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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Top image by Raidarmax through Creative Commons


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