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Special: 'Recovering engineer' explains why streets prioritize cars over pedestrians

 November 16, 2021 at 12:31 PM PST

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Hi podcast listeners. This is a special bonus episode of San Diego news. Now I'm KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen here with an extended version of my interview with Chuck Marone. He's president of the nonprofit strong towns and author of the new book, confessions of a recovering engineer. His book offers a really insightful look at everything he sees wrong with his profession and how traffic engineers too often design streets to accommodate the most cars possible at the highest speeds possible here that conversation after the break, welcome back, Andrew Bowen here again, and I'm very happy to present to you my interview with Chuck Marone. So you chose to title your book confessions of a recovering engineer. What are you recovering from?

Speaker 2: (00:50)

I'm recovering from decades a decade or more of, of, uh, of indoctrination. I mean really when you become a civil engineer, when you become a municipal engineer and you start doing things like traffic and sewer and water and all that stuff, there's a certain approach that is given to you that you inherit. Uh, you're given a book of standards you're given like, you know, the best practices of a profession and you have this expectation to follow that, particularly if you want to get ahead. And so for me, there was a certain, uh, kind of mystique that came with joining this profession and learning those things and, and, and adopting them as like the way things should be, uh, that I had to unlearn that I really had to go through and get out of my brain. And so that's what I'm recovering from. I'm recovering from a system that was given to me that I adopted wholehearted, that I had to sense unlearn and deprogram my brain from

Speaker 1: (01:49)

Throughout your book. You keep returning to this one, particularly horrific crash that happened on December 3rd, 2014 and Springfield, Massachusetts. Tell us what happened there.

Speaker 2: (01:59)

Yeah, a mom, uh, with two little girls was leaving the library in Springfield, Massachusetts, uh, late at night that has got a great Dr. Seuss section in the library. They walked out the front door and they did what literally dozens of people do every day. I sat on this place the day, that day in the morning and watch people walk back and forth. Uh, they crossed the street, uh, headed to the parking lot, which is directly across this four lane highway. That's been built through the middle of the city. Um, they did this, uh, in kind of the most natural of ways and a car came along, struck them, uh, put the one girl in the hospital and then killed seven-year-old destiny Gonzales. Um, this has happened many times at this location. And in fact, we're speaking today on, uh, November 12th, 2021 on November 11th, yesterday. Uh, one of the employees of the library out of the library was walking across the street in this exact same location to get in her car. And she was struck and killed in the same spot. And so this is an intersection that, or this is a crossing, uh, that has a long history of taking lives and, uh, a long history of mismatch between the design of the street and the goals and objectives of the engineer in this case, and the health and safety of this community.

Speaker 1: (03:26)

You dig into so many of the different aspects of this particular location and the corridor of state street, where it's located that you think contributed to this really tragic death of a seven year old girl named some of those things. What makes the street so unsafe? Yeah.

Speaker 2: (03:43)

Uh, you know, it, it all comes down to the fact that this is designed as a corridor to move cars quickly. And because it's designed as a quarter to move cars quickly, it draws upon all of the kind of engineering knowledge of how to build highways, understand where this is. This is a city street in a neighborhood, a neighborhood that really predates even the 18 hundreds in terms of its original conception. Uh, but, but was fully developed in an age when people walked. So all the neighborhoods are designed to be walkable. All the places are, uh, you know, within walking distance. And, and this is a population that today is on the, uh, on the further end of the poverty spectrum. There's a lot of impoverished people living in this downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods and a very low percentage of them are auto owners.

Speaker 2: (04:35)

So a lot of them walked everywhere. They go and imposed on this neighborhood where you have a lot of people walking. A lot of people who have no other alternative to walk is this street that has been converted into a high speed traffic corridor, uh, against the wishes of the neighborhood, against the wishes of the people who are there all in a, like, uh, uh, of short-sighted attempt to try to appeal to development out on the edge and people who may, you know, drive in to the center of the city and like shower it with some kind of love and affection before it leaving as quickly as possible. It's a really bad economic development strategy. It's a really bad community development strategy. It's brutally expensive to build. And it has just all kinds of negative impacts on the people who actually live in the core of Springfield.

