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Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

After graduating from college with a civil engineering degree, I found myself working in my home town for a local engineering firm doing mostly municipal engineering (roads, sewer pipe, water pipe, stormwater). A fair percentage of my time was spent convincing people that, when it came to their road, I knew more than they did.

And of course I should know more. First, I had a technical degree from a top university. Second, I was in a path towards getting a state license (at the time I was an Engineer in Training, the four-year "apprenticeship" required to become a fully licensed Professional Engineer), which required me to pass a pretty tough test just to get started and another, more difficult, exam to conclude. Third, I was in a profession that is one of the oldest and most respected in human history, responsible for some of the greatest achievements of mankind. Fourth - and most important - I had books and books of standards to follow.

A book of standards to an engineer is better than a bible to a priest. All you have to do is to rely on the standards. Back in college I was told a story about how, in WW II, some Jewish engineers in hiding had run thousands of tedious tests on asphalt, just to produce these graphs that we still use today. Some of our craft descends from Roman engineers who did all of this a couple of millennia ago. How could I be wrong with literally thousands of years of professional practice on my side?

And, more to the point, what business would I -- let alone a property owner on a project I was working on - have in questioning the way things were done? Of course the people who wrote the standards knew better than we did. That is why they wrote the standard.

When people would tell me that they did not want a wider street, I would tell them that they had to have it for safety reasons.

When they answered that a wider street would make people drive faster and that would be seem to be less safe, especially in front of their house where their kids were playing, I would confidently tell them that the wider road was more safe, especially when combined with the other safety enhancements the standards called for.

When people objected to those other "enhancements", like removing all of the trees near the road, I told them that for safety reasons we needed to improve the sight distances and ensure that the recovery zone was free of obstacles.

When they pointed out that the "recovery zone" was also their "yard" and that their kids played kickball and hopscotch there, I recommended that they put up a fence, so long as the fence was outside of the right-of-way.

When they objected to the cost of the wider, faster, treeless road that would turn their peaceful, front yard into the viewing area for a drag strip unless they built a concrete barricade along their front property line, I informed them that progress was sometimes expensive, but these standards have been shown to work across the state, the country and the world and I could not compromise with their safety.

In retrospect I understand that this was utter insanity. Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a fourteen foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continuously. Why?

The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard.

In the engineering profession's version of defensive medicine, we can't recommend standards that are not in the manual. We can't use logic to vary from a standard that gives us 60 mph design speeds on roads with intersections every 200 feet. We can't question why two cars would need to travel at high speed in opposite directions on a city block, let alone why we would want them to. We can yield to public pressure and post a speed limit -- itself a hazard -- but we can't recommend a road section that is not in the highway manual. 

When the public and politicians tell engineers that their top priorities are safety and then cost, the engineer's brain hears something completely different. The engineer hears, "Once you set a design speed and handle the projected volume of traffic, safety is the top priority. Do what it takes to make the road safe, but do it as cheaply as you can." This is why engineers return projects with asinine "safety" features, like pedestrian bridges and tunnels that nobody will ever use, and costs that are astronomical. 

An engineer designing a street or road prioritizes the world in this way, no matter how they are instructed: 

  1. Traffic speed
  2. Traffic volume
  3. Safety
  4. Cost

The rest of the world generally would prioritize things differently, as follows: 

  1. Safety
  2. Cost
  3. Traffic volume
  4. Traffic speed

In other words, the engineer first assumes that all traffic must travel at speed. Given that speed, all roads and streets are then designed to handle a projected volume. Once those parameters are set, only then does an engineer look at mitigating for safety and, finally, how to reduce the overall cost (which at that point is nearly always ridiculously expensive).

In America, it is this thinking that has designed most of our built environment, and it is nonsensical. In many ways, it is professional malpractice. If we delivered what society asked us for, we would build our local roads and streets to be safe above all else. Only then would we consider what could be done, given our budget, to handle a higher volume of cars at greater speeds.

We go to enormous expense to save ourselves small increments of driving time. This would be delusional in and of itself if it were not also making our roads and streets much less safe. I'll again reference a 2005 article from the APA Journal showing how narrower, slower streets dramatically reduce accidents, especially fatalities.

