Here’s a thought:  Let’s fight traffic congestion using the same techniques DOT’s use to promote safety.

Let’s have  costumed superheroes weigh in against congestion, and spend billions on safety, instead of the other way around.

Why don’t we insist that driver’s take responsibility for the length of their commutes?

Today marks the first day of “National Pedestrian Safety month” and there’s a new federally-funded marketing campaign to raise awareness.  Tragically, as Streetsblog’s Kea Wilson documents, the campaign is rife with myths and centers of victim-blaming while ignoring the deep-seated and systemic reasons why our road system regularly kills and injures thousands of pedestrians.

But this PR approach to public safety betrays an even deeper bias in the way approach two different aspects of transportation:  Safety and Congestion.  There’s a profound disconnect in transportation policy:  When it comes to fighting congestion, highway departments spare no expense. They’ll right billion dollar checks to widen a mile or three of urban freeway in the name of speeding traffic (if only a little bit  and for a short time).  But when it comes to safety those same highway departments turn stingy, and manage only to find a few pennies, mostly for sanctimonious and ineffectual public service announcements.

Vision Zero is just the latest iteration of a long string of campaigns to promote greater safety. And if you’ll notice, the emphasis is on “campaign” as in communication campaign, marketing campaign or public awareness campaign. It regularly manifests itself if the victim-blaming, victim shaming ideas like “distracted walking”, and blatantly ignores the evidence that the surge in road fatalities since 2014 is directly correlated with the uptick in driving from lower gas prices. No one’s more privileged in American society that the driver a motor vehicle. Drivers are regularly excused from any consequences when the machines they operate kill other human beings.

So here’s today’s modest proposal:  Let’s turn those priorities around.  Let’s have highway departments use marketing campaigns to fight congestion, and spend real dollars on improving safety.  Let’s have a potent message of personal responsibility when it comes to commutes and congestion, and make moving the needle on traffic deaths and injuries the arbiter of where we spend transportation system dollars.

Why do we always fight safety problems with P. R. campaigns?

The death toll for pedestrians is rising. But as far as highway departments and auto advocates are concerned, the appropriate way to tackle this problem is through communication and public education. New York City has spent $2.5 million on a dozen billboards and several hundred bus placards proclaiming (among other things) “Car crashes are not accidents.  Your choices behind the wheel matter.” Los Angeles has spent $2 million to commission eight community groups and artists organizations to teach their friends and neighbors about the role everyone can play in reducing traffic deaths. Some cities have colorful characters to stir the public’s imagination.

San Diego’s efforts safety efforts are led by Captain Vision Zero. Why don’t we have cartoon characters fight congestion, and spend real money on safety, instead of the other way ’round?

It’s cute and eye-catching, but it betrays the trivialization of the problem.  Writing about one such effort, Curbed’s Alissa Walker tweeted:

This Wednesday is #NationalWalktoSchoolDay (it’s also #CleanAirDayCA). Come show your support for students who have to use streets so dangerous they require superpowers to cross them.

They shouldn’t need superheroes. They need elected officials who care.

And too often, so-called safety campaigns are thinly-veiled messages that blame pedestrians for car crashes, like a now-cancelled ad produced in Portland.

If you have a strong sense of deja vu when it comes to public relations-centered traffic safety efforts, there’s a good reason for that.  Every few years we come out with a new set of slogans and a marketing campaign to match. As Jim Wilcox wrote on the Oregon Transportation Forum in 2015:

In 2008, following increased concerns about pedestrian and bicycle safety, leaders in Portland and Eugene got behind a safety campaign called “Eye to Eye“. Partnering with AAA, funds were procured, PR was purchased, graphics were created, media was bought, and local safe transportation advocates stood with civic leaders to roll out the campaign as the media clicked away.

However, within a year or two, the campaign lost steam as already limited funds dried up. But people felt like they did something,  helping to assuage the sense of responsibility for continued pedestrian deaths.

. . .  Our long history of failing to achieve significant increases in pedestrian safety leads a lot to be said and done. I think we should start thinking of the next campaign because the will be another after more pedestrians are killed. I suggest it be called “Seeing Red”.

