Transportation Engineers Debate Vision Zero, Part 1: NMA E-Newsletter #563

Buckle up and get comfortable. This will be a bit of a journey.

We recently became aware of a fascinating thread on the ITE (Institute of Transportation Engineers) Member Forum titled, “A ‘War on Cars’? Let there be Peace!” Access to the Forum is restricted, but we were able to capture much of the debate and share it with you below.

The original post is from a die-hard Vision Zero proponent. Don’t let it deter you from reading on; it is the stage-setter for an interesting discussion that provides us with a glimpse at the thinking of true VZ believers as well as solid counterarguments by others from the same engineering community. Both viewpoints are valuable to us as we continue the fight against policies designed to restrict drivers and driving freedoms in favor of lesser — much lesser — used modes of transportation such as walking and bicycling.

Post #1

If you are involved in multi-modal transportation planning or transportation demand management programs, you may have been accused of waging a “war on cars.” The following column, posted on the Planetizen website, critically evaluates these claims.

There is no “war on cars.” Everybody, including motorists, benefit from a more diverse and efficient transportation system. Let there be peace!

Key Conclusions:

  • What critics call a war is simply more multi-modal planning that improves transport options and incentives for travelers to use the most efficient mode for each trip.
  • Current demographic and economic trends are increasing demand for non-auto travel. Multi-modal planning responds to these consumer demands and community needs.
  • In most communities, walking, bicycling, and public transit receive less than their fair share of road space and funding.
  • Motor vehicle user fees only finance about half of total roadway costs. Local roads and most parking facilities are financed through general taxes and subsidies that residents pay regardless of how they travel, so households that drive less than average tend to subsidize the automobile facility costs of their neighbors who drive more than average.
  • Credible research indicates that pedestrian and bicycle improvements increase use of these modes and reduce total traffic crashes, including risks to motorists.
  • Bicycle facility improvements allow but do not require people to bicycle. Motorists also benefit form multi-modal planning, which reduces their congestion delays, accident risks, and chauffeuring burdens.
  • Current policies result in huge parking subsidies, totaling thousands of dollars annually per motor vehicle. This is perverse: It forces many lower-income people to subsidize the parking costs of affluent motorists and encourages dangerous driving. Parking mandates are a fertility drug for cars.
  • Multi-modal planning tends to increase our freedom and opportunities overall.
  • Multi-modal planning creates healthier, happier, “free range” children, and reduces parents’ chauffeuring burdens.
  • Excessive parking requirements encourage drunk driving and discourage development of neighborhood restaurants, bars, and pubs.
  • No, traffic engineers are not conspiring to delay traffic.
  • Much criticism of multi-modal planning and complete streets is inaccurate, exaggerated or unfair. Abundant research indicates that they make communities overall safer, healthier, more affordable and inclusive, less polluting and more economically successful than automobile-dependent planning.
  • Bicyclists are not all irresponsible scofflaws. They tend to violate traffic laws at about the same rate as motorists.

I hope this information is useful to transportation professionals facing inaccurate, exaggerated or unfair criticism.

Post #2

Great column! I appreciate the directness [with which] you address each claim. I support your argument that automobile travel is subsidized by other modal travel because of its high costs, perverse incentives, outsized externalities, and insufficient use fees. I’ve already share the article with several people.

One comment, and maybe you were strategically treading lightly in light of recent Vision Zero discussion, I would expand the traffic violence aspect of automobile dependency. According to the World Health Organization, road traffic deaths and injuries are the 8th leading cause of death for people of all ages, and the leading cause of death for children and young adults 5-29 years of age. Traffic violence, like pollution and sprawl, is a characteristic of automobile use that proponents of automobiles would rather ignore. Multi-modal transportation is integral to giving people safety and the freedom of choice in their mobility in order to participate in society.

Post #3

I’m not sure we want to put wind behind the sails of this traffic violence spin. It is spin and it is intended to provoke a response, so my response is that using the term violence is loaded and in some way assumes intent. War, crime, etc., are examples. Violence: “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Any legal expert will tell you that intent is one of the hardest things to prove so do we really want to go throwing around the term “traffic violence?” I hope you and others will give it further consideration and/or help me understand how you think using such spin will be helpful to transportation betterment.

Post #4

Violence is a noun that absolutely implies intent…and if you choose to modify the noun violence with traffic as the adjective, you and others are absolutely choosing to use these words to elicit a desired response.

Some note that, “The truth is that even though traffic violence is usually unintentional, it is preventable.” This is a patently false statement. How would you prevent a drunk driver from barreling through a red light or driving off the road and hurting himself or others, or how would you prevent someone from having a catastrophic stroke while driving and wiping out a poor pedestrian on a wheelchair on a sidewalk? How would you prevent drunk or inattentive pedestrians from running into the street or otherwise crossing where they aren’t expected, such as between parked cars, and being struck?

These are only a handful of the accidents I have reviewed in an effort to evaluate what I can do as a professional in the transportation field to improve safety for citizens. Are these “traffic violence” incidents preventable…perhaps arguably so…but not by anything you or I can design or influence, short of removing the car, motorcycle/vehicle from the equation. Hence the perception of the “war on cars.”

I do not wish to steer this discussion away from the topic, but 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, let alone activities that mix pedestrians, bicyclists or any other infrastructure/roadway users with moving vehicles are fooling themselves, and worse misleading the public. There is no room for that in our industry, and I, for one, don’t want to live in the kind of sterile world that would be required to achieve what you espouse.


There are too many valuable perspectives in the ITE Member Forum thread to fit into one newsletter, so if you got a bit riled after these first few posts, be sure to look for Transportation Engineers Debate Vision Zero, Part 2 next week to further bolster your faith in the traffic engineering community.

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!