Essential reading for HWC’s Jim Rice: “Four Ways Traffic Engineers Thwart Public Will.”


Marohn dissects a situation in Springfield, Massachusetts; it’s about traffic in front of a library, and a clueless board of works, and … you’ll just have to read the whole essay.

Please read it.

Four Ways Traffic Engineers Thwart Public Will, by Charles Marohn (Strong Towns)

 … 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 … 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.

#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 … 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.

#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 … 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.

#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 … 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.