We’d like to extend a slightly belated congratulations to Mats Järlström, whom you may know as the engineer in Oregon who was fined for identifying himself as an engineer.
We first wrote about this story, which Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn called “an embarrassing mess,” in 2017. To recap: Järlström, a resident of Beaverton, OR, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Sweden and decades of experience as an engineer—albeit not a civil engineer—became interested in his city’s yellow-light timing after his wife received an automated ticket in 2013 for supposedly running a red light. He began studying the underlying math, and concluded that the timing formula didn’t adequately account for drivers who were making a right turn instead of proceeding straight. This potentially created a safety hazard. Over the ensuing couple of years, Järlström proposed a modified formula, corresponded with the original formula’s creator and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) about his findings, and began to speak publicly about the issue.
This drew the ire of Oregon’s State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, which decided to fine Järlström $500 for calling himself an “engineer” despite not holding a Professional Engineer (PE) registration in the state of Oregon. Järlström challenged the fine in court and won a temporary injunction.
The federal court entered a permanent injunction against the state engineering board, citing a “history of overzealous enforcement actions.” Järlström is now free to speak about traffic-light timing and to present his findings, and so is any other private citizen who wishes to do likewise. The court also invalidated Oregon’s restriction on the use of the title “engineer” by those not licensed as PEs as a violation of the First Amendment.
What’s the Purpose of Licensing?
It’s one thing to require only licensed engineers to work on a public project where there is a safety concern. This is common sense: I want to know before I drive on a bridge that the designer of the bridge had the relevant expertise, in the same way I want my doctor to have a medical license. (As an urban planner and writer who is not an engineer, I would strongly urge you, dear reader, to stay off any bridge I design over anything bigger than a puddle.)
It’s another thing entirely to go after non-licensed engineers for simply saying “I am an engineer” and expressing an opinion on an engineering matter. Most people with engineering expertise and advanced degrees do not have a PE license, simply because it’s not necessary for their specialty or line of work. That doesn’t mean they’re unqualified to speak.
Of course, the sort of credential-based gatekeeping on display in Oregon’s censure of Järlström serves a completely different purpose. By creating an additional barrier to the practice of engineering—even informal, unpaid advocacy, with no safety risks to consider—the licensing requirement inflates the prestige and importance of the professional credential in Oregon, to the ostensible benefit of those who hold it.
But what about when mistakes or groupthink go unchallenged for years because of this sort of bunker mentality within professional organizations? Whose interests are served then? Not the public’s.
The Bigger Picture: Who is an Expert on What?
The implications of this issue are bigger than just Järlström’s case, and bigger than this lawsuit. The story got our attention especially in the first place because Strong Towns’s own founder and president, Chuck Marohn, has himself been the target of an threat against his engineering license.
In 2015, an opponent of Chuck’s views on the subject of infrastructure spending filed a complaint against his PE license in the state of Minnesota, accusing him of “misconduct on the website/blog Strong Towns” for things he had written critical of the engineering profession, and specifically of professional organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Chuck wrote about this incident here, in the essay, “Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform?”
We received outspoken support at that time from multiple corners, including the Union of Concerned Scientists. The complaint was soon closed with a finding of “no violation.” But the intent of the complaint was clear: to intimidate and silence Strong Towns.
The offending statements on this blog were not about the technical details of roadway or bridge or pipe design. They were not any sort of libel against the competence of licensed engineers to determine those details. Rather, Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns have consistently been critical of the engineering profession for things that are, fundamentally, political choices and questions of priorities and values. For whom should infrastructure be safe and “forgiving”? Whose safety and comfort can be sacrificed for the sake of traffic flow and speed? How much public money should be dedicated to infrastructure and how should that spending be prioritized?
In no way are these even questions about which you have to be an engineer at all to have something of value to say. These are fundamental questions about what kind of world we want to build for ourselves. They’re questions that answer to many different forms of expertise, including that of engineers—who are the best-positioned to tell us some things about those questions: what it will cost to build and maintain a certain type of world, and what kind of risks will be statistically inevitable consequences of the way we choose to build.
Aggressive gatekeeping in the engineering profession doesn’t serve the public. It doesn’t promote robust debate, either about big-picture policy questions, or about the details that affect our lives every day—like whether a traffic signal is actually timed appropriately.
Järlström’s victory is not just a victory for free speech; it’s a victory for engineering.