Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town by Charles L. Marohn Jr.

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Posted 2023-04-30

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Two violent traffic crashes frame this book. In the first, a tragic automobile-pedestrian crash outside the Springfield, Massachusetts library results in the death of a young girl to whom Charles Marohn dedicates this book. At the end of the book, the author is involved in an automobile crash that leaves him shaken and recovering from a concussion. Finally, the author admits to being "deeply ashamed" (p. 232) for having played a part in setting the stage for these crashes.

This book presents the personal account of the author's decades of experience as a Professional Engineer and city planner. This book is a continuation of his previous book, Strong Towns. As he recounts, he risks considerable professional disdain in critiquing some of the approaches of the transportation engineering profession. Nevertheless, his account is a sobering reminder of how assumptions have become embedded in routine decisions about constructing our transportation infrastructure and how difficult it is to question these assumptions.

His central thesis is stated clearly on page 14:

"As I will demonstrate in the upcoming chapters, if we align the design approach with the values of the community, we can reduce death, create places of greater prosperity, spend less money on transportation, and get a better functioning system. We can do all of this, but only if we address the underlying values of the design process. To build a strong and prosperous community, local leaders must assert their community's values and see them reflected in the transportation system."

This book provides great insight by answering many questions about how our city streets and roads are designed and built. Marohn echos many themes of urban criticism from decades past and provides a highly-insightful discussion of public transit in chapter nine (pp. 162-163).

I took these main points from this book:

  1. Traditional street design practices follow codes with embedded values, assumptions, and processes that cumulate in human injury and the dislocation of the human habitat (pp. 4-5). For example, the design process for a street considers speed and traffic volume but not policy decisions or input by nonprofessionals or elected officials on these quantities (pp. 5-6). The general public, as shown in Table 1.1 (p. 8), prefers a priority on safety, cost, traffic volume, and speed. The engineering beliefs are that speed, accommodating automobiles over people, reaching distant locations by automobile, and prioritizing growth over wealth is "orthodoxy." (p. 12). The Strong Towns approach empowers elected officials and nonprofessionals to have input on decisions about value and priority and allows engineers, using value-free descriptions, to perform their technical work (pp. 13-14).

  2. The differentiation the author makes between a street ("platforms for building wealth") and roads ("high-speed connections between productive places") is critical to understanding the problems that crop up when a lower-productive amalgam of each--a "stroad"--is created resulting in high costs, low financial productivity, and increased danger for all users (p. 29). Based on community input, the Strong Towns approach empowers local officials to decide if a thoroughfare should follow the distinct performance characteristics of a street or a road (but not both).

  3. Reflecting their distinctive purposes, streets and roads must each follow distinct design practices whereby road design can be forgiving by providing buffers and features to help the driver with safety, while street design must do the opposite and expose the driver to cues of discomfort when traveling unsafely in a mixed environment, which includes people outside of the automobile (p. 43).

  4. The distinct nature of road design should be for an 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85% of the drivers will operate with good conditions) and involve a level of service (LOS) that represents good travel time, not just high design speed. Roads must be not turned into stroads through excessive access (p. 62, p. 59.) These LOS measurements should not be used for streets (p. 62), which have a different priority to serve people in a mixed environment.

  5. Streets are part of the human habitat and provide access to places consisting of structures (p. 67) that people use and thus need to be designed for heightened driver awareness (p. 77). The speed on streets can be reduced by changing the street's geometry--for example, with traffic cones--until 85% of the drivers are operating at a neighborhood speed, such as 15 miles per hour. (p. 77). This iterative process differs from the standard engineering approach in which the speed limits are raised until they match the speed the drivers feel comfortable traveling along unmodified streets (p. 77).

  6. Traffic congestion can be alleviated not by increasing capacity (which works circularly to induce more congestion) but by allowing local destinations to exist for people to access using shorter trips or by walking or biking (p. 99). By addressing congestion (which is a signal that people want to be out and going places) through local placemaking and alternative transportation, congestion "is an ally driving investment" (p. 99). Since modeling traffic is imprecise, a more productive focus should be to "acknowledge the dynamic nature of traffic and build systems that are adaptable than to make large investments based on models." (p. 99).

  7. Street intersections are "a focal point for wealth-building" and can be designed for continuous (low-speed) traffic flow by using roundabouts, traffic circles, and shared space (p. 118). Traffic signals create start-and-stop conditions and encourage an aggressive environment. The author showed how he achieved average speeds on different days of 18 mph to 20 mph and even less than ten mph on the road posted at 30 mph because of traffic signals. The author acknowledges that he may seem "a Joker level of sadistic" (p. 103) when he calls for eliminating traffic signals in favor of continuous traffic flow techniques.

  8. The author's experience of transportation funding, which he characterizes as "institutionalized dishonesty" because it ignores induced traffic and mischaracterizes the real meaning of time savings and jobs supported (p. 139), leads him to support a compromise project for federal and state governments: funding stroad conversion (p. 141). This project would sort and rebuild stroads as either distinct roads or streets. Streets should be the sole domain of local government. As part of his discussion of funding, the author points out the hypocrisy of "auto-centric libertarians" who equate the automobile with individual freedom and do not critique automobile projects like they do transit projects (p. 141).

