Four Ways Traffic Engineers Thwart Public Will

Last month, three city council members in Springfield, Massachusetts, submitted a request for a signalized crosswalk to be installed along State Street in front of the entrance to the Central Library. I didn’t know about this request, but I became aware of it when a negative response by the city’s Director of Public Works appeared in the newspaper (Report slams proposed crosswalk at Springfield library as unsafe, bad for traffic).

Those of you that have been here a while know that this particular intersection has special meaning to me. I was there the night a little girl was killed, another seriously injured, crossing here back in 2014. I had seen the video and experienced firsthand how the city was well aware of the problem, but chose to ignore it. I’ve since met with local advocates and even offered to work pro-bono to find a solution. Despite multiple attempts by elected officials and members of the public, nothing has been done. It’s only a matter of time until someone else is killed.

There are four common methods traffic engineers use assert their power and thwart the will of elected officials and the public those officials represent. They are all unbecoming of a profession that is supposed to be about public service. The August 6 letter from the Springfield Director of Public Works contains all four. I’m going to review those today in the hopes that, if we can’t affect change in Springfield, at least other cities can learn from their (repeated and ongoing) mistakes.

#1: A Focus on Process, Not Outcomes

Time and again I’ve watched engineers talk down to public officials, minimizing their concerns, by pretending there is some long and dignified legacy of deliberation that goes into every action taken by an engineer. This letter is dripping with such condescension, starting in the second paragraph where it says:

While this item has been discussed for a number of years, I will again provide all of the necessary background information and design issues that have been considered in the past.

Subtext: Little people, must I explain myself yet again?

I touch on this first because the arrogance deeply bothers me. This issue keeps coming up because people keep getting hit, getting killed, and those responsible for the dangerous situation—those who could do something about it—seem unwilling to do anything. People have been elected because they said they would find answers. To fall back on process—silly councilors, we’ve already considered this many times—when it’s clearly not working is tone deaf, at best.

This condescension creeps into the entire letter:

In their August 2, 2019 memo, the Councilors referenced a recently approved pedestrian signalized crossing on State Street in the area of the Mason Square Apartments. In the planning stages of the proposal for that signal, the designers were made aware of all of the necessary engineering studies that needed to be performed and they were completed over the last 2 ½ years and ultimately approved by the DPW.

And yet again:

With regards to State Street / Library location, over the past 5 + years, we have responded to similar requests for installation of a crosswalk / beacon at this location.

So many engineers fall back on the assumption that extensive deliberation is evidence of a good approach. There is no such correlation; the world is full of examples where people met extensively and repeatedly yet still made poor decisions.

Also embedded in this assumption is the limited understanding of the engineer. Specifically, engineers tend to view the city simply as a collection of streets and pipes that should be managed like a machine, something they are able to fine tune. They fail to grasp that the city is complex human habitat, places that evolve, where new patterns and responses emerge over time.

For example, look at the ludicrous table of projections in the letter. It is presented as evidence of deliberation, yet the only thing these tables present is an oversimplified world where mindless humans in automobiles are incapable of taking an alternate route in a city of gridded streets—let alone vary their driving time, home-buying patterns, or an infinite number of other rational responses—in response to traffic flow.

The assertion that “smarter people than you have thought about this a long time” is the ultimate false flag. It intentionally diverts decision-making authority away from elected officials to the engineer, using the opaque backdrop of years of deliberation as a rhetorical shield.

Times change. Councils change. Priorities change. It’s never wrong to question the status quo, especially when it comes to traffic engineering. The traffic engineering profession is rapidly moving away from mindlessly misapplying highway standards to city streets towards a more nuanced and human-centered approach to design. This issue keeps coming up in Springfield because their public works department is stuck in the past, and people are dying because of it.

#2: A Reliance on Standards, Not Observation

An engineer working for their own priorities, instead of the priorities of the elected officials or the public at large, will quote industry standards as if they are inviolable laws instead of what they really are: guidelines for the typical scenario. This letter includes plenty of that. Here’s one example:

Another option that was discussed in the past was the use of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) (See photo). When this product was introduced into the industry a number of years ago, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) issued guidance on where these types of units should be installed.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is a favorite for engineers to cite, but in a unique situation like that being examined along State Street in Springfield, the rote standards don’t easily apply. That’s why we have professional engineers, not merely technicians. Engineers are supposed to think, to use their professional judgement in places where it is warranted. In fact, that’s exactly what the MUTCD suggests should be done. Here is a quote from Section 1A.09 of the General provisions.

