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Best of Blog: Crazy Ideas

There are a few times in the history of this blog where I struggle for months to explain a big idea only to, at the moment it is most needed, have the words just flow out of me like water pouring from a melting glacier. When I'm done, I have this feeling of euphoria and exhaustion, but also apprehension; I've successfully captured what I had intended, but will I reach anyone? Will it matter?

This post is one of those rare instances, and I will forever be grateful to the anonymous poster named Ruben who made the first comment. I came into the office wondering what the reaction would be -- if the angry Kansas City crowd I had called out would be there in force to shout me down -- and instead I got this:

Damn, Chuck. You are paradigm destroying.

Ruben, you don't know what that meant to me at that point in time. After pointing out the obvious (there are no cars in downtown Kansas City despite a design based almost exclusively on catering to the automobile), I got into a digital scuffle on some of the local K.C. discussion boards. They had called my observations silly and my recommendations "crazy" and when I went against my own rules (should not do that) and responded (angrily, thus the rules) that it was only a crazy idea because their brains were too closed to understand it, well....let's just say it wasn't mine finest moment. They, all too predictably, responded to my insult with the usual name calling and profanity combined with insults, etc. and....well, here we are.

Since I put this post together, I've done more research on the topic of shared space and travel time. I'm planning to delve more deeply into this in 2013 because I do believe it is paradigm destroying in a very positive way for the future of our cities.

As an epilogue to the Kansas City drama, the city has actually tried to remove some stoplights where they are clearly not needed and where the cost of maintenance far exceeds any amount they can justify given tight budgets. This has been vigorously opposed by the public who apparently enjoys longer commutes and time spent waiting for no apparent reason at signals. I'm going to be speaking in Kansas City again this February at the Smart Growth Summit and am looking forward to a (hopefully) friendly meeting with some of those I encountered online this year.


What exactly makes an idea crazy? Perhaps more importantly, are all crazy ideas automatically bad or not worth exploring? As the old adage goes, great ideas pass through three stages: first they are ridiculed, then violently opposed and finally accepted as being self-evident. Today I am going to try to move people from the mocking stage to violent opposition.

In my "highly inflammatory" and "overly critical" blog post on Kansas City's streets last week, I made the following statement that has drawn only ridicule from the masses:

Here are the immediate things I would do tomorrow if I were put in charge of renovating Kansas City's downtown:

4. Change all signalized intersections into a shared space area. As a temporary transition, shut off the traffic lights and paint the intersections to alert everyone that this is shared space.

The thought of a downtown without traffic signals was bizarre to many people. Don't traffic lights help with congestion? Wouldn't the downtown be more dangerous to everyone without signals? It seems like there would be anarchy and chaos. This is a crazy idea! Someone even asked me if I had heard of the MUTCD, as if it were a book in the Bible. (For non-engineers, the MUTCD, also called "the mutt", is the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices).

I want people to take a step back and imagine life before the Suburban Experiment, before the development of the MUTCD and before the ubiquitous installation of traffic signals. This wasn't that long ago. Today we act as if our approach is some type of received wisdom -- the way things have always been -- but much of our population can remember the time before any traffic control at all. Traffic engineering is a young profession that is essentially making up the rules as they go along.

Traffic signals and traffic control devices are major components in a complex system. Like all complex systems where human decision-making impacts the outcomes, the relation between cause and effect is ambiguous at best. For people who reflexively argue that our current system is a wonderfully efficient and productive approach, I simply ask: as measured against what?

Where is the control group, the city without all of the signals and traffic control devices, that we can measure outcomes against? What beyond our own self assurance -- justified or otherwise -- gives us confidence that this is the best approach? Or even an approach that is one of the better alternatives? We apply the standards of the MUTCD and we've done our job. We assume it is the best approach because, if it were not, it would not be part of the MUTCD. This meme is destructively self-reinforcing.

