safety, and convenience of the personal auto over mass transit, bicycles, or walking.
Talking about traffic deaths is a straw man argument. How many people get assaulted walking? How many bikes get stolen? How many women feel uncomfortable being leered at on a public bus? Start throwing in crimes or deaths that could have been prevented if the victim had been in a personal auto, and then we can talk about the safety side. Until the anti-auto people are willing to admit that people prefer the private auto, and that personal safety is a big reason, then the discussion is nothing more than a Cold War style propaganda war about the evils of the auto.
I think most transportation professionals agree we should invest more in alternative modes and improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. I think most agree that we should encourage multi-modal infrastructure, density, mixed uses and shared parking, and not sprawl/chicken pox development. Where the concern about the war on cars…and parking…comes from is the hyperboles, like providing parking at restaurants causes drunk driving, that those who choose auto transportation are bad people because they (not the poor planning policies of the past) are imposing a burden on those who don’t use autos (aka the “huge” subsidy), and they are causing accidents and deaths simply by choosing to use cars.
So, when did we decide that the role of the transportation engineer is to social engineer? A person will not walk from Chicago to Waukegan nor bike from Chicago to Milwaukee, and to assume the equivalence of these different modes for all trip purposes and length is fallacy. Until the non-auto advocates acknowledge these differences, that each mode is important and fulfills a genuine purpose, and that we are engineers and have no business being social advocates, people will perceive this advocacy as a “War on Cars” and an attack on capitalism and culture.
We all know that this whole Vision Zero movement is a myth because it is, like perfection, unattainable. I personally also think the Complete Streets movement has transmogrified into a passion play between those self-righteous egalitarian planners favoring sharing street space for many users vs. hardcore traffic engineering traditionalists who eschew the emerging bike/scooter/motor-skateboard mode so cars and trucks and buses can remain the focus of moving people and goods. New York City is such a battleground…..bicyclists accuse drivers of killing them, while drivers say two-wheelers never respect traffic lights and other traffic control measures. The mayor wants miles of new bike lanes while adjacent residents and shopkeepers sue to stop him.
As in many cases, both sides are a little right. We engineers are called on to gather new data and issue findings…that’s it! We don’t dictate or write policy, guide funding, opine (as academics do) to influence, or declare war on a topic.
It is gratifying to watch a robust debate being waged in the transportation engineering community about Vision Zero, its goals, and the movement to get people out of their cars, or pay hefty tolls and fees for the “privilege.” The battle, however, must be waged with policymakers and legislators. On that front, we received good news recently from California where Governor Newsom vetoed SB 127, a Complete Streets bill passed by both the state Assembly and Senate to prioritize pedestrian, bicyclist, and public transit facilities in the asset management plan for new transportation infrastructure and capital improvement projects.
While such favorable decisions by California are influential, we still have much work to in other states and at the federal level, where Senate Bill 3663, Complete Streets Act of 2019, has our full attention. We hope it has yours too.