The decision to use a particular device at a particular location should be made on the basis of either an engineering study or the application of engineering judgment. Thus, while this Manual provides Standards, Guidance, and Options for design and applications of traffic control devices, this Manual should not be considered a substitute for engineering judgment. Engineering judgment should be exercised in the selection and application of traffic control devices, as well as in the location and design of roads and streets that the devices complement.

You’ll find this kind of statement in every engineering manual, yet too often engineers pretend like they are being paid to mindlessly apply the directions of others instead of providing their own professional judgement. In a unique situation like State Street—where, it should be reiterated, multiple people have died—citing standards as a reason to do nothing is not merely wrong. It’s malpractice.

I was particularly bewildered by the repeated reference to “warrants” in the letter. A warrant is a criteria used as a threshold to justify taking an action. All engineers understand that warrants are guidelines. We could go through Springfield and easily find many examples where traffic control devices are installed yet warrants are not being met. Citing warrants as some kind of obstacle to action is less than forthright.

Plus, every set of warrants I’ve ever seen has put pedestrian fatalities as an automatic threshold crossed. Here on State Street we have multiple deaths, as well as serious injuries. There is no issue of not meeting warrants here.

#3: Elevating Engineering Values Over Human Values

I’ve written about how engineers assert their own values into design decisions, holding them up as truth when in fact they are a subjective ordering that should be made by elected officials. The decision to prioritize traffic flow over safety, for example. Another is the decision to establish a design speed incompatible with the neighborhood. These decisions are made without presenting them as options to elected officials, even though they are an assertion of values, not truth. This letter is full of the engineer’s values being asserted as truth.

As an example, consider this statement:

Due to the volume of traffic at this location on the corridor, the current traffic signal cycle lengths (the length of time for all approaches to cycle through green, yellow, red sequence) at both of the signalized intersections are very long, in excess of 1 ½ minutes. Based upon the current long length of the two locations, when the HAWK system button would be activated, there could be a significant amount of time (possible in excess of two minutes) until the pedestrian would be able to cross the road. Based upon data from the FHWA, the longer the wait period for pedestrian crossing, the more chance that a pedestrian will try to cross the road prior to the proper signals being activated.

In this paragraph, it is asserted that the signalized intersection must be designed to prioritize the volume of traffic. Everything builds off of that assertion. The volume must be accommodated, ergo the signal sequence must be long, ergo pedestrians must wait a long time to cross, ergo pedestrians will not wait—they will put their lives in danger anyway—and the HAWK system would be useless.

If instead human values were prioritized over the values of the engineer, this entire line of thinking would be turned around. We want humans to be safe, ergo the crossing signal sequence must be short, ergo traffic volume on this street will be reduced. This is perfectly acceptable reasoning yet it’s never presented to elected officials as their choice. Yet, it is their choice.

The letter talks about “traffic queues” and “Level of Service” as if they were commandments handed down from a divine authority, not merely a set of values being asserted by the Public Works Department. Level of Service (LOS) is a term used for highway design, not local streets. Look at how, without presenting any alternatives, the letter assumes that traffic queues and LOS are the only values to be considered:

Also, based upon the traffic data provided as part of the Casino project and volumes during the peak period, and based upon our experience, introduction of a HAWK system would cause an additional increase in traffic queues by at least 25%, causing the Level of Service (LOS),currently C,D,E, and F, to deteriorate ever further to full failure of the intersection.

And that paragraph concludes, once again, with a false statement built on a scaffold of engineering values asserted as truth:

This would result in vehicles being trapped within the intersection while cross traffic is trying to get through.

No, it wouldn’t. Or more precisely: it need not. What is being suggested here is that traffic queuing and Level of Service cannot be compromised under any circumstances – even to save human lives – and therefore, if forced to install a mid-block crossing (while maintaining queues and LOS), vehicles will be trapped in the intersection. Vehicles wouldn’t need to be trapped if queuing and LOS were adjusted, but that’s not an option the public works department allows the elected leaders of the community to consider.

