In the early 1900s, a new form of engineering was born — the Traffic Engineer. The Traffic Engineers’ main purpose was to “solve” traffic and gridlock, mainly by expanding the capacity of roadways and removing anything that might get in the way of free flowing, uninhibited vehicle traffic.
In fact, this is where the term “jaywalking” came from — pedestrians were getting hit left and right by drivers, and instead of coming down on the drivers, pedestrians were viewed as an obstacle to free flowing traffic. They were relegated to the margins, and forced to to only cross in designated places. The car was king.
For a time, all was well. There were not that many automobiles (they were expensive in the early days!) and plenty of space, and if you added another lane, traffic got better.
With the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, the government started building highways between and through cities (other parts of the world built highways between cities, we did it between and through our cities, decimating communities). The highways that were built started filling up with cars, as intended.
But then, more and more cars came, and all of a sudden there was gridlock. The solution chosen in nearly all cases once this started happening in the 1950s/1960s was to add more capacity, to relieve congestion. So highways were widened even more — in L.A.’s case, decimating communities even more by tearing down homes along the freeway’s margins.
It seems very logical, right? If you have too much trying to go through a pipe, just make a bigger pipe, and things will start to flow. Except it didn’t quite work that way. Because when we make driving more appealing (ie. add more capacity) then it entices more people to drive, which in turn causes more congestion, which in turn prompts more calls for adding more capacity, and round and round we go. This is the proven concept of induced demand.
For the last 70 years, traffic engineers have seen every traffic problem as a nail, and widening as a hammer. And they’ve been encouraged by politicians desperate for traffic solutions, who have showered road projects with hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding.
But then something changed. In California, starting in 2019, suddenly highways fell out of vogue and a bill was introduced to force the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to implement safe facilities for pedestrians and cyclists when working on state highways. It was vetoed by Governor Newsom, who took the position that Caltrans didn’t have to be told to do these things — that a new agency head (Toks Omiskahin) would simply do the right thing. And to Toks’ credit, he said and did a lot of the right stuff.
Then in July 2020 the state of California switched from “Level of Service” to “Vehicle Miles Traveled.” This was a monumental change. Prior to this, traffic engineers measured the “level” of service provided to people driving, and graded it. If it fell below a certain grade (ie. there was too much traffic), it was time to widen the road to relieve the congestion. After this change, projects were evaluated by their impact to the number of vehicle miles traveled by cars — and if the project increased the number of miles traveled, it would have to mitigate that, or not be built if mitigation wasn’t possible. In other words, the state did a 180 and started to spend money on projects that would help people get out of cars versus instead of encouraging them to drive more.
But 20,000 employees at Caltrans don’t change with the wind, even under new, progressive leadership. And because of government pensions and unions, there’s basically un-fireable. Many Caltrans (and L.A. Metro) engineers continued business as usual — viewing widening and car capacity expansion as the solution. Many said that projects that were in the pipeline — but not yet under construction — were too far along to modify. In other words, the agency is still planning on delivering car-centric projects that lack multi modal features that were baked 5–10 years ago; we’ll have to live with these projects for another few decades.
I get that change is hard. And I understand that if you’ve spend decades at an agency being told to prioritize driver convenience and vehicle traffic flow, all of a sudden being asked to do the opposite — and prioritize transit, pedestrians, and cyclists at the expense of vehicle flow — isn’t an easy pill to swallow. But just because change is hard doesn’t mean it’s not right.
Traffic engineers everywhere need to adapt to the modern thinking around “traffic” meaning safe roads for all modes of transportation. This includes Caltrans and Metro rank and file. Those that are stuck behind a windshield mindset should retire and make room for the new generation. Because we’re never going back to 1950s thinking — and we need the country’s largest state department of transportation to follow suit.
Caltrans should put a moratorium on all road widening and resurfacing projects in the pipeline that are not yet under construction, and review them through their new complete streets policy. If the project fails that test, they should be scrapped. Our planet (and our rates of traffic violence) don’t have time to wait.