Sometimes we come across something that is so perfect and so timely that it just needs repeating as it is. This is one of those times. The following post by Charles Marohn is lifted in its entirety from


The Ideology of Traffic by Charles Marohn

The greatest accomplishment of any ideology is to not be considered an ideology; to be a belief system that is not considered a belief system. Millions of Americans went to church yesterday and every one of them knew their experience constituted a belief, that others in the world believe other things. It is when beliefs are not recognized as such that things get scary.

“This approach to design – speed then volume then safety then cost – reflects the ideology of the profession, an internal belief system so foundational that they don’t recognize it as the application of a set of values.”

Last week I was in Washington State speaking to a group of mostly transportation engineers and technical professionals. My presentation was all about questioning the core beliefs of the profession, of helping the people in attendance recognize that many of their core truths are actually beliefs, and that there are competing beliefs that they should consider.

For example, when engineers design a street, they begin with the design speed. They then determine the projected traffic volume. Given speed and volume, they then look to a design manual to determine the safe street section and then, once a cross section is selected, determine the cost. This approach to design – speed then volume then safety then cost – reflects the ideology of the profession, an internal belief system so foundational that they don’t recognize it as the application of a set of values.

Of course, when presented with these values discretely and not as part of a design process – not as part of the ritual practice of their belief system – they collectively identified a different set of values. I actually had them shout out their values in order and, like the thousands of people I’ve asked to do the same, theirs came back: safety first, then cost then volume and, last, speed. Their actual values are nearly a perfect inversion of those they apply to their design ritual.

This weekend, there was an article that appeared in the NY Post titled The Real Reason for New York City’s Traffic Nightmare. I know the Post is tabloidy; the story contained all anonymous sources and lacked even a rudimentary level of fact checking that you’d find in an actual news story. Still, it fits the ideology of the traffic engineering profession and I saw the piece widely distributed. Here’s a quote:

“The traffic is being engineered,” a former top NYPD official told The Post, explaining a long-term plan that began under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and hasn’t slowed with Mayor de Blasio.

“The city streets are being engineered to create traffic congestion, to slow traffic down, to favor bikers and pedestrians,” the former official said.

“There’s a reduction in capacity through the introduction of bike lanes and streets and lanes being closed down.”

Let’s apply a contrasting value system to this quote, not one based on moving traffic but one based on building wealth. Here’s how each of these statements could be rewritten:

Ideology of Traffic: The city streets are being engineered to create traffic congestion.
Ideology of Wealth Creation: The city streets are being engineered to make property more valuable, encourage investment and improve the city’s tax base while reducing its overall costs.

Ideology of Traffic: The city streets are being engineered to slow traffic.
Ideology of Wealth Creation: The city streets are being engineered to improve the quality of the space for the people who live, work and own property there.

Ideology of Traffic: The city streets are being engineered to favor bikers and pedestrians.
Ideology of Wealth Creation: The city streets are being engineered to favor the access of high volumes of people over the movement of comparatively small volumes of automobiles.

Ideology of Traffic: There’s a reduction in capacity through the introduction of bike lanes and streets and lanes being closed down.
Ideology of Wealth Creation: There’s an improvement in the quality of the place and it’s corresponding value through the introduction of bike lanes and the closing of some streets and lanes.

Before the Suburban Experiment, cities were built with an ideology of wealth creation. That ideology was shared across the culture and, while some benefitted more than others, it provided opportunity for nearly everyone to get ahead. To understand why our cities are going broke, why they are struggling in a growing economy just to do basic things, one only needs to consider the dramatics of this ideological shift. We’ll bankrupt ourselves moving traffic and we don’t even understand why.

Time to adopt a Strong Towns mindset.

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      1. Well when explaining this kind of thing to the Select Committee on the future of transport earlier in the year I think I did cause Maurice Williamson’s head to explode. Well he certainly flopped defeated back in his chair, and then soon afterwards resigned from parliament…. I know correlation isn’t causality, but….