Speaker 1: (05:25)

A lot of these aspects that make a street very unsafe or inhospitable for pedestrians, I learned from your book are actually designed to be safe, at least from the perspective of an old school traffic engineers. So describe for me what a safe street looks like from that perspective. And what do you see wrong with that picture?

Speaker 2: (05:45)

When you're designing a highway, there's some very like clear things that you do to make the highway safer for drivers. Uh, you widen out the lanes you add in recovery areas. You add in zones, you basically create a lot of buffer so that the driver of the vehicle has a lot of room to react to things that might happen has a lot of spacing. And basically you give them a lot of, uh, reaction time and room you from a design standpoint, forgive the mistakes that a driver would make by creating all this buffer. When you bring that mindset into an urban area, what happens is that urban areas are full of complexity. They're full of automobiles. You know, that's randomly stop or turn or cut across traffic. You have cars entering and exiting the driving stream all the time. You have, particularly in this area in Springfield, you have people walking, people walking across the street in crosswalks, not in crosswalks.

Speaker 2: (06:46)

You have people on bikes. You have people in wheelchairs, you have the dog that gets loose and runs across the street. You have the kid who chases the kickball. So you have all of this complexity, the simultaneous that complexity, what you have done with the street design is actually signaled to drivers. We've got your back. We have provided you with lots of buffer room with lots of capacity. So you can anticipate things that might happen. You can anticipate and react to it. You've got all kinds of safety factor. And the reality is, is that is the wrong message to send a drivers, because what drivers do in, in an urban area, when you give them lots of room, is they speed up and they speed up. Not because they're deviance or not, because they're horrible people or not because they don't care. But because driving is a, uh, an activity that from a cognitive standpoint, you, don't hard focus on. It's actually, what's called a system. One activity that you do just almost in voluntarily without really thinking. And we've just, we're signaling the wrong things to drivers. We're signaling to drivers that this is a simple environment like a highway. And so you don't have to pay really rigid, close attention. And most of the time, that's very true, but in these random occurrences where things are not where we expect them to be tragedy occurs, and it occurs far too often,

Speaker 1: (08:04)

One small example of this sort of car centric, planning, and infrastructure. That really surprised me, that I didn't know is that those metal poles that you have, where you put push a pedestrian cross button to trigger the crosswalk sign signal, they're designed to collapse when a car hits them, they're not built to withstand that kind of impact. Why?

Speaker 2: (08:26)

Because cars go off the road with such frequency in which such force that drivers were being injured. I mean, if you look at a highway design, one of the things we do at a highway design is we create a clear zone because a car going down the roadway at high speeds has a lot of kinetic energy built up inside of it. A lot of force, uh, going down the road. And if the car goes off the roadway and hits, let's say a tree or a pole in the ground, um, and those things don't give way, like they don't absorb that kinetic energy. What happens is that all that energy is transferred to the individual is it's transferred to the vehicle. And the individual in the vehicle absorbs it. That's where you see the crash test dummy in the automobile commercials that is traumatic. It results in, you know, brain injury at, at the very least, sometimes bodily physical injury to people.

Speaker 2: (09:21)

And so what we do is we, we eliminate objects from the clear zone, because if a car does go off the roadway, we want that kinetic energy to dissipate with like friction and the tires on the ground before you actually strike something, okay, go into an urban area. Again. Now we've signaled to drivers that we got your back. You know, you, we've created all this buffer room for you. And so a driver's driving through this area and they go off the roadway. Well, we also have a traffic signal and we have traffic. We have lighting poles and other things that are very close and we can't have people just running into them. Because again, as a driver, all that force would be transferred to the driver. So we make it a breakaway pole. We make it. So the poll actually collapses and we'll absorb that energy.

Speaker 2: (10:05)

And from the perspective of the traffic engineer, this makes perfect sense because they're very worried about, you know, how the design will impact the driver. And if the driver will be safe in this design, for some reason, it never translates into their brains. And I don't know why, because it's a horrendous when you recognize it, that that pole that is designed to give way and protect the driver has a person standing right next to it. By design, they have a little button you're supposed to press, and, you know, one can only conclude, and this is a grotesque way to say it is that the traffic engineer doesn't worry about that because the human is breakaway. The human will break away and not create trauma for the driver. Now the human will be destroyed. Like the person standing there is going to get killed and going to be maimed. Uh, but for some reason, that's not the design consideration. The design consideration is how is the driver going to react to this?