Part of my overall argument has been that we place too much emphasis on improving the speed of the first and last minute of each trip. That approach costs us untold amounts of wealth to build, robs us of much of the productive capacity of our places and, paradoxically, actually increases the time it takes to get places.

It may be an efficient system, but it is dumb. Really, really dumb.

Let me give you one example. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Kansas City. When I left, I flew out of the airport, which is on the edge of town. Google is telling me that this is a 19 mile trip that should take me 23 minutes. That sounds about right.

Image and distance calculation from Google Maps.

Of the 19 miles I traveled, the first 3,700 feet were in the grid of the downtown. That is 3.7% of the distance of my trip. If I travel 30 miles per hour during that first portion of the trip, I will be out of the grid and onto Highway 169 in 1 minute and 24 seconds.

My recommendation was that the signal lights be removed and all of the intersections become shared space. Along with that, I made other recommendations that were designed to dramatically slow the speed of automobiles moving through the downtown. Slower speeds would be necessary if cars are to share the streets with pedestrians, bikers and others that should be there. And if drivers are to merge their cars with others in a shared space environment, slow speeds decrease the gap necessary to make that happen.

So what if Kansas City adopted my recommendation and went for a design speed of 15 miles per hour; half of what is currently provided for and well below any equivalent street network in the country? Halve the speed and that 3,700 feet to travel to get to on the highway now takes 2 minutes and 48 seconds.

Pause here and note that we're talking about taking a trip that is 23 minutes and making it into a trip that is 24 minutes and 48 seconds. That is not a change that is going to alter anyone's reality in terms of travel time and distance. On the other hand, if KC did not have to spend so enormously much money on maintaining streets that (my apologies Kansas Citians but) proportionately few people are using, they would have immense savings. And I'm not even talking about the financial impact of having a far more desirable downtown that would attract people and investment as well as creating a place devoid of needless traffic fatalities.

Of course, looking at the travel time this way isn't an apples to apples comparison. At the 30 mph design speed, you have signalized intersections to deal with. You can talk about "timing" all you want in theory, we all know that of the 10 signalized intersections on the way out of town, the typical driver is going to have to wait for at least one to turn.

Photo from Google Earth. I have highlighted my route in blue and shown each signal along it with a red circle. This is the route that Google recommended, which seems quite logical.And once they do that -- once they have to stop to let just one light cycle through to green -- all of the theoretical time savings from the higher design speed disappear. In terms of getting to destinations quickly, the typical driver is far, far better off driving very slow through the grid, sharing the space without having to stop at any signals, than they are waiting to have priority given to them so they can drive at higher speeds to the next stop light.

We have spent untold amounts of wealth in an effort to squeeze seconds out of the first and last mile of each auto trip. In the process, we have turned our most productive asset -- our core cities -- into low return, despotic environments that do not sufficiently attract investment capital. This would all be crazy enough in and of itself, but when you add on the realization that the approach actually makes commutes and driving times longer, you then have the very definition of insanity.

That our minds can't grasp this is what is truly crazy. When our first reaction to an idea like shared space is ridicule and scorn, even from those predisposed to be sympathetic to the idea of improving our cities, it shows just how far we have yet to go in our conversation.

And I'm sorry, Kansas City, but a rail line through the downtown is an expensive distraction. It is not a magic bullet that will create the type of prosperity you imagine it will. I get the allure -- and I'm not opposed to it -- but the problems you and other similar cities face are far more basic. And simple to solve, quite frankly. Build a productive place and you won't need to lobby for a rail line; the need for it will be self evident. You want to convince suburban voters to support placemaking improvements in the downtown? Show them how a different approach will cost less and reduce their commute time and see how quickly their opposition fades.

That's the essence of a Strong Towns approach.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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Reader Comments (8)

Charles, I am very glad my comment was in the right place at the right time to buttress you against the gale. I sometimes describe myself as a 'reality consultant', and I think you are doing simply the best work I know of on articulating a new and realistic way of talking about urban value.