So be it.  But if a good marketing campaign is the right approach to achieving road safety, then let’s use the same approach to traffic congestion. Instead of building new roads–which just subsidize bad behavior and encourage more trip making, more pollution and more sprawl–let’s educate drivers on how to avoid congestion.

Where’s “personal responsibility” when we talk about traffic congestion?

One of the favored themes of these safety PR campaigns is “responsibility.” Everyone has to take greater responsibility for the impacts of their actions on the safety of other road users.  Here’s the boilerplate from a typical campaign from North Carolina:

Why don’t we have have highway agencies that tell people that the length of their commute is their personal responsibility?  They decide where to live, they choose which jobs they’re going to apply for and take, they decide how long a commute and by what means and at what time they’re going to travel.  Let’s have some public service ads encouraging commuters to own-up to the consequences of their choices, rather than just assuming we ought to throw more money at freeways to (maybe) make their commute a little easier.

Ironically, most Americans have already figured out how to minimize lengthy commutes and their exposure to traffic congestion. Fully 58 million American commuters spend less than 20 minutes in their journey to work, according to the American Community Survey.  They’ve made choices about where to live, and found jobs close enough to home that they are only minimally exposed to traffic congestion.

But there’s much we can do as individuals to reduce traffic and our travel times.  We can travel at off-peak hours, and negotiate flexible work schedules that let us travel at times when roads (and transit services) are less congested.  We can telecommute more.

We can walk, ride bikes and take transit and carpool instead of driving our private car by ourselves.  All of these modes of travel let us carve out valuable time for healthy exercise (biking and walking), time to read, rest or listen to music or audio-books (transit) or socialize with friends and colleagues (car pooling).  Studies have show that nothing has bigger negative effects on personal happiness than long solo commutes.

And we can encourage and support others who pursue these kinds of alternatives.

Finally, when we move or look for a new job, we can put a premium on housing or employment options that have a short commute. A short commute is like a permanent, tax-free raise: You get to spend less time engaged with work-related tasks.

Its all a matter of personal responsibility:  you can make choices that expose yourself to congestion—and make congestion worse for everyone else—or you can make choices that give you more free time, a healthier lifestyle, and make you happier.

If we devoted a fraction of the effort and expense that now goes to pseudo-scientific quantification of the supposed “costs of congestion,” we’d have plenty of money for an aggressive, no-holds-barred public relations campaign telling people to change their commuting behavior to reduce their exposure to traffic congestion.

What’s particularly ironic of course, is the extent to which truly global, social problems, ones which will only be solved (if they ever are) by large scale collective action—like climate change—have been readily re-packaged as a series of personal tips and tricks:  Ten things you can do to save the planet:  un-plug your computer when you’re not using it, switch to compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs, drive a bit slower, cut down on food waste, recycle, use a revolving door whenever possible, turn the water off when you’re brushing your teeth.

So when it comes to congestion, it’s time to roll out the kind of PR only effort that we’ve long applied to safety.  So start devising slogans, printing bumper stickers, renting billboards and commissioning PSAs:  I’m sure if we can just get everyone to pitch in and change their attitudes, take more responsibility, and behave better. That’ll improve traffic.

And actually, we have some tangible real world evidence that it works:  Consider Seattle’s repeated experiences with Carmaggedon. The city closed a downtown freeway that had carried about 90,000 cars per day. The closure was preceded with widespread media coverage and a campaign to encourage people to ride transit, bike and walk, and avoid the area at rush hour. The city feared Carmaggedon again when it started tolling a tunnel built to replace the closed freeway. Both times, rather than being much worse than usual, traffic conditions were actually somewhat better–because some commuters made different choices.

And, maybe, just maybe, when it comes to talking about traffic congestion, state  transportation officials can adopt the same passive, fatalistic and blame-shifting rhetorical approach that they’ve so adeptly applied to traffic deaths. Congestion, like “accidents,” is just one of those things that happen; it’s too bad, but that’s just the way things are, you know.

A little more cavalier neglect of whining commuters coupled with a public relations approach to tackling congestion  might actually free up some real money to save lives by making roads and streets safer. And a PR campaign won’t be any less effective in reducing congestion that widening roads.