Speaker 1: (11:01)

You opened your book with a scene from earlier in your career. It's actually sort of not an actual conversation that happened, but a sort of composite of many different conversations you had with residents who you were meeting with to, uh, go over plans to in this particular case, widen a road, uh, that's right in front of their home. And this person you're meeting with, isn't too happy with it. They have a lot of questions for you. Can you just describe that interaction and what you think you got wrong?

Speaker 2: (11:30)

Yeah, well, I, I can do more than describe. I mean, I made a video of this. It's called conversation with an engineer and it's been watched like 400,000 times or something like that.

Speaker 3: (11:40)

And you are planning to improve my street. What will this mean for my neighborhood? We plan to correct deficiencies in the grade, as well as deficiencies in the curvature of the existing alignment. We also plan to enhance the clear zone in order to bring the street up to an acceptable and safe standard. So you are going to make the street more safe. Yes, of course. And how are you going to make the street more safe? Well, first we are going to correct deficiencies in the grade, in the alignment. What does that mean?

Speaker 2: (12:09)

Boring video yet? All kinds of people have watched it because it describes a situation that many, many, many of us have experienced an engineer coming out, uh, having a street project. They are doing presenting it as kind of defacto. This is the way, you know, I'm here to answer your questions and essentially have a dialogue, but the dialogue is very one way. Here's why we're doing this. Here's why we're doing that. I'm sorry. It will affect you, but I wouldn't play in your front yard. If I were you, I wouldn't walk across the street. It wouldn't be safe. Like I, you know, and, and what you get out of it. And I think the most, the most eye-opening part of this is that the engineer actually talks themselves into a self justifying circle. Um, they start off, you know, with, with, with one explanation. And by the end of the conversation, their explanation, you know, justifies the initial set of conditions.

Speaker 2: (13:00)

It's, you know, we have to build the street because of traffic. Well, traffic is coming because of the, uh, new development we're having what we're doing, new developments, so we can afford to fix the streets. And it is this kind of crazy situation where the individual, in this case, a woman, you know, avatar, uh, you know, asking these very simple questions, uh, has it right in their gut. They know something is wrong. Um, but the impenetrable kind of, you know, barrier that the engineers put around them to protect themselves with codes and standards and practices and, and beliefs, uh, is just impenetrable for the person. And it becomes painful to watch

Speaker 1: (13:41)

Andrew Bowen here. Again, we've got to take a short break, but coming up, Chuck explains why we have to embrace congestion. And we've got a lightning round of things. Chuck likes and dislikes stay with us. We're back with more of my interview with Chuck Marone, author of the new book, confessions of a recovering engineer. One of the themes in this book, I think is the fact that street design has gotten undemocratic. You have traffic engineers with a very high level of technical knowledge and training, making decisions about how many lanes the street should have, how wide the lanes should be, where crosswalks are necessary. And sometimes elected officials who are the, you know, technically in charge of the government. Don't always have an easy time getting those people to make changes. Can you just tell me more about that?

Speaker 2: (14:34)

Yeah. I feel like democratic and undemocratic is not exactly the right framing. And let me, let me say it like this. I feel like the framing is that a complicated versus complex framing and that's a, there's a little more nuance to it because I, I don't necessarily think that like street design should be put up to a vote like, you know, or, or that everybody who lives in a neighborhood should have a veto power over what we do, you know, but what we've done is we've taken complex urban environments and we've imposed on them through the street design process, a very like rigid set of orthodoxies that are complicated, but they're not complex. They don't respond to all the local nuance, adapt change, evolve over time. They're very rigid. So your street in front of your house, my street in front of my house would both be subject to the manual manual on uniform traffic control devices, as would the street two blocks over in the commercial area, as would the street with nobody on it.