        1. But then again, old dogs; new tricks, like certain Councillors, no amount logic and evidence can permeate dear old Maurice’s set ideas:

          It is funny that he is off to LA; one of many US case studies in how road building just builds traffic congestion, especially in the absence of any balancing alternatives… now desperately and expensively being added. How not to do it. And of course for so long, still even, the model for little Auckland.

    1. You people are so easily sucked in. Traffic engineering 101, two lanes will always flow more than twice the traffic of one lane. I enjoy my time on this blog reading some of the nonsense portrayed as fact and the gullible who so readily lap it up.

      1. “You people”…. and so logically, 32 lanes of traffic will flow 32 times as fast as one lane will. And support 32 times more traffic sitting waiting at the lights. Yes, wonderful. Ricardo, I think you are missing the point really….

      2. Agree, you should see the flow of people when one of those lanes is a bus lane and the other for cars, definitely more than double the flow of just a single lane.

      3. To true, they also forget that you need stacking space as well as the knock on effect to feeder roads.

        I would ditch my car in an instant but hey I can’t get from north Auckland to south Auckland in a timely manner so it’s never gonna happen.

      4. Ricardo clearly hasn’t actually done Traffic Engineering 101 himself, if he makes claims like two lanes always flowing double one lane (hint: flow is determined by interesections more than anything). Thanks for proving yourself an uneducated blowhard, I guess that’s better than an educated blowhard.

      5. “Traffic engineering 101, two lanes will always flow more than twice the traffic of one lane.” Haha, where did you get your education?

  1. Awesome post! I think you’ll find that the majority of the government caucus, the majority of NZTA/MOT/AT etc, the majority of businesses and the populace living in Auckland who actually think about these things broadly buy into the the conclusions of this post and in turn, the post it was taken from.

    The issue is a handful of dinosaurs in senior positions in each of the above who wield power far in excess of their actual numbers. The problem is when they use their considerable resources to persuade the significant chunk of the populace who don’t think through these issues. All the more reason to keep hammering away – well done Transport Blog.

    1. This is the key line:

      ‘The greatest accomplishment of any ideology is to not be considered an ideology’

      This is the biggest problem. Standard Traffic Engineering thinks it does not freight a world view, it flatters itself by believing it is like the laws of physics; eternal, objective, dispassionate. Outside of the sophisticated practitioners there is little or no awareness that they are constantly making value judgements and selective trade-offs as they prioritise one mode, and the least spatially efficient one at that, over all others.

  2. I think the real test of when you are dealing with ideology is when you see someone who feels obliged to edit the language people use. Let’s all chant together now “Four legs good, two legs baaaad”

  3. Where did you get the graphic from because it’s not in Charles Marohn’s original link. I ask because I’d love to know where the data to support the figures comes from. Thus far it seems like whoever drew it up just made up the numbers to suit their agenda. S/he seems to be saying “if you widen the pavement then you’ll increase the pedestrian traffic”. I’m sure it will, but a leap from 9,000 to 16,000 people? That implies that 7,000 people are trapped in their offices/apartments unable to leave due to footpath congestion?
    On a related note: I was stuck in Queen Street (2pm Monday) for a good length of time due to the new full time buslane leaving only one lane for cars (as per your graphic above). Traffic was at a crawl from Customs to Wellesley because there was always someone wanting to turn right but being unable to do so due to oncoming traffic – but there was no green arrow for them, so everyone behind them was also stuck waiting. I appreciate from other posts on Transportblog that this is exactly how it’s supposed to work, until we all stop driving cars in the city and use bicycles instead but what I found most irksome was the number of cars using the buslane with impunity. Is it a fulltime buslane or not? If it is then [a] it could be better sign posted as such, and [b] why is there no enforcement?

    1. Nick you were stuck in a car on Queen St? And you expect otherwise? Queen St is a daft place to expect free flowing vehicle traffic pretty much anytime. And yes the bus lanes are abused constantly.

      As to your other question I can tell you exactly where those additional pedestrians will be coming from on Victoria and Wellesley Sts in Auckland; Aotea Station. And all through the City Centre.

