Monday, April 15, 2013

Conversation with an Engineer

While reading “Dangerous Roads are Safer” by Tom Vanderbilt, I was reminded of a video I saw on YouTube a few years back. “Conversation with an Engineer” is an 8 minute video created by Strong Towns. The video follows a conversation between a resident and a project engineer about changes being made to the street in front of the resident's house.

I believe the point of the video is that many traffic engineering standards designed to improve safety can actually make our streets more dangerous and less livable. In this example, the project engineer wants to straighten and flatten the street, widen the street so there is more of a buffer between the cars and the houses, and remove street trees so cars will not hit them if they swerve off the road. Whenever the resident questions how these standards will make her street more safe, the engineer responds: “Building the street to the meet the standard will enhance safety by allowing cars to flow more smoothly.”

When the resident points out that these changes will make cars drive faster and that will make the street less safe, the engineer responds by saying the city will post an appropriate speed limit. Of course, this will not do much to limit the speed of cars. What was limiting the speed in the first place was the combination of the narrow lanes, trees, and curves in the street. The engineer says the street is currently not safe because it does not meet the standards. If he were to just open his eyes, walk down the street, and talk to some of the residents of the neighborhood, he might notice the street is currently safe the way it is.

The engineer might be well-educated and well-versed in engineering vernacular and standards, but his actions are not solutions to safety problems. Instead, they are causing safety problems.

Editor: Darwin Moosavi


  1. Matt-

    The other aspect of this that your piece and the video subtly get at is that different professionals (engineers, planners, landscape architects, developers, etc.) come at these problems with different realities and objectives which are often not in sync (at best) or completely contrary (at worst). And all of which are often foreign to the resident.
    An example that keeps popping up in the readings has the engineer focussed on making a road function successfully regarding a certain capacity, speed and safety metric: make it straight and direct then, if needed, use signage to control speed, etc. (The attention seems to be on strict road performance.) Meanwhile the planner often seems to be viewing the road as a means to control behavior of the user: to reduce speed, number of users or ease of use. The developer often seems to view the road as only a means of ingress and egress to their proposed projects, which often has impacts that end up negating the work of the engineers and planners. Lastly, there is the landscape architect, working for the developer, following the code created by the planner, while navigating the schematic site design of the engineer.
    This is a simplified illustration of the overall process but it does get at the heart of some issues behind the development of a site and of the frustration that each profession has for the other(s) as they continue to focus on their own objectives and agendas within a project. To say nothing of what the community members agenda is in all this.
    The additional reality behind all of this, that the video alludes to in a back-handed way, is that roads, neighborhoods, communities, etc. are not stagnant, much as the resident in the video might wish. Perhaps that is why there are often so many professionals at the table - to represent all the important, complex and seemingly (to the resident) contradictory aspects to the development of a site.


  2. The video raises the great question "safe for whom?" Even when ped/bike/child/elderly safety is considered in road design, we neglect things like kids playing in yards or those who would walk/bike/play if they felt safe. A strong public process can help, but as Art brings up above, urban neighborhoods tend change faster than residents opinions. At any rate, I think the situation in the video calls for a woonerf!

  3. I watched an interesting YouTube video that discussed this issue a bit. The speaker, Jeffery Tumlin, talked about the difference between safe rural roads versus urban roads. This "conversation with an engineer" video is describing all the items that will make a rural road safe and applying it to the urban/suburban road - and it won't work. More work needs to be done on defining what is needed to make an urban street safe, and a good start is just doing the opposite of what they are doing now.


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