Jason DeGray is a transportation engineer as well as a member of both Strong Towns and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). Jason is also a product of Springfield, Massachusetts, scene of the tragic incident which motivated Chuck’s Just Another Pedestrian Killed. As a member of ITE’s advocacy committee he brought the charge levied against the engineering profession by Chuck in his piece back to the ITE Community to be explored. The resulting internal dialogue led to the development of the op-ed below which was published in the March 2015 edition of the ITE Journal, their international publication, and is reprinted here with his permission. Jason is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Professional Traffic Operations Engineer (PTOE).
Transportation engineering is a numbers game. LOS, ADT, V/C, crash rate, K factor, lane& shoulder widths, clear zone, etc. These are the current variables of our profession’s values based engineering system and they mandate a bias to one set of users.
This system was established as an architecture for suburbia and the fate of our profession resides with it as long as we adhere to it.
The alternative is to proactively choose to advocate for a new vision. If ITE (Institute of Transportation Engineers) were to be nimble enough we could pivot and fill a palpable leadership void, one worthy of the honor and dignity of the Institute. For this to happen though we will need to undergo a period of dramatic growth. This Institute needs to make a choice about its future and come of age. This is a values based discussion. But how do you effectively discuss values?
A case study arose recently which afforded an opportunity. You may have seen it under the title of Just Another Pedestrian Killed on the ITE Community All Member Forum which was in response to a Strong Towns blog of the same name. Of debate was the ethical responsibility of the engineer in the decision to provide a crosswalk traversing a four lane roadway between a noted, urban public library and its parking lot directly across the street. This set against the backdrop of the death of a seven year old child.
What ensued was both frenetic and cathartic.
Many pointed out the challenges of navigating the political and social climates in which we operate, but few seemed comfortable defining an ethical responsibility. Some deflected the ethical question by asserting that transportation engineers should serve only as the tool by which public policy is implemented. We, without bias, implement and guide investment in line with endorsed policy plans, standards and legislation. While this line of reasoning does remove all culpability from the profession, I am not sure it satisfies ITE’s Canon of Ethics which prescribes we use professional knowledge and skill for the advancement of human welfare.
The problem is that while engineers may not be experts in values, we can certainly educate the public discourse as to the results of "values" based investment over time. We choose not to. This is where we lose the ethical argument. Conventional values for a number of decades promoted auto based development in support of the narrative of a suburban ideal which allured the collective vision of the nation. Yet now we can measure the impact of these choices on public health, the environment and civic finances. Are we not allowed to leverage these findings? Would the decision regarding the crosswalk on State Street have been different if we accounted for these factors?
Does the suburban narrative still prevail as the American ideal? Perhaps, but it certainly doesn’t sit alone as it once did. A more urban American narrative is emerging complete with its own values set, and the rate at which the American populous is choosing it accelerates every day.
There are many that believe the suburban experiment is unsustainable in its current form. I certainly do. The economic model simply cannot address the maintenance liability all of this infrastructure represents. A daunting thing to realize, but it is a fundamental truth that needs to be reconciled. We are unwittingly fragile.
What is more, the new economy is forming and we are not a part of it. This new paradigm is redefining the optimum economy of scale along with the underlying prescribed values which support it. These values call for a robust transportation system that is truly embracing of all, promotes safety and social equity, acknowledges environmental realities and strives to be sustainable.
There is a group of transportation professionals scattered among various fields and organizations that are searching for means to coalesce around this new vision. Could ITE be the conduit? Certainly, but it would require standing the system on its head, a move ITE has shown little capacity to undertake.
The current evolution of the transportation system does not represent an outward expansion, a first for us. Rather this is a large scale revitalization project. These projects are predicated upon sound design, linking form and function uniquely as each specific place requires. There are no equations which can be dogmatically applied. We need an entirely new system, one that is nimble, can speak in a number of different languages and truly respects context.
Yet we still play the numbers game. We seem to think we can hedge our bets and operate as if both the old and the new paradigms are of equal footing. Our current philosophy seems to be to just tweak the equations to fit our needs, not recognizing that it is this very approach which needs to change. The problem with the numbers game is it breeds more numbers games. Those who owe their careers to the numbers will find it much easier to abide in them than to reject them. This is the pitfall of a bureaucracy, when the system needs to change only bold leadership will suffice.
ITE’s Canon of Ethics requires each member to uphold and advance the honor and dignity of the profession. How depends upon the values which underlie our ethical understanding of the world. Whose do we choose?
Engineering Ethics. Read one way this phrase implies the moral principles that guide our profession. I find it more interesting though to consider engineering to be a verb. In which case, the syntax insinuates the act of design reflecting values relating to human conduct - the rightness and wrongness of certain actions. This is what we do, and we need to acknowledge values change as society does.
And if you agree with that I suggest you make your voice heard, less this organization continue to be a passive observer of its own demise. The institute needs you.