[UPDATE 5/14/07: Seattle’s innovative mixed income development, New Holly, is also “social engineering,” according to the Seattle Times. I guess it’s because policymakers had an objective in mind when they made policies.]

I keep seeing the phrase “social engineering” used to describe policies that don’t kowtow to the car. See, for example, this inexplicable subhead about a third of the way through a P-I story. Not only is this usage annoying, it’s exactly backward (as others havenoted before me).

First, let’s look first at specifics. The P-I story reports that the city will put parking meters on some formerly-free spots in a rapidly urbanizing district near downtown Seattle. The paper calls this “social engineering.”

I suppose that’s right, at least to the extent that parking meters alter the incentive structure for parking, which ultimately may change some people’s behavior.But if anything, the alternative to the city’s plan—continuing to provide public rights-of-way for exclusive, uncompensated use by a handful of private car owners—is closer to “social engineering” than charging a small fee for the privilege. Really, the question is not whether the city will engage in “social engineering,” but what kind of social engineering. And in particular, will government continue to use public resources to subsidize private cars?

Speaking more generally, just about any transportation policy—or any policy at all, for that matter—can be described as “social engineering.” Consider some (slightly) overheated rhetoric: today’s car-centric system is the result of Soviet-style social engineering.

Governments used the awesome power of the state to take money from the populace. Then central planners used the money with an ethic of brutalism, forcing gigantic car thoroughfares across neighborhoods, into the hearts of cities, and then out into far-flung farmlands and wild places.

In town, America’s Soviet-style planning wasn’t much different.

  • Wielding authority over private property, the central planners decided that for the good of the collective, private homes and business should be forced to provide minimum numbers of parking spaces. As if that weren’t enough, the government itself got into the parking business, using publicly-owned land to provide “free” parking along both sides of most streets (the hidden high costs would come later). And the parking laws were, of course, enforced by state agents paid with public dollars.

    Much like their comrades in the Soviet system, the central planners in the United States often sought to cloak their actions in the language of social equity. But more often than not, the effect was just the opposite: low-income neighborhoods were literally bulldozed under for faster car-ways; working class transportation choices like streetcars were summarily destroyed, while buses were relegated to second-class status; and once-lively city neighborhoods emptied out as the wealthy segregated themselves in isolated cloisters.

    Worse, the car-dominated system was financed by taxes that were often regressive or unfair. Property taxes helped to push homeownership out of reach. And blatantly regressive sales taxes fell hardest on those who could least afford to pay.

    You get the idea.

    So here’s my plea for today: let’s put a moratorium on using the phrase “social engineering” unless we mean something pretty distinctive. And no, parking meters don’t qualify.