Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town
© 2021 Chuck Marohn
Chuck Marohn is a licensed engineer and urban planner who, in 2008, began sharing his concerns that the current approach to both building and financing the American urban landscape was disastrous. His one-man blog became a national organization devoted to educating and inspiring citizens, civic leaders, developers, and engineers to create better places and Strong Towns. Prompting his profession to do better was a vocation that grew not only out of Marohn’s concern for the world his daughters would navigate and live in as they grew older, but professional shame. As a young engineer, he built bad places and did it with pride, knowing he was following The Standards as laid out in the engineering manuals. Confessions of a Recovering Engineer attacks Those Standards, the overweening confidence the profession has in them, the domineering way in which they are applied, and the results this has had – not just on our urban form, but in fostering social problems like the disconnect between law enforcement and the communities they’re meant to be serving. Although as first glance a book on engineering and social ills might strike the lay reader as potentially too technical to be of interest, Marohn writes as a citizen to fellow citizen, and his subject concerns virtually anyone living in the United States or in places with comparable design, like Canada.
Confessions opens with the tragic story of a young woman and her family who were struck by a drunk driver while crossing Springfield’s State Street in the middle of a large block. The family were crossing mid-block and the driver moving at highway speed for the same reasons: the sheer scale of the block meant that walking through the rainy night to the next intersection with kids in tow was impractical to say the least, and that same scale allowed the driver to achieve highway speeds despite being in an urban environment where pedestrian and crosstraffic activity were common. It has become the norm in American urbanism for suburban streets to be built with the same principles that guide highway construction: wide lanes, gentle curves, broad clearances on either side so that cars that go off the road have space to recover without immediately striking trees, people, bike racks, and those other things people insist on cluttering cities up with. But highways and city streets are two very different forms, Marohn argues: a highway is a road, which is valuable for its ability to connect two or more places. A street is a platform for human and economic activity. Roads and streets are symbiotic, allowing for valuable places to grow and connect to other valuable places, making each the better. The great error engineers have done is attempting to create street-road hybrids, what Marohn calls “stroads”: they are ubiquitous in the United States, and each looks much the same, partially inspiring Jim Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere. Stroads, Marohn writes, are the futon of traffic infrastructure: they attempt to serve two functions at once and serve neither adequately. A stroad like State Street is so dominated by cars moving in aggressive spurts that the cultural and economic activity the dominates pedestrian environments like downtown Sante Fe or St Augustine are diminished – but the amount of crosstraffic and pedestrian activity also inhibits the free flow of traffic along the road, meaning that the vehicles are in a hurry to go nowhere quickly. They rage from light to light in a manner that might be comic if this environment didn’t foster accidents so effectively. Even more of a tragic comedy is the way we build spaces that encourage speed, realize people are speeding, and then spend more money adding speedbumps to slow people down.
Marohn argues that urban engineers have lost sight of the reason we engineer in the first place: it is not for the structure, but for whom the structure serves. Engineers raised on the gospel of creating wealth through road connections assume that the highway standards of roads should be applied everywhere; they prioritize the fast and ‘safe’ flow of traffic regardless of what it does to the human habitats that roads flow through, ignoring the fact that those same human habitats invariably make their roads slower and more dangerous. Most of the danger stems from the sheer unpredictability of the urban environment mixed with the speed of traffic, but there are other complications. One particularly salient example when Marohn was writing was that the scale of urban development in the United States has forced law enforcement to become a motorized, isolated, and spread-out body: instead of beat cops walking neighborhoods and establishing relationships with those they protect, we have created an urban form that makes the only interaction cops have with most people to be the traffic stop – a notoriously dangerous scenario that both cops and many citizens fear, where petty infractions like broken taillights can spiral into violence when both parties assume the worst of the other. Because the design of cities facilitates — encourages — speed, nearly everyone does it, and officers exercise a broad amount of discretion as to who they pull over and who they don’t, greatly increasing the use of profiling. Profiling can be useful, but it can undermine public trust in the police force. Marohn then shifts to examining prospects for improving transportation within cities: he urges city officials to convert stroads into either proper roads or proper streets, and focus on incremental growth instead of massive projects. He also reviews various options for the transportation future, from the practical (walkable cities, bicycles) to the faddish (autonomous electronic vehicles). The good news is that change is possible: State Street is being actively fixed, and Strong Towns recently posted an article on seven other stroads that have been converted to more humane streets.
Confessions is solid reading for citizens who are concerned about dysfunctional, ugly, and dehumanizing urban design. Marohn writes earnestly and largely manages to convey the details of problems without overwhelming lay readers with technical information. Given that I’ve followed Marohn since he was just a dude with a blog, I was eager to read this — and happy to recommend it to others.
Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn
It’s a Sprawl World After all: The Human Costs of Unplanned Growth, Doug Morris
Walkable Cities, Jeff Speck
Happy City, Charles Montgomery
The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of America’s Manmade Landscape, Jim Kunstler
Strong Towns blog
Strong Towns podcasts
Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, Angie Schmitt
Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars, Chris and Melissa Brunlett
A practical example of what Marohn is writing about in regards to design can be found in comparing two cities both 20 minutes from me. Both are on an Alabama state highway, and both change the speed limit within their borders from the highway speed of 55 MPH to 30 MPH. In one, the speed limit is observed by most of the traffic, and even those who exceed it don’t do so by much. In the other, the speed limit is universally ignored unless there’s a police officer near by. I’ll leave you to guess which is which.