What has happened gradually over the last fifty years — approximately since the advent of the Interstate Highway System — is the elevation of conventional traffic engineering to the status of public policy or even natural law. Instead of providing a means to attain goals set by the public and its elected officials, transportation engineers have gradually assumed responsibility for defining those goals. This is not a fair burden for traffic engineers and other transportation professionals to carry. They have never presumed to play such a role, but because of America’s love affair with the automobile, and because of the negligence of communities in making their own plans, the subordination of other public policy goals to traffic goals occurred gradually over time.

The conventional approach of transportation agencies has been to concern themselves primarily with traffic policy. They deal exclusively with streets and roads, treating them simply as conduits for motor vehicle traffic. Yet the impacts of high design-speed road projects on the landscape represent losses for those living in the immediate vicinity. Ironically, they also represent losses for the motorists passing through, because street and road corridors are public spaces that give localities their character. For both residents and motorists, “there is no land we see more often.” When engineers seek to provide long stopping-sight distances and wide shoulders, they eliminate precisely those natural and man-made features that provide the identity and sense of place for those who live and work there — and that also provide a varied and enjoyable visual experience from behind the wheel.

Context Sensitive Solutions makes a simple claim: that communities neither can nor should be molded to the requirements of automobile traffic. This fundamental shift in thinking concerns both the place of motor vehicle traffic on our landscape and the role of traffic engineers in making public policy. It rejects the assumption that traffic flow is more important than its surroundings — that, like the rain, it is a natural phenomenon that must be accommodated. It repudiates the view that everything except motor vehicle traffic is merely part of the “surroundings,” and moves the would-be surroundings to the center of the picture. Traffic flow is a means to various ends-such as improved social, employment, business, cultural, and recreational opportunities-not an end in itself. CSS contends that it is these issues that should drive transportation decisions, and not the other way around.

When Engineering Decisions are Public Policy Decisions was last modified: May 3rd, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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