      I find it very odd that AT are currently building this huge pedestrian generator [CRL], while putting huge energy into trying to stuff as many cars into the city and squeeze as many pointless general traffic lanes out of the public realm as possible. And promoting cheap to free parking. It is a strangely schizophrenic organisation currently with City Centre policy. Or rather culture, it is not clear at all what policy, if any, AT are following with regards to City Centre transformation.

      Why would we be spending $3b to move thousands of people under the city and yet not 1. grasp the opportunity this offers to improve the public realm above and 2. prepare for the pedestrian influx that this and all the new living, learning, and earning in City Centres needs?

    2. “That implies that 7,000 people are trapped in their offices/apartments unable to leave due to footpath congestion”

      You seem to misunderstand what capacity means. The argument by NYPD was that street capacity was reduced. The schematic clearly shows that it isn’t.

    3. @ Patrick ~ Yes, I had no option but to take that route, in order to pick up my teen daughter. [full disclosure: I wasn’t driving and the driver ignored my suggestion to go via High Street and Lorne Street, which would have been quicker, I’m sure]. As much as we all await PT Utopia the reality is that private vehicles will still need to cross through the CBD.

      I totally take your point about about the forthcoming CRL users though, and I look forward to seeing it in actuality.

      As a side note, is there any chance to change the name of the Aotea Station? I bused past it this morning on Victoria St and it occurred to me it’s not the best name given it’s location. People (and especially tourists) would naturally assume it was somewhere adjacent to Aotea Square, but it’s not really. The station entrance on the corner of Wellesley & Albert will be quite removed, and the entrance on Victoria and Albert makes it even a more ludicrous name. I appreciate the desire to include more Maori names in our city, which is laudable, but in this instance I think some common sense is required. I can well imagine plenty of tourists will be walking up Queen St to get to Aotea Square so they can get on the CRL, only to be told they’re in the wrong place. Obviously the Auckland citizens who arrive at Aotea Station for work will know their way back, but it’s the people who don’t make the regular trip who create problems. If Albert St Station is unpalatable then let’s ask Maori for a name.

      @ Sailor ~ I totally understand what capacity means. As a former event manager I was forever working out how many people I could safely fit inside a venue, as well as how to move them in and around a venue without creating bottlenecks. BTW – Marohn never refutes the claim “There’s a reduction in [car] capacity through the introduction of bike lanes and streets and lanes being closed down” he merely suggests we need an ideology shift to place a higher value on the movement of pedestrians and bikes than cars. He may well be correct but there’s no denying there’s a reduction in [car] capacity through the introduction of bike lanes and streets and lanes being closed down (which is presumably why he doesn’t deny it). We’re experiencing a similar change in parts of Auckland, but the ideological shift has not yet been made by the majority. Hence the howling and squealing from car drivers.

      FWIW – I have previously said here that I’m all in favour of shutting down Queen St to cars and just running buses up and down it (until the trams arrive). Maybe I’ll get my felt tips out during the holiday break and sketch up some street plans, since I don’t think I really articulated my vision last time! 😉

      1. The south entrance to Aotea station will be less than 100m to the square, via a direct pedestrian lane. It’s the same distance as karanagahape station is from karangahape Rd.

      2. Nick A is the name Britomart confusing? By your logic shouldn’t it be called something dreary like downtown, or city centre, or habourside? Aotea is a fine name, but we could call it any old thing and that it would become: Angel of islington, Elephant and Castle, Mudchute, Canada Water, see we aren’t even trying… more poetry of place, not less please.

        I shudder at a city that calls its important public places things like midtown, or, looking across the Tasman the hopelessness of our Australian cousins at honouring the first people there: Melbourne North, Melbourne Central, etc… also if they all have Melbourne in the name isn’t that even more confusing? At least Southern Cross is an effort.

        Let’s get more ambitious with singing up the past and what’s locally authentic about our city and nation. After all that’s the way to being internationally distinctive: Local authenticity -> Internationally distinctive.

        And that means much much more Te Reo. Until recently there was only one surviving Maori street name in the Central City! A great one, Karangahape Rd, but still I find that shocking, that’s what near cultural genocide looks like; near total memory loss, a very sorry business. It’s great we’re turning that around.

