Dear Engineers (Diverging Diamond)


I have been out of the office for a couple of days and apologize that I don't have much time today to weigh in on the entire divering diamond discussion, but I do want to highlight a couple of intelligent criticisms of my video critique from last Monday.

The first criticism of my critique is essentially an argument of context; I've gotten the context wrong and am way off base if I have a expectation that this highway interchange should be like a pedestrian street in the U.K. or Holland. Here are some of those comments collected from various sources:

  • Sorry to state the obvious, but this is a freeway interchange. Designing it to be a pleasant beautiful place to be is about as absurd as expecting a lakefront promenade to move cars at 60 mph.
  • This rebuttal reflects a serious lack of context on Marohn's part. This intersection *is* the intersection of a busy local road and an interstate highway. It is not central Amsterdam. It is not a residential part of Portland. It is the kind of place where there is an expressway, a few gas stations, and maybe a Cracker Barrel. The first three points were to move cars because that is the essence of that intersection. The more realistic criticism would be that they bothered to do anything for bikes and pedestrians. I'm guessing both are pretty rare there.
  • Why are you comparing a freeway interchange in the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri to bikeways in central Amsterdam or streets in urban UK? A fairer comparison would be with an interchange under a similar setting in Europe, the US, or elsewhere.
  • Complaining that foot traffic has to navigate a potentially snow-covered ditch seriously misses the point - if this were someplace where people actually needed to reach and cross the intersection on foot, there'd be sidewalks.

The second criticism of my critique is a lesser-of-all-evils argument; you think this is bad, you should see what it could have been. Some of those comments:

  • Er...you do know this was the best the could retrofit onto the existing bridge, right? It's not a "complete streets" solution by any stretch of the imagination and it shouldn't be viewed that way. On the ones I've worked on, the center channel (and that is the best place to put it) is at least 14' wide. The right shoulder in both directions should be between 8-10' wide and striped as a bike lane. The cross section on this project reflects only what they could fit on the existing bridge. When you account for the fact that they added about 35% more capacity at a low cost and little in the way of new pavement and no work on the bridge, it's pretty remarkable. It was a functional decision. And it's leaps and bounds better for bikes and peds than it was before.
  • Criticizing an interstate highway interchange on the far northern outskirts of a small mid-western city for not looking like central London or Amsterdam seems excessively snobby and snarky. Short of dynamiting one of the two interstate highways through Missouri, I'm not sure how Marohn could have done a better job designing the interchange to be bike and pedestrian friendly.

In response, our good friend and frequent contributor Nate Hood (Twitter) provided these thoughts in an article that ran in the Atlantic Cities.

At the heart of it, I think Marohn is trying to touch on two separate issues: 1) “Checklist planning,” which is to say that developers will add sidewalks or bike paths to hit the ADA and/or Zoning requirement without even considering how it relates to its surround environment. And, 2) Community Investments: While it might not be fair to compare suburban Springfield, MO to Amsterdam. It shows us the stark contrast of how we’ve decided to spend money and invest in our own communities in the United States versus how other places in the world have decided to invest their limited capital resources.

I'll add to Nate's brilliant comment by noting the following:

If you watch the original video that my comments were based off of, the gentlemen giving the tour was touting how pedestrian- and cycling- friendly this interchange was. That is absurd. This interchange is not "friendly" to pedestrians or cyclists. Suggestions that red decorative brick or yellow markings on the sidewalks would make it so are absurd.

If we in the engineering profession can't step back and acknowledge the absurdity of this situation -- the absurdity that mindless adherence to standards has created -- how can we expect to be taken seriously as leaders by a country going through a difficult and painful economic transition?

It is not good enough to simply follow the ASCE and demand ever more money for our profession when we turn around and waste it in spectacular amounts on things that provide no return (in this instance, moving cars a little faster and building expensive pedestrian/bike facilities that will never be widely used because they are despotic and demeaning). If we want to be part of the solution, we need to reorient ourselves away from our obsession with moving cars more efficiently and towards building places of value.

Getting cars from the Quiki-Mart to the WalMart in 45 seconds instead of 60 seconds is not a good enough contribution to society to justify the money our profession is spending. We are fooling ourselves by pretending we are being "innovative" just because we add red brick, some sidewalk treatments and a cycling trench. Realizing that many are acting in this way in response to financial incentive programs that reward "complete streets" designs only adds to my disgust. 

The United States needs great engineers. When are we going to stop being mindless technocrats and go back to being a real profession?