Can you be an engineer and speak out for reform?

At the end of each year we always take a couple of weeks and share the stories that we thought were the best or most important from what we produced over the past eleven months. So much of our audience -- for this year it is 4 out of 5 of you -- were not with us to start the year. So this is also an opportunity to be exposed to things you may not have caught the first time around.

We are going to kick it off with a piece I wrote last February after receiving a notice from the state licensing board (I'm a licensed engineer) informing me that a complaint had been filed against me.

There are two important things to add to the conversation this article created. First is my gratitude to all of you for how you reacted to this. Until last month, February was our largest month of traffic here at Strong Towns (and that's saying something). The support you all showed provided more assistance than you maybe appreciate. The best defense against getting bullied for speaking out is public support. From multiple lawyers offering to represent me pro-bono to a spontaneous social media campaign, you all proved you have my back. That's an honor I will respect by both continuing to speak out and continuing to be responsible when doing so.

The second is that it's not enough to give me a type of immunity: everyone needs the right to be heard. Since February, I've been alerted to a number of instances where citizens who spoke out for change were threatened or intimidated by licensed professionals. One I found most egregious happened a few years ago when a guy involved with a homeowners association was turned in by an engineer to the North Carolina licensing board for "practicing engineering without a license" after he questioned that engineer's traffic projections. This is an outlier, to be sure, but there are untold number of instances where valid opinions are not heard after the licensed professional has spoken. In a country that needs to become more chaotic but smart, we're initiating most of these conversations at the wrong level.

And for all of my fellow professionals who get so upset when I shine a light on some of the practices and beliefs in the engineering echo chamber, here's a comment posted a few weeks ago on our video Conversation with an Engineer. It has since been deleted after the author was informed that (a) I was actually an engineer and (b) he's kind of a jerk, but we all know this attitude.

"Before dispensing advice on what I should contemplate, you would be well served to learn something about how things are done. You obviously have no understanding of the engineering profession. Just so you'll know, I am a registered engineer and have worked in the field for 35 years. I, and people like me, keep your lights on so you can dispense crap like this.

I see no reason to pursue this line of discussion with someone who has no idea what he's talking about. Go ahead and enrich yourself by watching cartoons on YouTube and leave the technical details of how and why it all works when you turn it on to the people who understand it, even though you don't understand them or what they do."

Note that this poster's YouTube handle was 1957greybeard which I'm hoping means retirement is just a few years away. 

Last week I received a notice from the board of licensing that a complaint has been filed against my professional engineering license. The complaint indicated that I had engaged in “misconduct on the website/blog Strong Towns” for things I have written critical of the engineering profession. While this development is disappointing, it is far from surprising.

The complaint was filed by a former American Society of Civil Engineers fellow who is currently an outspoken member of the Move MN coalition, the organization advocating for more transportation funding here in my home state. The complaint was filed on the day I wrote No New Roads, a blog post that called out both organizations for their self-serving support of endless transportation spending. Again, an effort to take away my professional license for speaking out is appalling, but it isn’t surprising.

I’ve long opposed the American Society of Civil Engineers. They don’t represent me and they should not be allowed to speak for this profession unchallenged. Their stands on how our country should be developed are frequently cited, despite how stunningly radical they are. American prosperity is not simply a function of how many roads, pipes and hunks of metal we can construct. Our infrastructure investments must work to support the American people, not the other way around.

I’ve also been an outspoken critic of the Move MN coalition and their version of success. I’ve had professional colleagues suggest to me that I’m on the wrong side here, that a more lucrative path for me and this organization would be to get on board and advocate for more taxpayer money for expanding the current system. I’ve been told privately that I’m not a “real engineer” if I don’t support more funding. That's just wrong.

Most importantly, I’ve been critical of how the engineering profession approaches safety within our cities. I coined the word “stroad” to describe the industry’s standard approach of over-engineering America’s urban and suburban streets as if they were high speed, high-capacity roads. The current variant of the engineering profession gained prominence in the era of highway building, but that knowledge set does not apply to complex places where people exist outside of automobiles. It is malpractice to suggest otherwise, a term I will not back down from using. 

Our urban streets need to be safe for everyone, whether in a car, on a bike, in a wheelchair or simply walking. Today they are not and that is unacceptable.

Should I be allowed to be an engineer? Can a licensed engineer oppose new road construction and still retain his license? Can a licensed engineer question the appalling safety record resulting from standard industry practices and be allowed to remain in the industry?

State Statutes raise some doubt. Here’s what Minnesota Rules 1805.0200 require for the personal conduct of licensed engineers:

A licensee shall avoid any act which may diminish public confidence in the profession and shall, at all times, conduct himself or herself, in all relations with clients and the public, so as to maintain its reputation for professional integrity.

Now who is such language designed to protect? Does it protect society at large or does it protect the engineering firms who have thrown their weight behind efforts to secure more funding at the State Capitol? Does it protect the vulnerable or does it protect the engineer who simply signs the plans confident that the standards will shield them from liability, regardless of the outcome?

I'm not going to let this intimidation change what I do. It has strengthened my resolve to stand up, be heard and lead this movement in building a nation of strong towns. 

The engineering profession is full of great people working to do good things, but it also has a pervasive dark element within it. There are many who are way too comfortable with the power that comes from having a large budget, access to influential people and the protection of industry standards. Contracts written as a percent of construction costs, feasibility studies that ignore the second life cycle and fraudulent benefit/cost analyses are accepted byproducts of this destructive mindset. I've spoken out against all of them and will continue to do so.

All truth goes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. I’ve been telling our team here for the past year to be prepared for we are entering the second stage. The good news is that I can see the third stage on the horizon and it is approaching fast.

I’ve spoken with college classes at engineering schools around the country. These students are not encumbered by the profession’s dogma. They live the problems we talk about at Strong Towns and want to do things differently when they get their licenses. When I’ve shown our video,Conversation with an Engineer, to groups of professionals, I’ve watched many of the old, stodgy engineers sit straight-faced with arms crossed while the younger crowd laughs and gives high-fives to each other. Have faith; change is coming.

I regularly have engineers email me to say they support what we’re doing but are afraid to speak up for fear of how it might impact their career. There’s strength in numbers. Now’s the time to join the movement, let people know this conversation needs to happen and volunteer to be part of reshaping the engineering profession - and our cities - for the next generation.

This time the licensing board found “no violation” and so, fortunately, no further action is pending. This time. I’ve been warned that my file could be reopened “should additional evidence warrant” doing so. Let’s hope that we don’t have to face that, that further threats like this aren’t an ongoing part of the opposition playbook.

Thank you for your support and for doing what you can to make yours a strong town.

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