Summer 2004, p.3

Publisher’s Letter: The WaBenzi and the Traffic Engineers: Keepers of the Status Flow

Move over “military-industrial-oil complex”. Take leave, ye “Bilderberg Group”. I am here today, as the new Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, to shine light on two much less frequently cited global cabals that run the world to the detriment of the righteous majority: The WaBenzi and the Traffic Engineers.

Worldwide, traffic signals travel to the beat of vehicular not pedestrian traffic.I became familiar with these shadowy figures during my tenure with the New York based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a non-profit advocacy organization very similar to T.A. but focused on steering African, Asian, and Latin American cities away from the car-dependent model of urban transport. When not at my desk in New York or Washington, or on special assignments in New Delhi or Bogotá, I worked mostly in the major cities of Africa: Accra, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

During my seven year stint, I had a fair amount of success in convincing many cities to undertake large projects to reprioritize their streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. More often than not, however, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the WaBenzi and the Traffic Engineers.

Whenever I tried to win more space and time for the righteous majority of walkers and cyclists by proposing to widen sidewalks, lower the speed limit, extend crossing times, and so on, they emerged from the shadows to stymie me: the fierce WaBenzi and the smarter than smart Traffic Engineers.

The WaBenzi, when confronted, would hide behind the Traffic Engineers who, using smoke and mirrors (or to be more precise charts and graphs), would warn about the dangers of low “level of service” and “decreased capacity.” I came away from these presentations in a daze. I felt the extent of their collective power. In time, I came to understand that the WaBenzi yield to their brilliant traffic engineers because they need their technical know-how to achieve the thing which is perceived as vital to the modern urban economy: high traffic flow.

While “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, New York City’s most famous (and perhaps only) traffic engineer on the beat, has yet to blow the cover off the conspiracy of the WaBenzi, he states in his recently published article in the Summer 2004 edition of the New York Transportation Journal:

“To my knowledge, signals everywhere on earth, including all New York City signals… travel to the beat of vehicular traffic, not pedestrian traffic. The reason for this is that traffic engineers, not pedestrian engineers, are in charge…”

True that! Yet as it turned out, towards the end of my tenure at ITDP many WaBenzi began to travel to the beat of a different drum. Thanks in large part to the shining example of Bogota, Colombia, where thousands of acres of public street space was given back to the majority, and to increasing recognition of the myriad problems associated with the way of the Traffic Engineers (many of which are documented in this magazine), the WaBenzi began to cede more power to a new guard.

This new guard of pedestrian engineers, urban planners, and even tourism and health professionals, in enlightened cities around the world, are being given more say in how the public space between buildings is divvied up and managed.

The WaBenzi in Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Accra and Dakar are today on the verge of discovering what Bogota, London and Paris have found: less traffic, shorter commutes, less street carnage, healthier children and happier voters who reap and recognize the merits of more livable, more efficient and less traffic-choked streets.
Long live the (reformed) WaBenzi!

Paul S. White
Executive Director
Transportation Alternatives

P.S. Throughout Africa, where less than 10% of the population has access to a motor vehicle, politicians and municipal workers who travel in large sedans (usually Mercedes Benzes), and make accordingly selfish decisions about transportation policy, are commonly and pejoratively known as “WaBenzi”. For more information about the global effort to change the hearts and minds of WaBenzi everywhere, log on to: www.itdp.org