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?