traffic engineering ‘profession’

This post is provoked by two articles on the Strong Towns blog: Strong Towns Will Defend Engineers’ Right to Free Speech From the Minnesota Licensing Board, and We Are Holding Engineers Accountable for Dangerous Road Designs. The Engineering Powers That Be Want Us To Shut Up. However, I’m going to go far beyond anything Strong Towns would say. Strong Towns would say that traffic engineers are good people, just working from a flawed set of assumptions and a flawed understanding of what streets are for. I’m not so sure.

Our transportation system, which largely does not work for walkers and bicyclists, and doesn’t work very well for transit users, was designed by traffic engineers. Our transportation system kills 43,000 people a year in the US, and injures far, far more. Not to mention climate change, which in California is largely the result of our transportation system (57% of GHGs). Not to mention the asthma and other health problems of the kids who live near freeways and arterial roadways. Not to mention… well, you get the idea. The list could be very, very long. Not all of this is the fault of traffic engineers, but I’m saying most of it is. What other profession gets away with killing so many people, and harming far more, and shirks responsibility for it? A little education and a little enforcement will solve the problem? Bullshit.

I have long questioned the use of ‘traffic engineer’ and ‘professional’ in the same phase. Traffic engineering is more akin to quackery. Give us all your money, and we’ll design and build something that will make you happy! Oh, it didn’t, well, give us the rest of your money and we’ll fix the thing that didn’t work. Yeh, we know that what we design doesn’t really work to ease congestion or make your life better or safer, but give us some more money, and it will eventually (one more lane lane will fix it). Snake oil!

Traffic engineers fall back on two things in an effort to absolve themselves of responsibility:

  • The MUTCD made me do it. This is akin to that old expression ‘the devil made me do it’. The MUTCD (Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices) was written largely by traffic engineers, and it could be changed by traffic engineers. But when the revision process started, traffic engineers whined loudly about any change that would reduce traffic flow, or increase safety for other users of the roadways. It’s the two-year-old response: if you don’t let me have my way, I’m going to take my ball and go home, and give me your lunch money while you’re at it (sorry, real two-year-olds, to align you with traffic engineers, that’s mean). The MUTCD is full of ‘facts’ that are largely made up by the engineering ‘profession’. There is almost no research to back up what is claimed in the MUTCD. And even if it were a valid document, it doesn’t require that it be followed, it just says, if you are designing something, here is the the best practice that we’ve documented. In California, the Highway Design Manual also makes up ‘facts’ to fit the desires of traffic engineers, and prohibits many safety features because someone imagined that they were unsafe (or slowed traffic).
  • It was the politician’s decision, not ours. But the fact is that politicians almost always follow the recommendations of the traffic engineers. Most politicians don’t have the expertise to question what the engineers suggest, nor do they usually listen to the concerns of the people who will be harmed by projects (unless those harmed are big campaign donors). After all, ribbon cuttings are a path to reelection. If the traffic engineers propose bad solutions, those are almost always what gets implemented.

So, traffic engineers: If you are not working today and every day to fix the problems your profession has created, you are not only part of the problem, you are the problem. If you spend any time working on roadway capacity expansion projects, I ask that you not go into work, that you find a job where your values don’t harm so many people, while sucking the public budget dry and incurring maintenance liabilities that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Traffic engineers have embraced a concept called ‘complete streets’ to a degree that surprised everyone. Not me. How else to fund traffic signals and lighting and new curbs and utilities, except by capturing funds meant for active transportation? As though the other roadway projects didn’t provide enough money, here is another source we can capture.

My attitude towards traffic engineers has been simmering for a long while, and it has boiled over. Why do citizens who just want to travel safely by foot, bicycle, and transit have to fight the designs and desires of traffic engineers? Why do we have to fight for walkable sidewalks? Why do we have to fight for bikeable streets? Why do we have to fight for the money and priorities to run an effective transit system? Why are the roads continuing to deteriorate, while roadway capacity expansion projects receive the bulk of funding? Why? The answer is, largely, the traffic engineering ‘profession’.

Author: Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.

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