For years, Strong Towns has been a consistent voice for reform in the engineering profession. This site has repeatedly called on transportation engineers to reckon with the appalling death toll of high-speed motor vehicles in cities, and with how the assumptions underlying the design of urban infrastructure to facilitate high-speed driving make deaths and injuries statistically inevitable.
Every time Strong Towns posts an article of this ilk, one particular species of rebuttal seems to appear. It says, in essence, “We build this unsafe infrastructure because people want it. The community has decided they want car-centric environments and high-speed travel, and their elected officials have tasked us with designing it. Blame them, not us engineers. If you want to improve public safety, you have to change the broader culture."
This view is misguided. It reflects uncritical assumptions about how we can learn what the public actually prefers, and what professionals should do with that information.
Saying "It's not my fault people want this" isn't just an effort to pass the buck. It can be an expression of genuine frustration that car-centric design is often a fait accompli long before a project gets into the engineer's hands. It may be untrue that “the public demanded" that a particular stroad have eight 12-foot lanes — but it is true that there is tremendous inertia in the system. We tend to just do things the way we’ve always done them. The status quo is easy. Change is hard, and requires people to stick their necks out who have every reason not to.
It's understandable if the frustrated, well-meaning engineer’s reaction to “You shouldn’t have designed this dangerous facility” is something along the lines of “Well, what the heck did you want me to do? Go on a quixotic campaign to convince elected officials to radically re-envision this street that has looked basically the same for 40 years? Ask them to risk their credibility with the angry public by advocating a road diet?”
Even scoring small victories for safety — a curb bump-out, a protected bike lane — takes time, energy, and political capital. (Here's a good example of how hard safety advocates need to push to get safety improvements implemented, even in a relatively friendly political environment.)
So I’m sympathetic to the argument, “This is bigger than me, and I can’t change it.” No. Singlehandedly you can’t turn that ship around. Often the bad project is going to happen, despite well-intended individuals behind the scenes.
What I’m not sympathetic to is hiding behind the excuse that prevailing standards, designs, and institutional processes reflect a public consensus about how things ought to look and work. They don't. This common belief — “There are a lot of people out there who don’t actually want walkable communities or safe streets” — reflects a deep misunderstanding of what people's stated preferences can and can't tell us.
This is important for those of us who, in our professional lives, have a chance to influence the built environment — planners, engineers, architects, developers, elected officials — because if we hold ourselves hostage to a simplistic and largely illusory notion of the public's desires, we will miss opportunities to do impactful, ethical work that is in the public interest. Which is a different thing entirely.
We Don’t Know What We Want
The public doesn’t really know what it wants when it comes to specific design decisions about the built environment. We have revealed preferences, certainly, but it's folly to argue that those preferences add up to some sort of coherent collective vision, even within small, like-minded communities. It's often even folly to argue that they add up to coherent individual visions.
In the real world, all revealed preferences are deeply contextual. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum. When we choose a home or a neighborhood, we buy a “bundle” of attributes that can’t be unbundled: square footage; amenities; neighborhood features such as good schools, a low crime rate, a nice park; proximity to jobs and recreation; like-minded neighbors; a gut-level sense of comfort. All this must come at a price that's within our ability to pay. Even in the largest metro areas, you can't mix and match every one of these desires on an a-la-carte basis. Instead, you weigh trade-offs.
Any assertion about people's revealed preferences regarding one aspect of this "bundle" in isolation is tenuous at best. Consider a metro area where most of the high-performing schools are in unwalkable neighborhoods. Do brisk sales of single-family homes in unwalkable neighborhoods in that metro prove that people don't value walkability? Of course not.
Then you add the price factor into the mix. Research by Jonathan Levine (the author of the excellent book "Zoned Out") suggests many American metro areas suffer from a "shortage of cities" — that is, of neighborhoods with a traditional urban form where daily needs can be met on foot. This drives up the price of real estate in such neighborhoods and makes them a luxury product. In that context, it's hard to fairly conclude that people in greater Atlanta don’t like walkable neighborhoods the way people in greater Boston do; they're just less likely to have such a neighborhood as an option when choosing a home.
At the risk of falling down an epistemological rabbit hole, there's an even deeper issue here. Stated preferences are predictions about our future happiness. But it turns out we’re really, really bad at making accurate predictions.
Psychologists have known this for a long time. There's fascinating literature out there about such things as "affective forecasting," or anticipating how an action will make you feel. Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert identify several biases that make us poor judges of what will make us happy, in a study which includes this interesting tidbit:
When making affective forecasts people often think about how they will feel under alternative scenarios, such as how happy they will be if they vacation at the beach versus the mountains, or if they purchase a home on Elm Street versus Main Street. The isolation effect suggests that when comparing alternative future events people focus too much on features that differentiate the alternatives and too little on features they share, even if the shared features will influence their future happiness.