Speaker 2: (15:34)

There's a rigid orthodoxy that is applied, that is unable to, uh, and we can call it undemocratic or, or, you know, what have you, but unable to respond in an adaptive way to the nuances of a neighborhood. If we look at Springfield where we started this conversation, there is a neighborhood with a high level of poverty, a high degree of people without vehicles and a high degree of walking the design for that street should be very, very, very different than what you get three miles out on the edge of Springfield, where most people own a car. Most people are commuters. Most people drive everywhere. They go yet. As an engineering profession, we have created this like rigid orthodoxy of street design, where we focus on the traffic flow of the automobile, as opposed to the environment in which we're designing it. And that's where I think you get a reaction that feels undemocratic. I would say it's non-responsive, which is really more of a reflection of us trying to take this really complex thing and simplify it down to one or two variables. How do we move a high volume of traffic at speed street streets are more complex than that.

Speaker 1: (16:47)

So for the sake of conversation, let's stick with this sort of binary of democratic or undemocratic, because I think a lot of elected officials want to believe that the process should be democratic and that regular people should be involved in these types of decisions. However, I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed plans to improve pedestrian safety, improve bike safety, or access to public transit. All of those plans get watered down or sometimes abandoned altogether because you've got residents in that neighborhood who don't want them to happen. And typically they're just concerned about congestion, getting worse, parking, being harder to find. And so when that's the case in our attempts at sort of making street design more collaborative with regular people, uh, when that leads to worse outcomes, from the perspective of pedestrian safety, which should be our goal, what do you do then? How do you fix that? Yeah,

Speaker 2: (17:42)

I think you're identifying something that is, you know, deeply messed up. And you, you went back to this democratic undemocratic framing, and I feel like our response to that problem has been to try to make things quote, unquote, more democratic. And I feel like that's the wrong approach. It's kind of why I've pushed back on it. Um, I just got back from a trip to California and Oregon, and these are places that, you know, in all of the U S have probably the most democratic in terms of, uh, you know, 50% plus one responsiveness to the public. Um, but, but the, probably the most, uh, out of alignment with the public in terms of its actual like implementation of things, they, they can do, they can get 50% plus one to make the $500 million bus, rapid transit investment in this place. But they can't like organize around putting it across walk if it would slow traffic down by, you know, 2%.

Speaker 2: (18:40)

Um, this to me is Democrat. Democracy is like scaled to the wrong. It's applied at the wrong scale. When we talk to people, everybody wants traffic on their local neighborhood street to be slow, uh, and respect them and respect their kids and respect their neighborhood and their neighbors. But everybody wants to be able to, when they get to the next neighborhood over, get quickly to the place they want to be. And so if you do like put up a democratic vote to something, that's what you will get. You will get the person from the next neighborhood coming over and arguing, we shouldn't make this street safe because, or they won't say it that way, but they'll say we shouldn't, you know, slow down traffic because I got to get through here to get to my place of work. But if you go then to their neighborhood, everyone will come over to that one.

Speaker 2: (19:28)

And when they're trying to do something and say, you can't do that. It's the, it's the way's problem in a way, you know, the, the, the app, everybody likes ways when they're trying to get somewhere, but not when it brings traffic through their neighborhood. What we really need to do to get around this problem, uh, is make our street design process and really our whole local government more, uh, horizontally responsive streets need to be designed block by block, by block, or at the very least like neighborhood by neighborhood, uh, with the values of building productive places, actually building wealth within a place as being our primary motivation. How we, how do we build great places where people want to live places where people want to be in where humans outside of an automobile are thriving in that environment. And in that sense, uh, the throughput of traffic becomes a far less concern and engineers actually become like supporters to a process w you know, one technical skill among many that are brought to bear, as opposed to like the ones who are doing the project and allowing all of us to have a comment on it.

Speaker 2: (20:34)

I think our street design process needs to become much more bottom up, and I don't necessarily equate that with democratic, but I do equate it with a horizontal orientation around where people struggle as opposed to a vertical orientation around a policy objective of moving vehicles quickly and balancing that in some type of superficial way with public input.

Speaker 1: (20:57)

What are the common themes that you find in cities that have made a lot of progress toward better street design and safer street design? What are the ingredients for success?

Speaker 2: (21:07)

That is a good question. And I think that the very first one is a commitment to, uh, it's not, uh, it's almost like a lack of commitment, a lack of adherence, or like rigid orthodoxy to kind of the standard plate approach. Um, I see, I see a lot of places that want to do things differently, and then they run up against the rules and regulations and the ones that are very, um, dogmatic about like what the rules and regulations are. They get stuck at that point. They struggle. They're like, well, we can't do that dot, or we can't do this dot, and the ones that thrive are the ones not that say, well, throw out the rule book and, you know, be careless and like, who really cares. They are like, okay, here's an obstacle. We've run up against, how do we get around this obstacle?

