Conversation With a Traffic Engineer

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Sometime in 2010, I had the great pleasure to watch a highly amusing, and for me, an extremely accurate, portrayal of a mother having a conversation with conventional traffic engineer about a proposed “improvement” to her neighborhood street.

The video can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9BUyWVg1xI

The engineer uses a lot of common transportation jargon and euphemisms to describe how the proposed road modification would be an “improvement,” but the mother rightly questions how widening a road and speeding up traffic would be an “improvement” or “increase safety” and be helpful economically.

A good friend of mine, who is a traffic engineer who “gets it” (he is one of the good guys), watched the video, and noted that “this was sort of true 10 or 15 years ago, but not anymore, except perhaps in a small number of places.”  He felt that “the biggest villains here are the planners (both land use and  transportation), not the engineer.” That “engineers simply serve to ‘solve the problem given,’” and “the problem is given to them by elected officials and planners.”

He admitted that “it will take some time to retrain engineers” to solve a transportation problem that is more sustainable and conducive to quality of life, but he insisted that the root of this issue is planning, not engineering.

I responded to his comments by first pointing out that I was quite surprised on the one hand, and encouraged on the other.

In my 20 years as a senior planner (a few years of which were spent writing the long-range city transportation plan) for Gainesville FL, I never once worked with or spoke with a traffic engineer at the city, county, regional planning council, or Florida Dept of Transportation who did not sound precisely like the engineer in the video.

I told my friend I wish I had been working in the places he had been.

I served on the Gainesville Metropolitan Transportation Organization’s “Design Team” for a few years, and each time I voted in a way that was contrary to the views by the engineer in the video, I lost on 9 to 1 or 10 to 1 votes.

My draft transportation plan was largely gutted before it was adopted so that it could express more strongly the views of the engineer in the video.

While none of the traffic engineers I worked with ever sounded different than this cartoon engineer, the planners at the allegedly “progressive” city and county didn’t “get it” either.

Of course, in my experience, the recommendations from the traffic engineers always trumped planner recommendations. Planners don’t have any credibility anymore. Whenever I mentioned that traffic engineers were the de facto planners for Gainesville and most other places, most everyone nodded in agreement.

I told my friend that I understand his point that traffic engineers are typically given the wrong problems to solve. I’m not sure, however, that I know of instances where city planners ever had an opportunity to give traffic engineers problems to solve – maybe they did for site planning. I was a long-range plan/policy/zoning planner.

But I would also say that on quite a few occasions, I was giving planning problems to solve, and often chose to solve what I believed were the real problems, not the problems handed to me. The transportation plan I wrote for Gainesville was an example of that.

I fought and lost a long battle with traffic engineers to convert a one-way pair in Gainesville’s historic downtown neighborhood back to two-way. I also fought and lost battles with city traffic engineers to adopt traditional, walkable, low-speed neighborhood street dimensions adopted by other communities. On a number of occasions, I fought and lost battles with city traffic engineers on turning radii and vision triangles.

Other lost battles: (1) Proximity of trees or street furniture to the curb (the traffic engineers always prevailed to have the trees pulled way back from the street and to usually use quite small trees instead of canopy oak trees). (2) On-street parking on Main Street and University Avenue (the engineers succeeded in mostly keeping such parking off those streets). (3) Trip generation and the “need” for turn lanes (engineers always prevailed in arguing that conventional/excessive car trip generation formulas should be relied on and that detrimental turn lanes at intersections were a necessity – even in low-speed, walkable, compact locations).

I never even made an effort to take on traffic engineers regarding the excessive and counterproductive lane widths they nearly always requested. My pal Mike Byerly, currently a commissioner for Alachua County, regularly loses battles with county traffic engineers on efforts to narrow travel lanes, use roundabouts, or other traffic calming efforts.

I should note as well that Andres Duany and Victor Dover, two of the leading new urban town planners in the nation, had a number of unsuccessful clashes with Gainesville and Alachua County traffic engineers.

I’m deeply sorry that I was working in the transportation Dark Ages during my stint in Gainesville, and told my friend that I envied his opportunity to do otherwise.

But given all this, do traffic engineers carry all the blame for the mess our transportation system has  become, as I suggest in the above few paragraphs?

No.

It is the same old litany I repeat over and over. Elected officials are sworn to represent their community to make it a better place. They have a fair amount of power to request their (planning and traffic engineering) staff make recommendations that are in the public interest (in other words, more power than staff or citizens). They give engineers and planners PERMISSION to make important recommendations. Elected officials, when they are leaders, are willing to take actions that they know will make some (not all) people unhappy. Those who don’t make such decisions generally don’t make anything meaningful happen.

Citizens are responsible for keeping themselves informed on important community issues, and voting for quality elected officials. Ultimately, it is voters who decide if the community will elect people who “get it” regarding transportation (and other issues). Since elected officials, in turn, have a fair amount of power to direct the actions pursued by staff, one could say that it all starts with citizens.

As many have noted, all three groups (staff, citizens, elected officials) are powerfully affected by an overall system that creates strong influences to perpetuate the ruinous, car-happy world we find ourselves in. The enormous number of car-related corporations shows that much of our economy depends on our being utterly dependent on perpetuating car-dependent sprawl. Engineers, planners, politicians, and citizens are all powerfully influenced by this sprawl machine via advertising, huge campaign contributions, funding for research, local land development regulations, the price of gas and parking for motorists, taxes, subsidies, etc.

Given all of this, we will need to see enormous and often quite painful changes in our world if we expect any meaningful, sustainable, positive transportation actions on the part of citizens, elected officials or engineers/planners. Gasoline, road use and parking prices will need to be a LOT higher, for starters. The cost of widening roads must also be a lot higher, although we are starting to see some parts of the country be “enlightened” about doing the right thing with transportation. Not so much because they were educated by brilliant people or brilliant ideas, but because, for example, there is no longer an ability to be able to afford to widen a road from 6 to 8 lanes.

In summary, I told him, my thoughts are that we are all part of the problem.

Fortunately, I believe that some of the costs of our unsustainable transportation paradigm are starting to influence thinking and actions in a positive way. There are faint hints that a tipping point is starting to be reached.

Only then will mothers, traffic engineers, planners, and elected officials start talking the same language and recommending the same things when discussing road “improvements.”

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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1 Comment

Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

One response to “Conversation With a Traffic Engineer

  1. The video is humorous and really illustrates the engineer way of thinking vs the way the average citizen thinks.

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