The Sinister Logic of Old-School Traffic Engineering, in XtraNormal

There is a strange world where up is down, in is out, right is wrong, and black is white. I’m not just talking about the San Francisco Planning Department’s indefensible trip-generation analysis for new parking spaces.

No, I mean the world of old-school traffic engineers, where improving safety on the streets means reducing conflicts with cars (you know, like pesky pedestrians), widening lanes and softening turning radii to allow traffic to move more freely. This is the world of Caltrans, for one, and it’s antithetical to making your city more livable.

Though the state has started to reform its highway and street design guidelines, city planners throughout the Bay Area can attest to the difficulty of adding bus bulbs, traffic calming or bicycle infrastructure in the face of engineers with their traffic bibles telling them there is no such thing as an acceptable green bike lane.

This excellent XtraNormal cartoon, which was produced by Strong Towns, lays out the problem, complete with jargon that will make your head spin.

If you have eight minutes and a wonky sense of humor/indignation, I recommend you watch. If eight minutes seems like a long time, imagine going up against these guys for a decade to reverse the violent upheaval perpetrated on your neighborhood decades prior in the name of progress.

Gives me chills.

  • Nick

    SF has been installing those yellow ADA sidewalk ramps all over the city this year. Each corner is being ripped up and recemented.

    Did any traffic engineer ever think to coordinate this with the installation of sidewalk bulb-outs to reduce the crossing distance for pedestrians? It seems like such a waste of money not to.

  • thielges

    This is reminiscent of many conversations with traffic engineers especially an extended conversation about the redesign of the highway 17 / Hamilton Ave. interchange in Campbell. That design causes eastbound cyclists to ride in the middle of five lanes through the interchange and another quarter mile of high volume intersections. The engineer’s response to the concern that it might not be good for cyclists to weave with 45MPH traffic exiting and entering the freeway : dismount and walk the sidewalk. For a quarter mile.

    The problems here are “The Book” and Almighty Level of Service. Both strive to optimize throughput of cars and neglect to consider the experience or convenience of people outside of the cars. Safety is taken into account though it secondary to the volumes dictated by LoS : build the safest road you can so long as it can handle X volume of traffic.

    “The Book” is a crutch that keeps our roads in a constant state of sickness. It indemnifies roads agencies from legal responsibility. “We did the best we could according to The Book”.

  • Achavez2

    This is such an exaggeration! Caltran’s has no authority to build a drag strip in front of anyone’s house! I live in San Diego and Caltrans has authority over the freeways and highways, that’s about it.  The City of San Diego or other local municipalities are the ones responsible for making any changes in residential streets, such as widening and changing grade and speed.



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