  9. Public Transit is a "wealth-building multiplier" when done correctly (p. 147). Anti-transit and pro-transit advocates often speak past each other (p. 156), but Marohn states unequivocally: "The proper role of transit is as a wealth accelerator for local communities." (p. 156). More specifically, transit overcomes the geometry of streets by alleviating the need to store cars at destinations and augments the "success of human congestion" (p. 158). In addition, building productive places is crucial to transit success (p. 157). Marohn's conclusion on pages 162-163 is an insightful summary of public transit's role as a wealth multiplier and how it can be funded and succeed. For example, he states these points (pp. 162-163):

    • "Deploying transit is a primary strategy for building wealth within a community."
    • "Transit builds wealth when it is deployed as a road connecting two productive places or as a street as part of a strategy to build wealth incrementally within a place."
    • "Transit investments must be scaled to the places that they are serving, increasing in intensity as the place increases in productivity."
    • "Advocates who want to improve transit need to focus primarily on building a productive place."
    • "For transit to build wealth on a road, it must be given space and priority to provide faster travel times than auto-based trips."
    • "For transit to build wealth on a street, it must be given adequate space and receive priority at intersections. It must also be part of a reliable network of high-frequency service, making it unnecessary, and ultimately burdensome, to travel streets by automobile."
    • "On streets, transit is used to overcome the geometric limitations of automobiles, allowing greater investment to occur on the same street framework."
    • "Successful transit provides a high level of service by crowding out the automobile and auto-related infrastructure."
    • "All transit trips are also walking or biking trips, so a transit strategy must emphasize building great streets. Use Street Design Teams to identify urgent struggles and respond incrementally."
    • "Investments in public transit are an ineffective way to alleviate poverty.... by making public transit an indispensable mechanism for building wealth within the conununity."

    Marohn recognizes the value of the pre-automobile days of train stations and river docks:

    "Within a city, transit was not about connecting places across distances but in building wealth within a place. It was designed to make being in the city more convenient and comfortable. The wealthier and more successful the place became, the more the demand for street-based transit and the greater the intensity of the transit that could be provided." Streetcar systems provided "dense webs of transit" in large cities and even in smaller towns. (pp. 151-152).

    The author questions why "Enormous sums are spent on transportation infrastructure, yet next to nothing is spent connecting transit stops to the community." (p. 147). He observes this around the Springfield, Massachusetts, train station. He states: "Instead of marrying people and place, it is as if designers of the transit system focus only on the actual transportation device, not the experience of the rider and not the quality of the place being served." (p. 147).

  10. Transportation fads are introduced periodically but do not help people as much as simple human locomotion through walking (p. 165-166), biking (169-171), and even scooters (p. 171). The author dismisses rideshare as "merely a taxi service using an app with a business model that exploits excess market liquidity and Americans who are bad at math (p. 174)." He critiques the emerging fads such as self-driving cars, boring technology, hyperloop, and flying cars. He acknowledges the appeal of high-speed rail but wishes to approach it from the bottom-up, in Strong Towns way: become better at regular-speed rail, including financing and sustaining it. Build "worthy" places and then connect them by higher-speed rail.

  11. Traffic enforcement and routine traffic stops can be addressed by dividing responses between serious and nonserious and only then enacting automated enforcement devices (p. 199). The author decries the danger of routine traffic stops and how they can potentially escalate quickly to violence.

  12. The transportation profession can no longer rely on "seemingly unlimited budgets and latitude" to solve complex problems (p. 217) but for engineers to adapt to a "deeper understanding of complexity" and even "less of a physics mentality and more of a biological approach" (p. 218). Marohn provides a 11-question discussion list on page 215 that challenges the field of transportation engineering.

  13. In the final chapter, the author makes clear his confession: "I designed and built dangerous stroads, all while convincing myself that I was making things safer." (p. 231).

    Marohn confesses (p. 231-232):

    • "I pushed politicians to spend more, using my insider knowledge to limit their options and force their hand in pursuit of what I felt was the greater good."
    • "I allied with those who wanted wider streets, faster speeds, and greater volume because we had shared interests that I believed were enlightened."
    • "... I joined with others in my profession to ridicule and marginalize those who disagreed with the standard industry approach. I was not open to criticism, reassuring myself that any truly valid critique would come from within the profession."
    • "This was all wrong, and I am deeply ashamed of the many years I spent pursuing this approach."
    • "This book is the byproduct of countless hours of research, discernment, and dialogue that have given me a new perspective. Even now, I know that there is more to uncover, and more people who have important insights to add."

The "more to uncover" indicates that perhaps more engineers may come forward to reveal the assumptions and biases that have influenced how our current state of transportation has developed and is developing. Historical analyses have shown how an automobile-centric emphasis grew throughout the 20th century (Kay, 1997; Kunstler, 1993; Kenworthy, 2017; Newman & Kenworthy, 2021), and became encoded on a technological-deterministic template for cities (Norton, 2008; Norton, 2021). Marohn's revolutionary contribution is to show, from the bottom up, how engineers have played a role.

While the debate and enthusiasm over the Strong Towns approach will continue, Charles Marohn's confession in this book is all the more poignant as framed by the tragic automobile crashes starting and ending the book. Marohn states that his purpose in writing this confession is that "I am trying to reach the person who knows something is wrong but just can't put their finger on it." (p. 232) With more action by people who question the assumptions of transportation engineering, it may be possible to identify what is wrong and work for solutions. This book goes a long way toward those goals.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©