Why One City Stopped Asking "How Are We Going to Move Cars Across Town"?

The hardest—but also most important—part of making public policy is making sure that you’re asking the right questions.

Cities and societies are complex systems, and every moving piece within them affects a thousand other moving pieces. It’s impossible to grasp all of this complexity at once, so to get things done, we necessarily deal with a series of much simpler questions. These simpler questions usually try to isolate one problem and a set of possible responses to it. But define the problem too narrowly, and you’re going to find that your “solutions” are futile, because all you’re doing is moving it around, or creating a new problem by solving an earlier one.

The Problem With "How Are We Going to Move the Cars”?

The business-as-usual approach of the traffic engineering profession is an example par excellence of this. We define the problem of traffic congestion as, “Not moving enough cars through Point X,” or "Not moving cars through Point X fast enough.” We quantify the problem using a measure like Vehicle Level of Service (LOS), which defines free-flowing traffic as desirable (grade “A”) and tightly spaced traffic that causes drivers to slow down as a problem (grade “D” or below), regardless of context or the effects of the road on the surrounding environment.

And worst of all, optimizing for Level of Service never solves our traffic problems. At best, it removes congestion temporarily from one location, while increasing it somewhere else. Even if a city undertakes a comprehensive campaign to widen roads throughout town, it’s likely to find that traffic will return to its previous congested levels before long—a phenomenon called induced demand—because the city has now given people every incentive to drive more often and to live farther away.

There’s an ongoing sea change in the planning and engineering professions, though—and it’s one which we’re proud to be a part of. An increasing number of cities are beginning to understand that chasing high-speed mobility is an endless and futile quest, like a dog trying to catch its own tail.

Explaining Why A Different Question is Necessary

Once we’ve understood just how futile fighting congestion by building or widening roads is, the problem then becomes conveying this reality. Even if the phenomenon of induced demand is backed by a growing body of solid evidence, skeptical citizens who will still shout “Just fix the (bleep)ing traffic!” After all, as everybody knows that every city has a traffic problem, right?

The rapidly growing city of Tauranga, New Zealand went with the below approach: a cutesy animated video, with just enough of that cheeky irreverence our friends in the lands Down Under seem to specialize in. Hat tip to reader John Lieswyn, a Senior Transportation Planner at ViaStrada, for sharing the video with us.

Here’s Tauranga’s quick, memorable take on why the right question isn’t, “How Are We Going to Move Cars?”—because that question shuts down many possible solutions right out of the gate. A better question is, “How Are We Going to Move People?”

Transportation, after all, is about getting people to the things that make their lives better. Sometimes it’s not even about movement, it’s about bringing those things closer to them so they don’t need to travel. And once you frame it that way, you can see a lot of things differently.


(Cover image via Tauranga City Council)