        1. Britomart is not confusing because it’s in Britomart, which is the thrust of my comment.
          What is confusing is getting a bus that supposedly terminates at Britomart but is in fact a block or so away. This must be problematic for tourists and locals unfamiliar with the route. Hopefully that will all be resolved when the Pegasus Bay development is finished and the streets return to their new normal.
          When I get off the Tube at Piccadilly Circus I am in Piccadilly Circus, when I get off the subway at Times Square I am in Times Square, so it’s reasonable to assume that when I get off the train at Aotea Station it’s at Aotea Square.
          But I’ve taken up enough of your time already and I am in a minority of one here, so we shall just have to wait and see how it all pans out.

          1. Times square is a neighbourhood more than anything. The Times Square-42nd St subway station is four blocks (350m) south of the actual Times Square in front of the Times Building.

            Compare that to Aotea station being 130m from Aotea Square. I don’t get what you’re worried about to be honest.

          2. As Sailor Boy mentioned, this area is known as Britomart because of Britomart station. Funny how quickly the area became known by the train stations name.

    4. “there was always someone wanting to turn right but being unable to do so due to oncoming traffic – but there was no green arrow for them, so everyone behind them was also stuck waiting”

      That’s so stupid. They do this with traffic lights in Belgium all the time, and usually the result is that nobody gets through at all. It can take 20 minutes for a queue of 20 cars to get through an intersection that way. So even a trickle of 100 cars per hour will result in gridlock.

      Given the sheer amount of traffic engineering going on on even the smallest streets over here, at least one of those engineers must be able to come up with a better cycle for those traffic lights.

    1. With that logic we should definitely listen to Bill English, Prime Minister of New Zealand, raised in Dipton (pop 150). He’s definitely the guy to lead New Zealand. That’s idiotic! It’s not about where you are from or where you live. It’s about what you know and understand.

      1. Last time I looked Dipton was in New Zealand. (But actually the dude lives in Wellington- remember the double dipper from Dipton. He rents his house in Wellington from his own Trust.) Back to my point I feel sure the people in NY who are putting up with the engineered congestion must really appreciate the views of someone with the good sense to live in a small town over a thousand miles away from it. One of the least efficient most bone headed things you will ever find in transportation is people who think congestion should be used as a policy instrument. Think of the additional CO2 the idiots who thought that was a good idea are generating for us all.

        1. I thought traffic speed actually improved following some of the diets in NYC. Inevitably you are making a choice. New York chose to prioritise the safety of pedestrians and cyclists and the amenity of the street to the majority of users (pedestrians) over the movement of motor vehicles. The strongtowns argument is that this is the better decision, not that it is a no loss decision.

  4. Related to this subject I read Phil Goff complaining about taking nearly an hour to leave the precinct of Auckland Airport because of the traffic problems. And that does not include actually getting anywhere else after you clear the airport. Traffic jam on the Mangere Bridge then Onehunga then Gillies Ave gridlocked, you get my drift? I am hoping that Phil is not going to go down in history as your bread and butter imbecilic politician. Therefore:

    Dear Phil. Too many cars, never ever enough tar seal to carry them. You could spend a large fortune and keep spending more and more to build more and more roads to accommodate those cars or build a decent alternative. Can I suggest you champion a rail link between the airport and Puhinui, the shortest route that at this time is covering mainly a rural landscape that is almost flat, perfect for rail. C’mon Phil, think about it, its logical, it will work and it will be the best investment for the future more than any road.

    What do you reckon Phil? Are you a man of the future, a progressive Mayor or one of so many idiots we have in local and central government who despite all the evidence that tells us roads are not working, still think roads are the answer?

    1. Exactly Waspman! HR spur from Puhiniui to the airport: Can be built the fastest, not too expensive, provides the fastest trip to the airport, covers the majority of airport workers most of which live to the East or South and the surrounding businesses too. Not too mention it is nicer than LRT or BRT would ever be.