And it is that simple observation that all of those supposedly "ignorant" property owners were trying to explain to me, the engineer with all the standards, so many years ago. When you can't let your kids play in the yard, let alone ride their bike to the store, because you know the street is dangerous, then the engineering profession is not providing society any real value. It's time to stand up and demand a change.

It's time we demand that engineers build us Strong Towns.


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Reader Comments (57)

A few quick points - The article is great; I wish more engineers would become so enlightened.

That said, the article does not address cyclists or pedestrians. Both use the streets and we need to get away from the auto-centric attitude. Some comments spoke to bicyclists but didn't seem to come from a person aware of or educated about bicycle accommodation. Bike lanes are best when located between the parked cars and traffic - unless you are going to create an entirely separate system or have specialized intersections to address the problems created by putting cyclists between the curb and parking. Don't even try to design a road to accommodate cyclists until you get out on the road, on your bike. Experiential learning IS necessary for a full understanding of the situation.

Lastly, it's not "the government" or "the public" driving the design of roads - it's the engineers working for the government. As stated in the article, the public usually understands the consequences of the proposed design.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergail

Cycle tracks are not more efficient for bicycle drivers than using the normal traffic lanes. By overlaying a separate bicycling system and having bicycle drivers operate as a 3rd type of traveler besides motorists and pedestrians, additional delay must be added.

It's also a myth that cycle tracks are safe. This re-examination of a recent study of Copenhagen shows cycle tracks are not all they are espoused to be.

This 1937 film of Copenhagen shows that there were numerous bicycle users before they were put on cycle track reservations for the convenience of motorists.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Pein

"It's also a myth that cycle tracks are safe."

I've seen these conclusions before, but I find it hard to reconcile the "unsafe" separated infrastructure with the high usage of it. In October, I rode a bicycle 600 miles from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, where about ninety-percent of the roads I saw had separate cycling facilities. If what I was privileged to ride was "unsafe" ... then give me unsafe!

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrent

Thank you for this honest post! This thinking still dominates my town (Sydney NSW). I like the Danish set of priorities for any street. Design for
1. Pedestrians
2. Bikes
3. Cars
The trouble with streets with hig speed limits, is the average speed of the car turns out to be pretty low (around here it does, and in most places I've been to.) So slower streets can encourage a smoother flow of traffic, apart from having all the nice liveable features. Trying to achieve a higher speed consumes more fuel, makes me more stressed, and usually does not change my trip time by any noticeable amount.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdward Re

Bravo and well said! Thank you for doing your part to try and stop the machine we have all created. Our built environment is killing us in so many ways, but the vast majority just accept that. You did an excellent job showing the descent into insanity in steps, which should help readers understand how we got here and how we have to get out.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Carter

As a fellow traffic engineer, I'm glad to see this paradigm shift taking place in our profession. My town's street standards call for 36 ft wide residential streets and 40 ft wide commercial streets - the same width as many rural arterials, and they wonder why they have problems with inappropriate speeds.

However, there is another player pushing for wider roads. Fire departments want two fire trucks to be able to pass each other between two rows of parked cars, even in areas with enough off-street parking and no-one parking on the street.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJJM PE

In my neighborhood, a two lane country road was converted to a six lane transit corridor with bike lanes. I have personally seen two cyclists killed by turning cars. I have seen a cyclist in a bike lane flipped by the "jet wash" of a passing van. Seniors cannot cross the street because they cannot move fast enough. Increase the walk time on the light cycle, you say? Drivers coming off the freeway exit routinely run red lights because of the frustration of waiting at the many lights along the two mile section of road.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjohn

Very interesting discussion and great to hear these conversations coming from the US, so famed for priortising the motor car. In the UK we have the same challenges in terms of bland, unattractive and overengineered streets ill-suited to their location. In 2007 the Manual for Streets (MfS) was published.


This sought to rebalance the priorties when considering street design and give greater emphais to role of the street in terms of place making. Essentially residential streets should no longer be designed by assuming 'place' to be automatically subservient to its 'movement' function. Importantly MfS differentiates between a street (which contributes to creating a sense of place i.e. is more people centred) and a road (which is designed primarily as a traffic conduit).

