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On Traffic Engineers and Design Standards

The following was posted on Facebook this week by our friend, John Anderson. You can offer your thoughts here or on the original post.


In very general terms, folks seem to be capable of making only two types of attributions when it comes to traffic engineers;

1. They are all-knowing, capable of understanding traffic as if it were particle physics. Their findings should be not be questioned.

2. They don't know anything about how humans behave in the actual physical world as witnessed by the twin phenomena of induced demand when roads are overbuilt, and disappearing traffic when freeways are removed. Their findings are always suspect.

Traffic engineers operate within a perverse system that dooms their efforts. Rather than assign individual engineers too much or too little credit, I'd rather question why we bother with this rigged game in the first place. Maybe it is time to roll out an entirely new set of standards and assert that they make places safer.

Let's triage the reality of what is out there right now. We have all manner of bullshit roads that are a horrible indictment of the profession's miserable performance. Over-engineered roads with high speed geometry, overly wide travel lanes next to stingy bike lanes full of debris, silly curb radii -stuff that actually gets people killed and maimed while still sanctioned within peer-reviewed standards that protect the municipalities and state agencies that commission the work. We have fire marshals without any credible qualification issuing decrees that become the street and urban design standards.

For some years now, Rick Hall, Rick Chellman, and Peter Swift have been pushing against the glacier of bullshit that emanates from the wrong-headed and laughable assumptions built into Functional Classification. Others have taken the case for a connected network of slow speed streets to the International Codes Council with no good effect. Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall have done great academic research on the comparative safety of various street patterns. Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzican explain to three decimal places why street design and infrastructure delivery are too important to a community's fiscal health to be left to engineers. 

California is allegedly dumping LOS and adopting the ITE Context solutions manual and the NACTO design manual (-although it may take a couple generations for that information to filter down into the daily practice of the CalTrans District Offices). 

New Urbanists have have been in the trenches grinding out a serious effort at reforming the mess that guides the thousand lousy street design decisions made every week by local and state municipalities. The culture that shapes those lousy decisions is twisted in ways that would embarrass Franz Kafka. People are killed and maimed through the efforts to make them safe. Elected officials and senior staffers erode the quality of the places they have committed to protect and improve.

I think it is time for some serious strategy, lawyering, and lobbying. What would it take to establish a greater authority than the ITE and the International Codes Council? What structure would you need to have in place for formal peer review necessary to effect a standard a municipality could rely upon? Could this be done through NACTO? Those professional associations/institutions did not always exist. They got started at some point and developed enough weight to be a standard that could limit liability (regardless of how ill-formed and ultimately dangerous). What would it take to launch a new build to replace the old lousy standard?


Plain old nice. The anti-claim to fame.

What is your hometown famous for?

Maybe this is an -ism of places with an inferiority complex, but there are a lot of titles floating around there. World's largest _____, Oldest _____ in North America, First _____ to _____, longest, tallest, celebrity endorsed, most expensive - we've all seen this stuff. Some people really go to town with the specious claims to fame, even throwing in branding campaigns, slogans, signs and banners.

If anyone works in tourism, you'll have to fill me in on how well these tactics work. Personally, I struggle with the whole thing. I think it's great for places to identify what makes them special and focus on that. I think it's great for places to feel like they have an identity. But it's hard to build an identity on anomolies like having the tallest something or other west of New York, or the oldest thingamabob.

I think we're further ahead just doing a nice job with the normal everyday stuff. 

"Don't underestimate nice." My mom told me as we were sketching out stencils with which to spray chalk the streets that night. "It doesn't have to be 'wow' - it's just nice. Nice is underrated."

Here's what we ended up doing (I know it was posted earlier but I wanted to offer some additional contex).

People quietly just killin' it in a great little city from Gracen Johnson on Vimeo.

These are not the things that make it into our tourism pamphlets but when tourists stop me in the street asking for a nice place to go, these come to mind. They make my daily existence more enjoyable and inspire me to try harder. They're just nice.

I'm curious, can a city survive on nice? Cities compete so much on nearly every arbitrary factor they can think up, regardless if it even means anything. But I know that where I'm living, we don't actually talk much about the factors within our control - the stuff that makes a place feel cared for.

I'm not sure our obsession with claims to fame is indicitive of what we truly value about our cities. More likely it's a tourist ploy and a symptom of competition between cities for resources and people, or an attempt to build morale in a place lacking confidence. But are claims to fame even effective at any of the above?

Nothing boosts my morale more than seeing other people that are trying. Every nice paint job, every flower pot, every new business is what lifts my spirits and makes me excited to be here.

That makes me wonder if cities even need to compete. Rather than fighting each other for employers and government infrastructure projects, how much development of better health, happiness, and wealth can we unlock endogenously? There must be some case studies on this so let me know if you have any lessons on community-driven growth to share.

Chuck and friends of Strong Towns talk a lot about the hidden value of our cities. They talk about the hidden value of people in our cities too. The people I see tapping into this value are not aiming for spectacularly impressive changes. More often, they are looking to make something plain old nice.

Nice is achievable, it's meaningful, and in my experience, nice is more than good enough.


OpenMic: What is a Strong Towns approach to transit?

At the National Gathering, we are planning a Burning Topics Forum where attendees will delve deeply into areas of thought and advocacy that don’t have a well-development set of Strong Towns principles. Transit is one of those areas.

While we have written and talked about transit, there is still a lot here to discuss. What is your idea of a transit approach that is consistent with the ideals of the Strong Towns movement?

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