What we see here is that the engineer’s values are not open for discussion, regardless of human life and regardless of what elected officials are asking for. I’m not necessarily in favor of a mid-block crossing either (I would favor a far more comprehensive approach), but I can sympathize with the public officials that are suggesting it. They are merely seeking some type of workable compromise in the face of the unprofessional intransigence within their public works department.

They were elected to serve the people of Springfield, not the archaic values of traffic engineers.

#4: Pretending to be Powerless Due to a Higher Authority

The fourth way engineers thwart the will of elected officials and the public is to assert that they are powerless, that ultimate authority resides elsewhere. Layered on this assertion of powerlessness is the implied threat that the real governing authority is not very nice, that they are likely to react poorly if provoked by such silly requests.

This is the kind of thing I did when I was a kid and used to babysit. You know, I would let you stay up late, but your mom said I needed to get you to bed on time and we don’t want her mad at us, do we. It’s juvenile, but as part of the broader conversation, it provides the final knockout blow. There is a false sense of empathy projected while simultaneously deflecting any responsibility from the engineer.

From the letter:

If designs were to be presented on the installation of a HAWK system, submission to MassDOT would be required as it would be a modification of a previously approved Traffic Control Agreement. MassDOT would then review the design and possibly reject the installation, or place significant additional roadway related improvements as a requirement at the expense of the City.

Of all people, politicians should understand this to be false. None of these decisions are absolutely technical; they are all somewhat political. This is especially true in a unique situation like State Street, where multiple deaths have occurred. It’s a stretch to suggest that reasonable action here might require state board to provide some type of waiver, but it’s absurd to suggest the city could not make a compelling case.

Cities are not powerless. Great local engineers that want to assert the values of the community (instead of opposing them) can become strong advocates for the community with state appeals boards. This is especially true when lives have been spent, as they have on State Street.

A good engineer is going to say, “How do we solve this problem,” instead of giving you all the reasons why a problem doesn’t exist and, even if it did, can’t possibly be solved. The only person fearing a higher authority in this situation is the intransigent engineer.

A Final Word to My Fellow Engineers

The ethics of the engineering profession—which are coded into law here in Minnesota and in other states—suggest that a licensed engineer should never criticize the work of a fellow licensed engineer. Overlooking the constitutionality of such a law (which is more than questionable), my research has indicated to me that these provisions are meant to prevent engineers from bashing each other in order to steal their clients, not to stifle critical dissent over practices within the profession.

Even so, I’ve had my license challenged for speaking out against bad practices in the past. I’m willing to face that scrutiny, if it comes to that, because I believe it is immoral for members of the engineering profession to use their position of authority to assert engineering values over human values, to thwart the will of elected officials and the public when it comes to how their communities are designed.

There are many great engineers out there, people who do not hesitate to prioritize human lives over traffic flow, public safety over Level of Service. Yet, my chosen profession has far too many members that mindlessly apply highway standards to city streets, adhere to antiquated codes despite the consequences, and are far too comfortable with the tradeoff in human lives necessary to maintain traffic flow through their city’s neighborhoods.

Regarding State Street in Springfield, Massachusetts: In the past I have offered to either (a) assist the city—pro-bono—in coming up with a design to address the dangerous crossing or (b) serve as a pro-bono expert witness for the family of the next victim of this deadly design. That offer still stands, although if it comes to (b), the willful inaction in the face of ample evidence that action is warranted makes Springfield grossly negligent, a finding that should cost the city millions. This letter from the public works director will be Exhibit A. There are many more equally powerful exhibits.

And a final word to all those public officials out there who find themselves stymied in these four ways by their own traffic engineers. I have some simple advice: You’re the boss. There is nothing that requires the values of the engineering profession to dominate your city. There is nothing that requires you to place an engineer in charge of your design process (I’ve recommended in the past that you don’t). There is nothing that requires you to maintain hierarchies and silos that give the engineering mindset a veto on the options considered by your city government.

There are tons of great engineers out there ready to work with you, not against you. I recommend you go and get one of them.