It also recommends that developments should apply a user hierarchy as follows:
1. pedestrians
2. cyclists
3. public transport users
4. emergency and service vehicles
5. other motor traffic

MfS 2 has just been published (follow link above) and is a companion guide to the MfS1. It demonstrates how the guidance can be extended beyond residential streets to encompass both urban and rural situations too.

Worth a look if want to know how we are trying to tackle these issues across the pond…

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhil UK

Great article and subsequent posts - for as far as they go. I suggest however that if you start any street development list with "Trees (at a minimum) SHALL be planted along every road corridor" then you would not only provide for transportation, but for the human soul as well.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTrees First

Although your post covers some of the aspects of traffic engineering, it actually is a much more complicated process. First and foremost one of the most important influencing factors in standard development has not been covered and that is lawsuits. We need to have some guidance because the public wants a lot of things, sometimes conflicting things, but in the end, as soon as someone gets hurt because standards were set aside to accommodate their requests, they sue. And if the engineer cannot back up design decisions with something recognized by our industry, liability has been incurred. And it's easy to tell us to neglect the threat of lawsuits until someone gets hurt. Then we get shoved to the front of the line. After going through several depositions (fortunately none due to any of my decisions or designs), I don't do anything anymore without making sure I can sit in front of ten attorneys and justify my design decisions.

Setting speed limits is also a complicated process. Most of the time they are set in local jurisdictions by the elected officials - not the engineers. Sometimes the police department is also very involved. I don't think in my entire 28-year career in engineering, I have ever set a speed limit. I only design to what has been approved by elected officials.

I also feel that it is easy to blame engineers for the manner in which transportation systems have been designed, but really all we do is build what the public has asked us to build through their elected officials. We do apply standards developed through years of testing and lawsuits, but these standards also reflect the public's approach and outlook on transportation. We just get blamed because we were the last one to touch it. All those people who had input before design began are forgotten.

(Full disclosure: I am a professional engineer who designs transportation projects)

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPam Broviak

Excellent essay. We are going through the same paradigm shift in Los Alamos.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKhal Spencer

@Pam, the point is that people are getting hurt, and killed, every day. But, as long as their deaths are accepted as a natural consequence of a systems that prioritizes moving the most cars through the system at the highest speeds possible, then no one thinks twice about those deaths nor seeks to find cause or affix blame. You are right that venturing outside the lines brings with it liability, but that's why the lines need to be moved. We should not be accepting crashes and fatalities as an unavoidable consequence of transportation.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Carter

Would you say the biggest hurdle would be the law. Civil and transportation firms either have to comply with the law of designing roadways in this antiquated fashion or face variances of all kinds, no?

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris R

@Maurice - Travel has been dangerous for many centuries and has always put us and others at risk - it would be interesting to compare over the last 150 years what percentage of our population we lost each year to transportation-related deaths. I read a lot of historical newspapers and based on that would guess it is a lot less today. So we are moving in the right direction but with our current technology, we can do much better. From what I can tell online, last year about 33,000+ people died in vehicle related accidents with another 4,000+ pedestrians dying due to vehicle related impacts. And while road design can help minimize these risks, we are fooling ourselves if we put all our hopes on changing road design as a single solution. The ultimate fix is finding a mode of travel that has minimal risks but still provides an acceptable level of service. If you read my blog, you will see I am a big proponent of PRTs. This is where I feel we should be putting our design efforts, and then the environmental benefits and quality-of-life design opportunities increase as a result.

@Chris R - As for changing standards, there are many factors to be taken into consideration. The liability issue does seem to be the most difficult because no one wants to risk lawsuits - an engineer told me the other day his attorney won't even let them interact online because doing so could lead to a lawsuit. The other difficulty is getting society to accept the changes. People don't like something different. For example, roundabouts have been shown to save lives. However, many elected officials or citizens do not want them because roundabouts are too different from what they know. I tried to incorporate native plantings where I worked before and had the elected officials constantly vote down the work or publicly state it was a bad idea or a waste of time. Based on my experience in this profession, the engineers are the least of the problem and have been many times trying to lead the change. And it's unfortunate that Charles had such a negative experience - I wish he could meet the engineers I know!