      1. While I agree with you to a point but the airport is a final destination not the destination, this option puts more trains through the already heavily congested Westfield to Wiri section and misses the south eastern suburbs.
        LR does not stack up as an airport CBD connection but the HR option needs to be from either Onehunga or (my preferred option) Otahuhu.

        1. Yes the NIMT needs more mains but is that and a branch to the airport a far better investment than constant motorway additions and gridlock? It does not have to be so hard!

  5. I don’t get it. Theoretical capacity is meaningless if there is no chance of ever reaching that theoretical capacity given that no intersection could handle those volumes of traffic. 120 bikes, 35 cars, 500 pedestrians and 4 packed buses per minute.

    1. But what do mean ‘no chance’? The only time there is no chance is when we don’t build the capacity to allow for it. You do realise that yours is exactly the argument that was used for years against fixing the rail system; no-one will use it, oh and the Busway, the herald and ‘sensible’ politicians raved for years against it, city footpaths are already groaning, city apartment numbers are 10 years ahead of forecasts.

      Of course there is more than every chance that capacity will be used. We will have induced it.

      Anyway, so what if we build much better streets and they end up with some spare pedestrian capacity? Wow, what a problem. Especially if that means we have squeezed traffic out. Win/win/win.

      1. I was just pointing out the example is too simplified to be meaningful. Intersections are the constraint, not the parts between intersections. So that capacity has no chance in ever being achieved in a dense area that can generate those levels of traffic. And that assumes arrivals are uniformly spread over the intersection and not bunched together.

        What I don’t like is when people come along as say “you’re wrong, I’m right.” and then just share their own opinions which may or may not be valid. Charles asked engineers their values(safety first) and states they design things in the opposite manner(speed first). Its a bit rich coming from him assuming he knows how they actually do their jobs better than them. Then he goes on sharing his opinions that building cycle lanes somehow magically creates wealth. Rising property values doesn’t really count as wealth.

        Some politician says build motorways so engineers built motorways. Some politician says build a cycleway, so it gets built. Planners say you must cater for this or that and that is what the engineers do. Case in point: Auckland Transport. Apparently the boss says “most our customers drive a car”, so the engineers cater to cars. The point is that engineers don’t make the decisions, they are constrained by them. They just do what they are asked to do within the constraints. Is there anything wrong with catering to car drivers in Auckland? Not really. It is logical and rational. Why wouldn’t you cater to the majority of your customers? Is it the best approach in the long run? Probably not. Catering to car drivers is totally unsustainable and can’t really be disputed.

        Traffic engineers pre-date the automobile by a few thousand years, so I dislike the suggestion that engineers are fixated on moving cars around because of some belief system. It is simply a product of the car society we are all in. But to denigrate traffic engineers as some evil group of pro-car fanatics is silly. I would argue planners and politicians hold the greater share of the blame for our predicament.

        Anyway, enough ranting from me. Good read and thought provoking article and should be discussed more often.

        1. Ari you are simply saying that you don’t understand what is being shown in the graphic above; it’s people carrying capacity across all modes by lane width, not just vehicle capacity.

          And then you try the ‘just following orders’ argument. The problem is TE’s are at the centre of the transport decision making process, so that doesn’t wash.

          Then you try to claim that Traffic Engineering preceded Traffic. This is simply untrue. What we recognise as traffic engineering did begin in Victorian London before the internal combustion engine [in the railway era], but it only began to shape and dominate the built environment with the rise of the car.

          1. I understand clearly what the graphic is saying, but I think you misunderstand what I am trying to say. The graphic is pointless because it doesn’t take into the capacity limiting nature of signalised intersections which is where the bus/cycle/ped always gets compromised. The capacity of the midblock section will never get achieved if people can’t get there, unless they never leave the area I suppose.

            You say claim. I say fact. Your definition of traffic is your opinion. My definition is that traffic is the movement of people and their stuff, by whatever means. Traffic predates cars. TE is a subset of civil and dates back to Ancient Rome. They used plenty of traffic engineering to manage their 1m+ population. Not a single car in sight.

            J, I know Charles is an engineer. What’s your point? It doesnt make him any less right or wrong.

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