In Wilson and Gilbert's experiment, college students vastly overestimated how much less happy they would be living in a dormitory with inferior physical features (beauty, location, etc.) compared to one which was more desirable but had similar social features. We overestimate the importance of the differences between options and underrate their similarities— something that may well influence house hunters envisioning a choice between an urban and a suburban neighborhood.
Even evolutionary psychology may work against our efforts to predict what will make us happy: University of Chicago economists Luis Rayo and Gary Becker wrote a paper a few years ago that suggested that the drive among house-hunters for more square footage is rooted, in part, in our genes.
For these reasons and more, any attempt to assess prevailing public preferences that simply asks people what kind of neighborhood design features they like, or looks at which kinds of neighborhoods attract the greatest number of home buyers, is going to be fraught with multiple biases.
Does this mean personal preference is infinitely malleable, and we technical experts should entirely stop listening to what the public cares about and just tell them what's good for them? Of course not. What it means is that the most accurate statements of personal preference are probably statements about the past, not the future: We know what living situations made us happy in in the past. We can try to figure out which aspects of those situations actually made the difference — a task easier said than done — and extrapolate from that to achieve happiness going forward.
The most effective community engagement approach for planning and urban design doesn’t directly ask “What kind of neighborhood do you want?” It certainly doesn’t center on highly detailed design questions: “How wide do you think your streets should be?” “What density, in units per acre, should be allowed on your street?” "What should the height limit be?" etc. People may state strong opinions on those subjects, but there's a good chance those opinions are not accurate predictions of how that person would actually feel if they lived in such an environment.
Rather, it may be something more like what James Rojas of Place It! does. Rojas's innovative workshops aim to get at people’s values in a more organic way, by having them do highly creative, representational exercises with a huge grab bag of scale models and toys. Place It!'s website states, "The workshops are an opportunity for individuals to think critically about spatial organization and urban space and how these elements affect their everyday lives." When I participated in one, I was given the task of arranging these objects to represent or depict a favorite memory in my city or neighborhood.
A technical expert — an urban designer, architect, or engineer — can take the information people give him or her about their values and priorities and help them understand what sort of place designs might enable them get more of the things they value. This becomes a productive two-way conversation that enhances understanding for both the expert and the layperson. This approach is a lot more work. But it's superior to either 1) treating the public as design experts, which they aren't, or 2) being patronizing and dismissive of the public's sentiments because they're not design experts.
The "Will of the People" Doesn't Exist
Beware of anyone in any capacity who claims to speak for “the public.” They’re almost always pursuing an agenda, and invoking the mythical "public" is a way of claiming moral authority.
The "public" invoked in such instances is often a much more specific (and like-minded) constituency than the public as a whole. Perhaps they mean homeowners but not renters; current residents of a city, but not those who aspire to live there; voters in local elections; those in the social circles of the speaker; those who regularly email their City Commissioner; and, chiefly, those who are able to show up to a 6:30 meeting on Tuesday night at City Hall.
Even when the supposed “public” is genuinely representative of the majority in a neighborhood or particular constituency, majoritarianism can lead to appalling outcomes. It's common that those with access to power protect their own safety and comfort, while outsourcing risk and hardship to those without such access. I may find acceptable in your front yard what I wouldn't tolerate in my own front yard.
The most dangerous places for pedestrians are often low-income neighborhoods, where the community who uses the area on foot lacks a voice in local politics. The victim in last week's Uber crash in Tempe had struggled with homelessness. Are we treating people like her as users of an intersection when we design it? We should be.
I live in a fairly suburban-style neighborhood (no sidewalks, all detached houses, Walk Score 48). One of my neighbors put up signs around the area reminding drivers to slow down. I'm fine with the signs: there are a lot of children around here, and going over 25 miles per hour on our residential streets is pretty reckless.
But I wonder how many of the people who approve of these kinds of efforts to slow traffic in their car-dependent residential neighborhoods are the people who will show up at a public meeting opposing traffic calming on an arterial street downtown. People live there, too. People walk there, too.
You don't get to treat someone else's front yard as just "the place I drive past." You don’t get to have safety for yourself at the expense of risk to others. This kind of expression of "what the public wants" should be firmly rejected by those with decision-making authority.
"But it's the Culture Here"
All ancient cities were built to be walkable. All over the world, similar patterns emerged: narrow streets, small blocks, a mix of land uses in close proximity. So were those people “urbanists”? I doubt that if you could poll residents of ancient Xi’an or Athens or Tenochtitlan, you would find an ideological commitment to walkability or "vibrant" streets. You’d find people who had jobs to do, wares to sell and families to feed, and built places that were practical for their needs.
We're much worse, on the other hand, at seeing our own world as the sum total of a bunch of individual pragmatic and context-dependent, decisions. We engage in a lot of ex post facto rationalization of the ways we live: we think we must have designed this place as a collective. We tell ourselves we want it, because we already have it, and we don't want the cognitive dissonance that would arise if it weren’t some sort of manifestation of who we are.
