Friday News Digest, Confessions Version

Two weeks ago my Thursday included two separate meetings where road reconstruction projects were discussed. Both instances had engineers and city officials that I know and respect doing asinine things for essentially two misguided reasons: rote adherence to standards and an irrational belief that traffic volumes will ultimately expand to infinity, or somewhere near there, in a natural progression that we engineers can accurately project (but not influence). All weekend I brooded on how insane this was, especially since these projects require some serious financial commitments for cities whose budgets are anything but resilient. The result of a couple of days of ornery reflection was a blog post titled "Confessions of a Recovering Engineer."

I've written more than three hundred blogs posts here over the past two years as our readership has steadily grown to levels that well exceed any expectation I originally may have had. To me, there was nothing particularly special about the "confessions" piece. I would not have considered it my best writing, but I found out pretty quickly Monday morning that it resonated deeply with our readers. In the three days following that posting we had more traffic to our site than the prior two months combined. The overwhelming response continues to pour in, opening my eyes to the fact that a large segment of the population is brooding over the same collective insanity that inspired the post. I'm both humbled and invigorated.

Many of our new readers have never read a Friday News Digest from Strong Towns before. A review of the news with some commentary was actually the original inspiration for the blog and is still my favorite day of the week to post. This week, however, I want to use the digest to share some of the great stuff that people did with the "confessions" piece.

As always, enjoy the week's news.

  • The blog Biking in Heels is done anonymously by a female architect from Massachusetts. She gives a reference to the confessions piece by talking about an "asphalt arms race". Check out the comments too - great reaction from some cycling enthusiasts.

I'm glad that there's a new wave of engineers and planners who believe in models which include other factors than speed and throughput.  And I hope that this column goes viral among civil engineers, and that it gets posted on cubical walls and taped up on engineering professors' doors, as an inspiration for a future beyond "standards"

  • Any blog piece that begins by quoting Jane Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead has my attention, so I really loved this piece on the Walkable DFW blog. The author, urban designer and planner Patrick Kennedy, writes about Dallas- Fort Worth, a place as addicted to the automobile than any I have ever been. I frequently visit family in nearby Mansfield and have noted that the "high five" series of interchanges outside of Fort Worth is truly a monument to the failure and insanity of the civil engineering profession.

Next thing you know, you're living 40 miles from where you work, stuck on a "high-five" spaghetti junction that most likely cost the entire state its education budget in an assembly line of nameless, faceless others, suspended hundreds of feet in the air by a concrete superstructure, but at least it has super sweet stars painted onto it to remind you that you are, in fact, still in Texas.

Want to know why cities, states, and the federal government is broke and the public mired in excessive debt? Listen to a traffic engineer talk about "road improvement."

  • John Voelcker, Senior Editor at the Car Connection, wrote a piece titled Why 'safe roads' are anything BUT safe, except for cars, which is a great translation of our confessions post into the practical implications. He asked at the end of the article why I didn't title our post "Confessions of a Traffic Engineer" -- the reason is, I would not call myself a traffic engineer. My engineering work was, and is, more of a general municipal nature than a traffic specialist. Voelcker's piece is worth a read.

But transportation engineers are still busily at work updating and improving existing roads, generally by widening them, adding lanes, smoothing curves, improving visibility, and letting traffic flow freely and more quickly. The results, ideally, include fewer backups, less sudden stopping, and a reduction in accidents.

That's great, if you're behind the wheel. But it turns out that improvements that make it easier for drivers not only make neighborhoods less pleasant, they actually make them more dangerous for people who, ummm, actually live there.

  • The Seattle Bike Blog had my favorite take with a piece called When you design roads so people can go 80... It featured a hilarious (yet tragically sad) video of a group that went out and collectively drove the speed limit on highways ostensibly designed for safe travel. You can imagine the reaction. I really appreciated the anxiety of the people in the video and how their natural reaction was to "pretend they were on their cell phone" to avoid confronting people's rage on the highway.

We no longer want to build roads that are wider and faster at the expense of safety, and we need to reign back some of the mistakes that were made decades ago. When I see in the video above stacks of cars with drivers angry because they are being forced to drive the speed limit (some even passing dangerously on the shoulder), it’s not all that unexpected. Safety was not the first goal of that highway project. It was built for speed, and people are attached to their “right” to speed.

  • A blog called The Gondola Project (not sure what that is, but it sounds cool) totally got it. In fact, they connected my commentary on civil engineering to what is truly wrong with our entire approach to building places that matter. Awesome post!

It doesn’t matter if those standards have the exact opposite effect than intended (as in road safety features that actually make roads more dangerous), the standard must always be followed.

No room to question the standard, no room to deviate from the norm.

It’s brave writing, and virtually everything he has to say can be applied to contemporary policy-making, government, planning and urban design. Marohn’s post isn’t just a rant against civil engineering. It’s a rant against our very culture of city building.

  • A gentleman friended me on Facebook to inform me that he translated confessions into French on his blog. When things like this happen I can't help but wonder what my grandparents would have thought of such technological wonders as instant communication across the globe, something we take for granted but would have been unthinkable for them. If anyone in France wants to have us over for a Curbside Chat, we'd love to come.
  • Speaking of our friends across the pond, the Bath Chronicle ran a very sad article titled Families remembered loved ones killed on the roads where they reported on a gathering of people who had lost loved ones to auto accidents. Someone posted a link to the confessions piece in the comments section with this commentary (to which I will not take offense, especially given the state of mind of the author):

Highways Engineers with blood on their hands; at least one of them confesses.

  • The discussion board at the Kunstler Cast started a thread titled "Traffic engineers may be coming round" that included some really nice commentary about both the blog and the podcast. Thank you, Kunstler fans. If you can assist me in my eternal quest to be Facebook friends with Mr. Kunstler, you can help me cross off a life goal from my long (albeit somewhat pathetic) list.

Just checked out Strong Towns podcast and Blog.

Great podcast on Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBAs)! I recommend everyone on this forum read/listen to it. CBAs are just about the biggest scam in urban planning and economic development - and often times, required by law. They are misleading and projects are hardly based on facts.

  • Our friend Scott Huizenga, the city administrator of East Grand Forks, MN where we did a Curbside Chat this past fall, included a reference to the confessions piece in his blog. I love public officials that use technology to communicate with people and specifically applaud Scott for his efforts. If you want to watch a public official effectively use a blog to do their job better, keep an eye on East Grand Forks. Can't wait to go back there.

Marohn challenges some basic assumptions that engineers often use to justify infrastructure projects.  In most cases, it’s not their fault, it’s how they were raised.   And, it’s how many of us were raised too. Kudos again to Chuck for challenging more of our basic assumptions.

  • And finally, I want to say thank you to everyone that reads the Strong Towns Blog. As of this post, we are up to 52 comments on the confessions piece. In an era where anonymous public discourse on the web nearly always descends into repugnant, mindless drivel, you have paid us the highest compliment possible by having a conversation that is intelligent, thoughtful and reasoned. I'll end this version of the News Digest with a quote from Dan Allison of the Muscle Powered Carson City blog on that topic:

The article has generated 46 comments in the last week, and comments are remarkably on-topic and intelligent for the Internet. 

Thank you, everyone. Keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns.