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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)

First of all, I am not an engineer, but I have paid close attention to what goes on around me for the past 30+ years; being interested in construction has fueled this (and caused me to question a few things -- I'll never forget having to jackhammer a hole in an institutional building's concrete floor in a particular spot, only to run into a maze of conduit, RIGHT IN THE WAY; when I frustratedly asked, "Why is that threre? Why is that done?" a journeyman electrician looked at me like I was stupid, and said, "It's always done that way." Blind adherence to ANY principle is a potential danger to progress, IMO...).

It IS a disservice to society to place auto transport at such a high priority; however, it's become embedded in the collective psyche since WWII, the whole "one in every driveway!" extravagance.... BECAUSE mass transit has, in so many places, become distasteful, it has been relegated to the lower economic classes, which just accelerates the spiral away from acceptance -- certain standards of conduct become less important when balanced against everyday survival, real or perceived. Yet, time and time again, mass transit has been shown to be cost-effective.

I do not advocate the "cattle car" sort of transport (like I experienced as an Army trainee!), and yes, there are standards of comfort and cleanliness that need to be observed; but outside that, moving the highest number of people for the lowest cost needs to be more important.

November 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarkB

so true, no one bats an eyelash over spending $200 million to reconfigure an interchange that saves motorists 10 seconds.

November 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjon

Nice article. interesting comments.
I've been involved in transportation and public works in the public sector for a few years now and i must say that there has indeed been a "transformation" in the engineer's approach to problems and solutions. Nonetheless, nearly all of the engineers i have known always "engineer' their view problems and possible solutions. This is not always a problem.

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjames

This is a refreshing view from an engineer - one I hope other engineers will consider.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I used to blame a lot of this mindless design on engineers and their blasted standards also, but I've discovered predatory lawyers lead the way.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHarry

The important point is not who we blame. It's whether or not we take personal responsibility to do whatever we can, in whatever role we play, to bring about awareness and meaningful change. Mr. Marohn has taken personal responsibility in a public and meaningful way. Blaming it on engineers, the public, the lawyers, etc. is not the pathway to changing the end result. We can all blame it on the system, but we ARE the system. All of us.

Be the change you want to see in the world. Change starts wherever you are.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Carter

To reframe the issue - we need to design streets for the people who are already there as much as for the people who are passing through.

November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

An interesting post. However, I haven't found it to be true on my street that having rows of cars parked along the curbs makes things safer. In practice, it narrowed the street to one lane (which is scary when you are a cyclist, as I am), and made it difficult to see oncoming traffic when backing out of a driveway. We petitioned for more stringent parking and won, and things are better in those two regards.

It is true, though, that cars speed through faster now without all the parked cars, but that could be controlled by putting up a couple of stop signs at either end of the block--which the city is reluctant to do, citing the need for a "through street" connecting two major thoroughfares. I find it ironic that they would have wanted parked cars in the first place to slow traffic, but rejects stop signs because...it would slow traffic.

I'm glad I found this website and blog. Some very thoughtful and interesting ideas about community planning.

December 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Tomlinson

@Susan Tomlinson: Having on-street parking may "feel" less safe, but the greatest actual risk for bicyclists and pedestrians is from the speed of motor vehicles. On a narrow street, a bicyclist can take the lane and control the speed of motor vehicles; squeezing to the side not only feels less safe but is less safe. Stops signs don't effectively control the speed of motor vehicles because drivers re-accelerate up to the maximum speed they can go. In my opinion, stop signs should be reserved for the intersection of arterial and collector streets; on other streets they indicate a failure of design that allows higher speed traffic than is desired. The solution to high speed traffic is not stop signs but re-design of the roadway, called traffic calming. And yes, one of those re-designs might be adding on-street parking to create the "friction" that slows down motor vehicles.

December 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan Allison

I think Lewis Mumford said it best:

"Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends."

December 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill Eubanks, FASLA

Susan in her post above inadvertently reveals a problem that traffic and transportation engineers have to deal with daily. Everybody seems to know a lot more than we do (said with tongue in cheek) and they are happy to believe us when what we’re proposing fits their preconceived notions or established preferences, but we’re complete idiots when it doesn’t.