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPam Broviak

@Pam, I agree that statistics show fatalities from traffic-related accidents have declined in recent years. What has risen, however, are the fatalities associated with preventable deaths from cardiovascular disease, stroke, respiratory ailments, diabetes, etc. Cardiovascular disease accounted for 25% of all deaths in 2007. These conditions are exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle and/or poor air quality -- both of which are prevalent in an auto-dependent culture. You are correct that people have rethink what they value before engineers can build different solutions, but we need to look honestly at the toll of what we accept today as the norm. And, for that, Mr. Marohn is to be commended.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Carter

It appears to me that Mr. Marhon's education was limited and did not have a rational understanding of what "standards" are used for and/or when to use "engineering judgment." Engineering judgment should take precedent over standards.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGonzalo Camacho

Very well said.
As a planning director for an Upstate New York town for 24 plus yeras , I too was often frustrated by the traffic engineers' steadfast reliance on the standards in the highway safety manual and , their goal to move only the vehicular traffic over the public streets .
Hope your message finds wider acceptance among your fellow frofessionals.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKrishan C. Mago,AICP

Don't ignore the role of the public in creating the problem. How often have members of the public and elected officials complained about traffic congestion? What is always the first solution they want "Widen the road!". Much of the problem lies in building and zoning departments granting approvals to build facilities where there is not sufficient infrastructure to support them. Even if the building and zoning staff object, it is not uncommon for developers to use the political process to get approvals from elected officials who overrule the building and zoning staff's recommendations. Yet these same politicians get elected year after year. Much of the downturn in the housing market which has so impacted the economy is due to simple over-building. Until the public starts voting out elected officials who cater to developers who fatten their re-election warchests at the expense of the public interest, the same problems will continue.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatadani

NIcely (and bravely) done, Mr. Marohn. However, the prime mover is more than engineering standards. After all, there are engineering standards for lower speed roads without sacrificing volume. The question is: why do trans engineers nearly always choose the faster design speed for the street?
The answer, I suggest, is one that supports bureaucratic momentum for huge state highway department budgets (and in my state, county road commissions as well) and has been instituted into unquestioned policy: faster design speed means, for the most part, increased pavement width (e.g., wider lanes, more lanes, specialty lanes for left turns, right turns, acceleration, decel, etc.), and this means more road construction, more road maintenance, and, ergo, greater budgetary needs for the highway department.
Strategies of keeping streets the same width, narrowing existing streets, and working with the same number of streets -- all these do not create much budgetary demand to feed the voracious appetites of DOTs.
For those communities with main streets, which also serve as state highways, and who want to explore reconfigurations for lane reduction, it is extremely difficult for me to find in-state engineers who even have experience in what amounts to the opposite strategy: reduced pavement width. One would think that if an engineer knows how to increase a street's design speed by, basically, increasing pavement width, then that same engineer would know how to reduce a street's design speed, i.e., basically reducing street width. So, it is more than engineering standards at play here.
Further, In many states, highway departments are politically autonomous. In my state, the governing statute remains in effect from the early 1950s, which still has an objective that all state roads have a minimum of 4 travel lanes. This means that each 2-lane road eventually should aspire to a 4-lane road (at least!). It also means that the highway department cannot seriously entertain proposals for an existing 5-lane road to be reconfigured into a 3-lane road. Again, this type of naked growth policy is not about engineering standards.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkeith tianen

I should have recalled this earlier. This is from the September/October issue of Public Roads magazine. The author is the head of FHWA's Resource Center Safety team, so I'm assuming this is pretty close to the horse's mouth:

"A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets. The next edition of this AASHTO publication, commonly referred to as the Green Book, ... will highlight opportunities for highway designers to consider context when selecting design criteria. Applying a limited set of design values tends to favor one type of user over another -- cars, trucks, transit, pedestrians, or bicyclists -- and is not appropriate for every setting or type of road."


"Roadside Design Guide. This AASHTO publication focuses on the "forgiving roadside philosophy" -- safety treatments that minimize the likelihood of serious injuries when motorists leave the roadway. ... A revamped chapter on roadside safety in urban or restrictive environments is based largely on NCHRP Report 612 Safe and Aesthetic Design of Urban Roadside Treatments."

What will this mean in practice? I suspect we won't know until we've been living with the new Green Book and RDG for a few years.

You can read the whole article here: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/10septoct/05.cfm. The quoted text comes from a sidebar about 3/5 of the way down.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJJM PE
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