Speaker 2: (22:06)

How do we find a local adaptation to this? And a lot of times that involves changing staff. A lot of times that involves creating a different channel for where this workflow would go. But a lot of times it just requires us to sit down and collaborate. I'm worried about liability. Okay. How do we document this in a way where we can express the intent and why we think this is a, a better approach from a public health safety standpoint and, and get that done well, okay. We can bring in our city attorney and we can do that. And we can come up with a different way of, of doing this and framing this, the cities that don't take, can't, it can't be done for an answer are the ones that I see doing the most, uh, you know, incredible things. Really

Speaker 1: (22:53)

San Diego has set some very ambitious goals with cutting back on driving. It's adopted a vision zero goal to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. It, uh, recently, or is in the process of updating its climate action plan, which calls for a half of all trips in the city to be made via biking, walking, or public transit by 2035. But I don't think city leaders have a very clear picture of how they're going to get there exactly how they'll accomplish that. What do you think would have to change and how would our streets and our neighborhoods look differently? If that is the goal?

Speaker 2: (23:31)

I mean, let me give two things right off the bat. Number one, uh, congestion as a problem would need to just go away. People would have to accept congestion as not a problem, but as actually a of the system that we built, a system that needs to change, if you're going to meet those goals and you would actually have to embrace congestion for what it is, which is a sign of a demand for local alternatives and buy local alternatives, that kind of gets to the second part, which is in order to reach these goals, which I think are very good goals, very worthy goals. Um, what you need to have is not a transportation approach. You need to have a neighborhood development approach because to get to that goal requires people to have alternatives near them, that they can walk to alternatives near them, that they can bike to it.

Speaker 2: (24:22)

Doesn't, you're not going to get there by taking the, the Strode environment that you've created today, or the highway environment you've created it and like appendage a trail on the side of it, or, you know, appendage like an overpass to get people to walk over there. That's not, that's not the way it's going to work. The only way you get to that goal is to actually build neighborhoods, neighborhoods where people can replace their longer distance trips with local trips. So I need milk. I need bread. I need to get my haircut. I need to do, you know, whatever basic like thing I do on a typical day, that's gotta be, there has to be an alternative for that locally. It doesn't mean you can't get in your car and drive to the big box grocer, but it means that you can also get that trip done locally. And so you can balance those objectives. Do I want to spend half an hour in traffic congestion? Do I want to pay 10 cents more for milk? That's a fair trade off choice that people are not being presented with today. If you want to get to a point where people can, um, walk and bike at scale, uh, it actually has to be a neighborhood development strategy first and a transportation strategy, second, as opposed to the other way around. Okay.

Speaker 1: (25:31)

So many of the problems that you diagnose in this book are really with the engineering profession itself, the values, the culture, the educational curriculum. Do you see that changing?

Speaker 2: (25:43)

Yeah, I do. And I do because, uh, you know, the big impetus of this book or the big emphasis of this book is for people to recognize that they don't need engineers to make this stuff change. Like they literally, I think a lot of times we're paralyzed and we think, well, we need a big, we need a big program from the state to do this, or we need a big federal push to do this, or we need the engineering profession to somehow change. And the reality is is that you need none of those things, any city that wants to change right now can do it, despite all of those other rigid structures, not changing within. And I think as soon as we get to the point where enough places are doing that, and now places are taking the initiative on their own, uh, engineers will adapt to this.

Speaker 2: (26:22)

I mean, I do this thing when I go out and speak in places where I go through the design process and the way that engineers approach street design, and they approach it from a standpoint of, you know, what is the design speed? What is the volume of traffic? What is the manual say that say is safe. And then how much does this cost? And I have people go through and identify their own values. And it's the reciprocal of the design approach that we have. The reality is, is I've done that with groups of engineers and they're also the reciprocal. So the way engineers go about designing streets is not actually the way most of them would do it. If they were given the freedom to actually practice engineering and not just rigidly apply a standard orthodoxy that had been given to them. And so I think as soon as the profession grasp that, that they can, they can make more money doing better projects, creating more value for their community at less cost per project, uh, and actually be engineers. I think that a lot of them will get on board and find this to be a really productive way to practice. They're calling.