Stop signs help assign right of way at intersections. They do not work as a speed control device, and in fact, they utterly fail at that. However, people in the US love stop signs and traffic lights, and this love for them extends well beyond what they deserve in reality - given their safety record. However, ask any traffic engineer who has had the temerity to propose installing a neighborhood traffic circle instead of a stop sign how he fared; if they’re honest they’ll say it’s something they’ll only do once. Having your intelligence and character attacked day in and day out by the local “do – gooder” who is only trying to “protect the children” gets old really fast, and frankly, there are bigger issues to solve. So it’s not so much a problem with engineers.

I would suggest that the problem encountered by the original author wasn’t so much the standards that he tried to apply, as much as the fact that he didn’t seem to know the reason for applying the standard, and when it was or was not appropriate. The current generation of professionals I work with daily do seem to understand how to think “outside of the typical section”. Most of us are also much better at public involvement now, too. Which seems to be another area the original author didn’t have the best luck with.

December 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTE

Bill, as an ordinary citizen, I know exactly what you mean. We just opened a traffic circle in our town this week, and you'd have thought the world was coming to an end. The fear and paranoia made the millenium/y2k furor look like a yawn. I and others, having researched the statistics on safety, traffic flow, etc -- and having ventured outside the bounds of our county and even the country a time or two -- have tried to point out that these engineers are professionals, they know what they are doing, they have done this before, and they believe this is what we need. And, it is.

I think the key continues to be public dialog, education, etc. Let people articulate what they value and what they fear, and the show them why the things they think they want (ie, stop signs) will not get them what they want. And, show them how the things they fear (ie, roundabouts) are really good for them.

December 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Carter

Design should be about life; not about cars. When we stop designing streets for 50 MPH traffic, people will get adjusted to accept slower speeds. Before we placed indoor plumbing in houses, people were happy to use an outhouse and if you've ever been in a situation without indoor plumbing, you've found an outhouse pretty nice. Quality of life is not about caving in to impatience; but about enhancing the experience of the moment.

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark L. Johnson, ASLA

I might also suggest that more info on community planning might be observed in the "Visions of Smart Growth and Sustainability" publication on the Florida Chapter, ASLA web site. Its a free download and has a lot of visual aids.

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark L. Johnson, ASLA


I'm reading good posts regarding intent. However, there's many misconceptions about how to make these good intentions actually happen. Here's free advice, my published article, "Working with the Highway Department":


Feel free to email me at krtianen@charter.net .


December 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkeith tianen

When people who drive cars kill people that aren't driving cars are held accountable for the consequences of careless driving, ( I know there are unavoidable accidents too), then maybe we will see a change in attitude about the "rights" of vehicle drivers. People who die while riding their bicycles on a public right of way don't seem to receive a fair shake when it comes to traffic accidents and death. Does it seem like that to anyone else? I drive a car and I'm not immune to criticism. I also walk my kids to the school bus stop, and ride my bicycle to the store, in Florida. Here there isn't even a requirement that motorist's yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, according to the sheriff's deputies I have asked. Bicycles cannot benefit from separated travel lanes. There are too many intersections with driveways and roads. Its bad enough when bicyclist refuse to leave the sidewalks and think they have the right of way on side streets and driveways when they are still mounted on their bicycles. Bicyclists should assert themselves whenever they ride with traffic and not allow themselves to be pushed to the side. Children, who haven't learned to ride with traffic, need to be closely supervised and only ride with traffic when with their parents. Sidewalk riding for children should be restricted to single family neighborhoods. The statistics of accidents for cyclists on sidewalks colliding with cars doesn't support separate bicycle facilities.

The safest urban streets I have experienced actually use a variety of strategies to calm traffic. Change in paving textures where pedestrians are present, as much as the whole street sometimes, an abundance of tree plantings, no curbs or grade separation for pedestrians, and narrow lanes. The car drivers are so uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the lack of "standards" supporting their high speeds and top of the food chain hierarchy they slow to a crawl in these areas.

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Please watch the Youtube videos of Hans Monderman about how removing signs and signals reduced speeds by taking away driver entitlement and reflexive response. Pavlov would be proud.

December 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Coffee
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