I commented in yesterday's post about Constructal Theory. I wanted to repeat it again, because it is just so perfect for this post too. I tried to highlight the really important bits without just making the whole thing bold.

The constructal law states that every flow system is destined to remain imperfect. The direction of design evolution is toward distributing the imperfections of the system, such that the “whole” flows easier (e.g., river basin, animal body, human vehicle). Evolution never ends. Optimality statements (minimum, maximum, optimum, end design, destiny), have no place in constructal theory. Nature does not move toward an optimal end design. The natural phenomena is not the elimination but the distribution (better and better over time) of imperfection. The distribution of imperfection generates the geometry (shape, structure) of the system.

This notion of accepting and distributing imperfection reminds me of a fantastic essay by Charles Lindblom The Science of Muddling Through. Lindblom describes proper decision making--basically you make a matrix with all the possible variables, all the possible costs, all the possible problems, et c. You assign weights and values for all these factors, do the math, and out pops the answer.

Except if you have more than a few variables this is practically impossible. Or, if you are dealing with a complex or new issue you have no idea what the weights should be anyway. Lindblom notes this--totally broken and unworkable--method is all that is taught to engineers and managers.

Since they 'right way' to make decisions is unworkable, what we actually do in complex situations is rely on our 'gut feelings'. And yet we spend no time training people to listen to or improve their gut feelings.

I imagine many of the people who would scoff at listening to our gut would also prefer to keep traffic lights...

On the gut feeling... I have spent several years researching and testing behaviour change strategies. The science is clear that logical arguments, facts and education are not very effective at changing behaviour. In fact, these approaches can further distance and harden your audience. The fact is, we don't actually use our logical, rational brain very much at all. David Rock, in a fantastic Google talk--Your Brain at Work--asks us to imagine the logical thinking we do in our prefrontal cortex has a volume of one cubic foot. At that scale, the processing capacity of the rest of the brain would be as big as the Milky Way.

Now the problem is we can't talk to our subconscious to easily tap that massive processing--it filters out in dreams and whatnot. And, I believe, it comes out as gut feelings.

It turns out we have a Second Brain, called the gastric or enteric nervous system. Our guts have so much to do, they can actually make their own decisions. We have massive nerve density in our guts, and the two brains talk to each other. Gut feelings are communications from a brain that can't control your lips.

So the gut feeling is messy. It is hard to justify. An engineer presenting to council has to say, "That is what my gut says." But really all this means is you have to hire competent and thoughtful people who are sensitive to the system and to their gut. There are no spreadsheets to hide incompetence. Fire the bad ones, and keep the ones who have good intuition. Keep the people who can accept imperfection and distribute it across the system.

December 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

Thanks Ruben. Yeah, I really appreciate you and your comments.

Have you read Nassim Taleb's new book, Antifragile? Incredible and very much along these same lines.

Listening to your attached video right now. Awesome.


December 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Ruben, that is possibly the most interesting, informative comment I have ever read anywhere, ever. Thank you.

December 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradam.

Charles, I have not read AntiFragile yet--it is on my list with Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman.

Adam, I glad you found these connections useful. If you are interested in behaviour change (and who isn't--what are traffic lights but behaviour changers?) I would also recommend one more thing in addition to the David Rock video Charles is watching. Creatures of Habit? The Art of Behavioural Change is an awesome report--especially the chart on page 14.

I have built most of my thinking on behaviour change on this report and video--though it took me three years to actually put all the pieces together. I will say I now put a lot more emphasis on the system than the Creatures of Habit brings in. For example, I worked on recycling in apartment buildings. My region had a target of 70% recycling. But when you actually go look at apartments, you find the garbage stream is 90% of the volume and the recycling is 10%. How are you going to fit 70 into 10?

When I actually increased the volume of the recycling stream, the recycling rocketed--at one site from 8% to 36%. No "behavioural" intervention was necessary. People know what to do and want to do it, but the system is built for diesel trucks, not for human beings.

Sometime soon I will have a site where I can write about all this stuff in more detail...



