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Confessions of a Recovering Traffic Engineer

I used to begin many of my public talks by saying, “Hello, my name is John. I’m a recovering architect.” I was reacting to the same 20th century specialization that the engineer and urbanist Chuck Marohn, author of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (Wiley), found in his field: traffic engineering. We both responded to a Modernist industrial philosophy that produced narrowly focused, ideological professions of specialists.

It reminds me of the time when a rabies vaccine made my dog’s head swell up to what seemed like twice its normal size for about 30 minutes. I’m certainly not an anti-vaxxer, but I do get concerned when a medicine produces such a severe reaction. “Well,” said my friend, the alternative-medicine vet, “the rabies manufacturer can guarantee your dog won’t die of rabies. The side effects may shorten his life, but the manufacturer has done its job.”

In my case, I didn’t like that the Bauhaus and Siegfried Giedion threw away so much architectural richness when they said the “constituent facts” of the modern world limited architecture to the expression of technology and industry. Or that the new “space-time” of our time produced so many anti-urban buildings and developments. In the self-incriminating words of Rem Koolhaas, “The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value.”

“The underlying values of the transportation system are not the American public’s values,” writes Marohn. “They are not even human values. They are values unique to a profession that has been empowered with reshaping an entire continent around a new, experimental idea of how to build a human habitat.”


In Marohn’s case, he couldn’t accept that his profession’s emphasis on traffic flow above all else was ruining the character of cities and towns and needlessly killing people. His book begins with a story about the death of a young girl crossing the street and ends with his own nearly fatal crash. “The underlying values of the transportation system are not the American public’s values,” writes Marohn. “They are not even human values. They are values unique to a profession that has been empowered with reshaping an entire continent around a new, experimental idea of how to build a human habitat.” 

Who cares that our style of living comes at the cost of 40,000 deaths per year, or that the average American has a carbon footprint almost three times as large as a resident of the UK? The job of the traffic engineer is to make traffic flow! It often doesn’t flow, but that’s a story of system failure that’s easy to understand: if everyone drives everywhere for everything, you can’t build enough roads. In fact, building bigger roads leads to bigger traffic jams. Think of my dog’s poor head after his vaccination.

As fans of his work with Strong Towns will expect, the book is well-written. In the first chapter, Marohn clearly and succinctly lays out the essence of how a professional traffic engineer works. His insightful summaries of each step are worth the price of the book. I’m thinking we should include the short section as a sidebar in the expanded paperback edition of Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns that Victor Dover and I are working on. 

In a nutshell, when starting a new job, the traffic engineer begins by deciding how fast drivers should go. As Marohn points out, they do not consult the public or elected representatives when they set the speed. The second step is to decide what the traffic volume should be. The engineer uses traffic engineering formulas to arrive at an answer. As someone involved with transportation engineers for 40 years, I can tell you that the formulas are no more accurate than Donald Trump’s theories on how many Americans voted for him.

The third step is to design the street for safety. “Safety” in this context means “safer for cars to go faster.” But that speed is usually less safe for cyclists and pedestrians than a slower speed would be. And once again, it is in the context of an expected 42,000 American traffic deaths this year, a number that includes many drivers and occupants of other cars. 

Last and least is cost. Since the days when what was good for General Motors was thought to be good for America, we have built a national system of roads that is the most expensive construction project in the history of the world. Small street “improvements” that allow drivers to go faster for a few blocks can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Even today, when our interstate highway system is fully built, the Federal Highway Trust Fund has an annual budget over $40 billion. State and local DOTs spend another $120 billion. This gives traffic engineers in America control over what urbanists call “the public realm”—which explains why most of it is given over to the movement of machines.

Marohn details the undemocratic process DOTs use and proposes that much of their control be taken away. Three cheers for Marohn, the recovering engineer! In the expanded edition of Street Design, we will look at the way European cities like Amsterdam, London, and Paris are redesigning their post-COVID streets to make more streets for people. (Hint: The design teams are not led by traffic engineers.)

Marohn is conservative in many ways. I am progressive in most ways. But Marohn and I agree on many of the issues and many of the solutions. It gives me hope for the future in this challenging, divided time. The status quo has outlived its usefulness. In the words of President Obama, we are the change we have been waiting for. If we insist.

Featured image via Railly News.



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