Jarrett Walker has a brilliant bit about the idea that “Los Angeles has a car culture." No, he says, it doesn't. Los Angeles' "car culture" is a story that some Angelenos tell themselves about who they are, but it's not the reason Los Angeles developed around the car. The reason is that its most rapid growth occurred in an era in which car-centric suburbanization was the dominant planning orthodoxy. LA was shaped by consequential decisions that could have gone a different way, like having freeways slice into downtown instead of terminating at a ring road (unlike on the German autobahn, which was the model for our system), or refusing to offer Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance to mixed-use properties, or subsidizing suburban homeownership via the GI Bill.
We often define "who we are" in opposition to who we think others are. In San Francisco, the neighborhood slow-growth activists have decried "Manhattanization" for decades. On the Gulf coast of Florida, the activists instead talk about the menace of “Browardization” — referring to Broward County on the state's Atlantic coast, which said activists characterize as comparatively overdeveloped and congested. These things are shorthand for the stories we tell about who we are — “definitely not like them over there." It evokes the narcissism of small differences, as well as the research by Wilson and Gilbert I described above.
The actual story of how we got to be who we are is usually a lot messier, and involves a lot of path-dependence, inertia, and a few highly consequential decisions.
In the county I live in, there were about 3,000 new buildings constructed in 2016. Over 50% of those are in just three zip codes (out of 27 total). These three correspond to suburban fringe areas where large, master-planned subdivisions are underway on formerly rural land. Why are these subdivisions where they are?
Well, by way of example: In 1910, Bertha Honore Palmer, a wealthy widow from Chicago, moved to Southwest Florida and bought 80,000 acres of land to raise cattle and plant citrus. Decades later, that land would be sold to a master developer and become Palmer Ranch, a land of quintessential suburban tract houses. (See the aerial photo at right.)
Several of the other master-planned communities in this region have "ranch" in their name. They all have similar stories: one large land owner who cashed out. Local government has, in every case, been an active participant in channeling new development to a handful of master-planned communities, and not to other places — say, urban infill sites — that might have met the demand for new homes and businesses. The belief among a startlingly small number of people that this is what "the market" wants has long set the tone for regional growth and infrastructure decisions.
I don’t believe that The Public specifically "wanted” thousands of new Mediterranean-revival houses in cul-de-sacs on old cow pastures, from which you have to drive everywhere on six-lane arterial roads. I don't believe that we “chose” this, that it reflects some broadly-held conception of the ideal Sarasota. I think it's the product we've been offered, and enough of us want to live here that we'll buy it if the price is right. But a lot of those same people would have bought something else, had the price been right. The shape of a community reflects the sum of individual decisions, including some very consequential ones by powerful landowners and government officials. Only a fool would confuse Bertha Palmer's heirs' decision to sell her 80,000 acres to a developer with the invisible hand of the free market.
Many Roles for the Technical Expert
So let's say we lay to rest the myth that what the public gets is clear evidence of what the public wanted all along. Let's say we accept, for all the reasons above, that technical experts who design the built environment don't just have to take the public's word for it, but should feel free to interrogate and push back against what the prevailing consensus says we can or can't build. How?
The most productive role a planner can play is often to facilitate conversations — to bring people together with a huge range of perspectives and different ways of knowing (from Jane Jacobs-style ethnography, to personal anecdote, to data and scientific study), and help them learn from each other how to make places that can improve our lives. And, crucially, help them understand the less-than-obvious trade-offs involved, like safety for speed; affordability for exclusivity; vibrancy for tranquility.
For an engineer, this means not shying away from sharing what your technical expertise tells you about trade-offs. There is abundant research on the statistical outcomes of different designs. You know which kinds of streets inevitably lead to injuries and deaths, and which ones don't. Make sure everyone who has a voice in design decisions knows what you know.
This doesn’t obligate you to pick a specific project as a hill to die on or to boycott everything but urbanist-gold-standard projects. This is what many engineers who take offense at the suggestion that they are complicit are reacting to. “I work for a firm that does walkable designs and suburban, car-centric designs. We can nudge the client, but ultimately some clients can only be nudged so far. Do you want us to not take the work?”
Let’s distinguish what we’re saying about what the profession needs to do from what any individual needs to do.
The world needs individuals who are willing to do a lot of different things:
- Some may want to become public intellectuals, or even found organizations advocating for better ways of doing things.
- Some may advocate within professional organizations, or get involved with fixing internal standards and design manuals, creating more institutional cover for engineers to push back against bad designs.
- Some may bring their expertise to legal battles.
- Some may run for office.
- Some may push back against the internal culture of their own organization or make a statement by leaving. Others may not be in a position to do that.
- Some may found consulting firms (like our friends, sponsors, and super-allies at Verdunity) that do work rooted in specific principles, and whose clients self-select.
- Some may let their legacy be one project done really, really well. The power of examples to convince people that their city could be different, and better, is priceless.
But let’s not hide behind “It’s not my decision” or "I don't make policy" or “I have to do these things that make the world worse, because the public wants it that way.” Everything we understand about public preferences and how they get implemented in the cities around us says that that’s a lame excuse.