December 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

@ Ruben -

I have to take exception with your quotation "Lindblom notes this--totally broken and unworkable--method is all that is taught to engineers and managers." That is not only inaccurate, it's exactly the opposite of what engineers are trained to do. In every engineering problem there are unknown elements and elements that are unknowable. As you note, one can't create a matrix will all possible input and all possible results. As such, engineers have to make JUDGEMENTS (or as you call it, rely on their "gut feelings") based on experience and incomplete information. You are incorrect in stating that we don't train people to listen to and improve their gut feeling. It is the very essence of true engineering. I really don't care for the characterization of engineers as mindless drones that can only regurgitate a design manual. It's wrong thinking and will not serve the New Urbanist movement.

Whether or not you prefer to keep traffic lights is irrelevant. Keep them or don't. Who cares? Traffic lights evolved just like everything else. There was a need and the need was filled. If evolution finds a better way to transport people and goods, then traffic lights become obsolete. We aren't there yet. I've noticed a lot of the NU discussions (including this site) gaze back longingly at the days of yesteryear when there were no cars and all was right with the world. That doesn't seem like evolution to me, which in my opinion is why there is a lot of resistance. It will take a balance of old and new thinking to truly evolve. A lopsided, unbalanced approach (which I agree is what has occurred over the last 50 years) will perform equally as well as the "experiment" of the last 50 years.

December 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Jeff, thank you for speaking so plainly.

I learned something near the end of my last relationship that has only expanded the way I look at the world. I call it The Two Truths. That means it is pointless to fight with your partner about who said what when, because each of you have a version of the truth, and that version is totally true for each of you. If you fight about who is to blame, you are essentially calling your partner a liar--I would suggest if your partner is a liar you should end the relationship. Maybe I have been very lucky, but I wouldn't call any of my partners liars, they just have different experiences in the world than I do.

So, the question is, do you want to hear and value the experiences of other people?

I didn't "characterize...engineers as mindless drones", but I have certainly worked with plenty who are.

Chuck described his experience of, "We apply the standards of the MUTCD and we've done our job. We assume it is the best approach because, if it were not, it would not be part of the MUTCD"

These are experiences from two people who work with or are engineers. We work with municipal engineers, building trade engineers of all kinds, design engineers.... these are our actual lived experiences.

You have spoken passionately about the training engineers receive--perhaps you are in a position to do something about the breakdown that is clearly occurring between training and the actual lived experience of people who must work with these well-trained engineers. That sort of change will be greatly helped by someone who is knowledgable and who cares as you obviously do.

Beyond that, I have a couple of disagreements and a favour to ask. I don't think judgement is the same as gut feeling. I hope I was clear I believe gut feelings are an expression of subconscious processing, whereas judgement has clear linguistic baggage of rationality, deliberation, consciousness. Again, cognitive science is very clear that very little of our decision making is rational, no matter how much we like to pretend it is. One scientist described humans as "post-hoc rationalizers", which means we make up reasonable-sounding stories after the fact--after we have made decisions by other means (usually emotional or social, even if you have a matrix).

The favour I would ask is that you provide as much detail as possible on the training engineers receive to listen to and improve their gut feeling. I believe this sort of training is of the utmost importance, so if engineering has a pedagogy I am not aware of, I am deeply interested in learning more about it. To be clear, I don't want to learn more about "judgement" but rather the intuition or hunches that would be communication from our much more powerful subconscious processing.

And the last quibble, your crack about gazing longingly at yesteryear is not helpful. Chuck's article is about Kansas City today, and is focussed on moving the same amount of traffic at nearly the same speed for a much lower cost. There is no neostalgia (yearning for the new good old day) here--there is a problem in front of our face, right here, today. This is what collapse looks like.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

Ruben -

You're right. I shouldn't have made that last "crack". That was not helpful. I will try to better moderate my comments in the future. I did post several comments when this article first came out, so I didn't intend to comment on the content of the article again. I was commenting towards your post, not the original article.

