Why the conflict with traffic engineers?

Akos Szoboszlay, P.E. [licensed Professional Engineer]

This article is a mostly summary of the much larger illustrated report Conflict of Transportation Competitors. For the latest info on this struggle, see Expressway topics, links page.

Traffic engineers have, in the 1960s, instituted bicycle and pedestrian prohibitions on expressways. In the 1930s to 1950s, they supported and even instigated the destruction of many electric rail transit lines and systems, including in the San Francisco Bay Area. But public policies have changed in the 1970s and 1980s to discourage people from using cars in order to have cleaner air and decrease traffic congestion. Electric rail transit has been brought back to San Jose, the East Bay, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego (although these constitute only a small fraction of the non-polluting, efficient transit systems that were taken over and destroyed by General Motors Corp in all these metropolitan areas).

Unfortunately, the traffic engineers have not conformed to these changes in policies. In the 1980s and continuing to the present, they vigorously fought the repeal of bicycle and pedestrians prohibitions, and tried to use electric rail transit funds for road construction. They fought against bicycles using certain freeway shoulders (where there was no alternative route!). It seems that traffic engineers don't like competitors to the automobile, in the same sense as a businessman doesn't like his competition. One can logically understand General Motors Corp. destroying the transit system of all major California cities besides San Francisco, because this forces people to purchase automobiles. But traffic engineers don't have this profit motive; or do they? To obtain an answer, one needs to examine transportation history.

In Santa Clara County, bicyclists have repeatedly stated that expressways are the safest roads to bicycle because they have 1/5 as many intersections (the major source of accidents), few driveways and no parked cars (that pop doors open when you least expect it). These 3 safety factors also make the expressways "express", decreasing travel times without having greater speed limits than many major streets. By bicycling on the shoulder, bicycles don't even slow down automobiles. Yet, with the exception of the City of Palo Alto, the six other city traffic engineering departments all initially opposed the repeal of bicycle prohibitions that they instituted in 1965. It has taken until June of this year to repeal the last of the bicycle prohibitions by the City Councils (whose members often initially believe the traffic engineer who uses false statements to try to keep prohibitions).

There are many examples in the Bay Area where traffic engineers proposed or supported the destruction of electric rail transit lines to increase the market share of automobiles in the transportation market. The heavily used A-Train line between San Leandro and San Francisco was severed in 1950 by traffic engineers to eliminate a two-block automobile "bottleneck," now called "traffic congesion", near Lake Merritt. The bottleneck could have been eliminated by further widening the road instead of stopping the trains before the bottleneck (especially considering the concurrent destruction of large sections of Oakland for Hwy 17). San Francisco's most heavily used line is Geary Street. Buses arrive every 2 minutes, emitting diesel roar and black exhaust clouds. Yet, this street had a non-polluting streetcar service until 1957, when it was destroyed to increase automobile capacity. The Peninsular Railway Company was a 100-mile electric interurban system in Santa Clara County. In 1932, its San Jose - Los Gatos line was destroyed in order to widen Bascom Ave. The tracks should have been relocated.

The Bay Area's worst transit destruction was probably that of the Key System in 1958. Electric trains went across the Bay Bridge and throughout the East Bay. On the Bay Bridge during the all-important rush hour, about twice as many people went by train than by automobile, yet the two tracks took only 1/5 of the bridge area. Because the bridge was automobile congested, as it is today, the trains were destroyed to increase automobile capacity by 20%. The fact that this action decreased people-capacity of the bridge to 1/6 was simply irrelevant to the traffic engineers. (Capacity was reduced to 1/3 as many people then using bridge divided by 2, because the the number of trains could have been doubled before reaching the capacity of the Trans Bay Terminal).

The traffic engineers' assault on electric rail transit is not over in Santa Clara County. In June 1989, the county traffic engineers characterized "guideway" transit as carpool lanes before the County Transportation Commission, for the expressed purpose of using rail (guideway) transit funds for road construction. This action followed three recent unsuccessful attempts at using transit funds for road construction in Santa Clara County. In June of 1991, they vigorously opposed the removal of "pedestrian prohibited" signs from a pedestrian underpass, that effectively prevented Caltrain patrons from traveling between the Lawrence train station and a nearby industrial area.

While such actions seem highly irrational, they are not when one analyzes the goals of traffic engineers. The primary goal of any bureaucracy is "money for the department", to quote my boss at Lockheed (now retired). By minimizing competition to automobiles, automobile usage and traffic congestion are maximized. Traffic congestion brings political pressure for more and more road construction, thus, money for their department. If you don't believe this, then you've never worked for IBM or Lockheed (I worked for both), or a governmental bureaucracy. If the number of automobiles should ever decrease or even stay the same, most traffic engineers would be out of a job.

The traffic engineers represent only their vested interest in maximizing automobile usage and traffic congestion, and not the interests of the public. The public, especially officials who make transportation decisions, needs to realize that the traffic engineers' self-interests run counter to the publics' goals of clean air, safety for non-automobile users, a more efficient transportation system and a decrease in traffic congestion.

Also see: list of bicycle articles.