Speaker 1: (27:24)

I'm wondering if you'll do a lightning round with me, I give you, I give you a particular feature, something to do with three-tier infrastructure and you tell me, is it good? Is it bad? And you can qualify it, you know, with a brief description of why you think so. Okay. Yep. Go for it. Begged buttons.

Speaker 2: (27:40)

Oh my gosh, this is so horrible and demeaning it. If you're building a place where you expect people to cross the street, you should design it for people across the street with automobile throughput as an afterthought,

Speaker 1: (27:52)

One way streets, uh,

Speaker 2: (27:55)

If they're used in terms of moving traffic, like increasing mobility, wretched, horrible, never use them. If they're used as a design feature to actually slow down traffic and, and, and build a better place, then I think they can work really well.

Speaker 1: (28:11)

Red light cameras and other types of automated traffic enforcement.

Speaker 2: (28:16)

I reject them wholly in, unless they're done after a street redesign process, um, they should be used to catch deviance people who are, uh, you know, destructive and, and, and doing, you know, endangering others. But as just a way to say, like, here's our bad street design, let's overcome this with a red light camera. Uh, it's just like predatory governments. It's the worst of all worlds

Speaker 1: (28:42)


Speaker 2: (28:43)

Uh, it depends on where they're at. Okay.

Speaker 1: (28:46)

I mean, okay, what makes a good media and what makes a bad median well,

Speaker 2: (28:50)

And medians in a Boulevard design can be absolutely beautiful. And when they're paired with like calm traffic and like a refuge for people to cross there, they're absolutely wonderful. So often though, they're just designed as like a way to separate traffic, to keep everything moving much more quickly. And in that case, like why bother

Speaker 1: (29:08)

Electric scooters? I

Speaker 2: (29:10)

Love them. They're fun, you know, and I think, you know, when you're talking to like mobility in a place, uh, anything you can do that allows people to access more options from their place without getting into an automobile, uh, should be looked at as a net, good

Speaker 1: (29:25)

Autonomous vehicles,

Speaker 2: (29:27)

Uh, way too much hype for what they actually would provide. I mean, I, right now we could deploy autonomous vehicles on interstates between cities and they would save lots of lives and they would be really great. We can't do it. And we won't do it because we're insisting that autonomous vehicles be able to operate at the neighborhood level and they can't, and they won't until we lower speeds. And if we had speeds that were 15, 20 miles an hour, autonomous vehicles would work just fine. But the reality is, is if we had speeds that we would need an autonomous vehicles because humans can operate them just fine and safe at that speed

Speaker 1: (29:59)

Ride, hailing apps like Uber and Lyft,

Speaker 2: (30:01)

Uh, I find them to be convenient. I feel like there again, if we can allow people to live without a vehicle, uh, we actually change and transform a neighborhood. And so I feel like Uber and Lyft, and what have you are like gateway drugs to better places

Speaker 1: (30:20)

Stop signs?

Speaker 2: (30:22)

Uh, Y I mean, I, I, I, there are places where there, there are a good temporary bandaid to help, but the reality is, is we should be able to navigate cities at slow enough speeds where stop signs are just inoperative or unnecessary.

Speaker 1: (30:39)

Right. Well, that was it. I've been speaking with Chuck Marone, president of strong towns and author of confessions of a recovering engineer. He'll be giving a talk at the San Diego history center in Balboa park on Thursday, November 18th at 4:00 PM. Chuck, thank you so much,

Speaker 2: (30:54)

Q I'm really excited to get back to San Diego. It's always a fun time.

In this special bonus episode of San Diego News Now: Chuck Marohn is president of the nonprofit Strong Towns and author of the new book "Confessions of a Recovering Engineer," in which he picks apart everything that he sees wrong with his profession. Too often, he says, streets are designed to accommodate as many cars as possible at the fastest speed possible. Pedestrian and bike safety are often an afterthought. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen spoke with Marohn ahead of his planned talk on Thursday, Nov. 18 at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.