Engineering is not immune to the affliction shared by all professions that yield terms like shyster lawyers, quack doctors, etc. There are good engineers, bad engineers, but most are just average. Alienating engineers with quotes like Mr. Lindblom's is not helpful either. NU will need all the engineers it can get to be successful. For one thing, no public works or most private development projects can move forward without an engineer's seal. So, like it or not, you and I are chained together and we should make the best of it. Like Charles, I am also an opportunist. I see a lot of potential in NU. However, I also sense a lot of bitterness (and maybe some rightly so) towards engineers, particularly the dreaded traffic engineer. But let's try hard to put that aside and work together towards balanced solutions that are implementable.

For training, It's hard to put the pedagogy (I had to look that up) into writing. I am not an engineering professor or involved in academia or accreditation of engineering schools. However, I am an engineer and have worked with and trained numerous engineers, so I have some level of exposure to engineers produced by different schools and various levels of experience. OK - credentials out of the way so take me for what I'm worth.

There are two levels of training in engineering. Formal education and on-the-job internship. The formal education produces someone who knows enough to be dangerous. However, good engineering programs do include in their curricula required credits in humanities and other fields outside the technical. Also, most students in the last 10 years or so spend a semester or two abroad (usually Europe). This is good because frankly most people in this country have no concept of what life is like outside our boundaries. They should really visit South America and Africa, but whatever. Some progress is still progress. The on-the-job training is where you take this fresh, dangerous, young intern and forge it into an engineer.

One thing that is pounded into engineers from day 1 (both at school and on the job) is don't rely on design manuals or standards. That's called "cookbook" engineering and is a path to disaster. The worst thing you can say to someone when questioned why something is designed a certain way is "That's the standard". Any engineer who says that should lose their license, be sent back to school, or both. There are reasons behind standards and any average engineer should know them by heart and decide whether they apply or not. Standards are just guidelines and not authoritative.

Second, be creative. Your job is to figure out what a project "wants to be". Whether its an intersection design, a trail, a roadway alignment, a parking lot, restriping an existing street, whatever. The land has a voice and it communicates to you what it wants to be. Strangely enough, when you are laying out a design, certain things fit and certain things don't. That's the first inkling the site is trying to communicate with you. This type of training is usually on the job. Is that "gut feeling"? I don't know. It just is. But the more you listen to it, the better you become.

Third, does the solution make sense? This is where novice engineers often fall flat. You can calculate some answer but in the end, you have to step back and ask yourself (and others as you can get too close to a project to be objective) "Does this fit? Does this make sense?" If not, what's wrong with it? You may need to go back to item 2.

Fourth, don't work in a vacuum. Listen to the public. They live there. They are the experts on this site. This is their home and they will live with the project long after you are gone. What are they telling you and how are you going to accommodate them. This can be really difficult and requires a thorough understanding of what you can and can't do within the project parameters. This can also be the most creative (and rewarding) part of the project. These are the ones where you wake up in the night and go "aha a solution!". Is that "gut feeling". Who knows.

Fifth (and these are in no particular order), many, many times you will not have all the information and cannot know all the possible outcomes. This is when you make what calculations you can, draw on your experience to select a path least likely to fail, and then go with your gut feeling. Because as engineer, who seals and certifies that the plan will work, you are liable (legally, your livelihood, and emotionally) for the outcome. Ultimately it all comes down to you. If there is any time to follow your instincts, this is it. Most of the time these burdens are light. Sometimes, it keeps you awake at night.

Finally (and there are probably other things I am forgetting and this post is getting too long anyway), as mentor don't give your people all the answers. Let them struggle. I always tell my engineers (and not just interns) don't bring me questions, bring me a range of solutions and I will give you some advice. I won't give you the answers (most of the time they know the answers better than I do anyway - but I don't tell them that). That truly is the way to learn is by doing and failing and doing again. Everyone has to be able to stand on their own two feet.

That's my best stab at it.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Jeff, those are words to live by.


December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuben
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