‘Recovery engineer’ explains why he thinks streets give priority to cars over pedestrians
Chuck Marohn is president of the association Strong cities and author of the new book “Confessions of an engineer in recovery”, in which he dismantles everything he sees wrong in his profession. Too often, he says, the streets are designed to accommodate as many cars as possible at the fastest possible speed. Pedestrian and bicycle safety is often an afterthought.
KPBS spoke with Marohn before his scheduled conversation Thursday at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.
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Q: So you have chosen to title your book “Confessions of an engineer in recovery.“ What are you recovering from?
Man, I’m recovering from a decade or more of indoctrination. When you become a civil engineer, when you become a municipal engineer and you start doing things like traffic, sewage and water and all that, there is a certain approach given to you, which you inherit. You are given a standards book, you are given the best practices of a profession, and you have this expectation to follow that, especially if you want to move forward. And so for me there was a certain sort of mystique that came in joining this profession, and learning these things and embracing them as “the way things should be” that I had to unlearn, that I really had to go through. and get out of my brain.
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Q: Throughout your book, you keep coming back to this particularly horrific accident that happened on December 3, 2014 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Tell us what happened there.
A mom with two little daughters was leaving the Springfield, Massachusetts library late at night. They crossed the street towards the parking lot, which is right across this four-lane highway that was built in the middle of town. They did it in the most natural way possible. And a car came, hit them, sent a girl to the hospital, then killed 7-year-old Destiny Gonzales. This has happened several times at this location. And in fact – today we are talking about November 12, 2021 – on November 11, yesterday, one of the library workers walked out of the library, was crossing the street in the exact same place to enter it. car, and she was hit and killed in the same place.
So this is a level crossing that has long been fatal and has a long history of mismatch between street design and the engineer’s goals and objectives, in this case, and health and safety. community safety.
Q: Many of those aspects that make a street very dangerous or inhospitable to pedestrians, I learned from your book, are actually designed to be safe – at least from an old-school traffic engineer perspective. school. So describe to me what a safe street looks like from this point of view, and what do you see wrong with this image?
When designing a freeway, you need to take very clear steps to make the freeway safer for drivers. You widen the lanes, you add recovery areas, you add clear areas, you basically create a lot of buffer so that the driver of the vehicle has a lot of room to react to things that might happen. You, from a design standpoint, forgive the mistakes a pilot would make in creating all this buffer.
When you bring that mindset into an urban area, what happens is urban areas are full of complexity. They are full of cars that stop, turn or cut traffic at random. There are people walking, people crossing the street in crosswalks, not in crosswalks. You have people on bikes. You have people in wheelchairs. You have the dog that lets go and runs across the street. You have the kid chasing kickball. So you have all this complexity. Along with that complexity, what you’ve done with the street design is actually signaling to drivers, “We’re here to help. We have provided you with plenty of buffer space. You have all kinds of security factors.
People should accept congestion not as a problem, but as a manifestation of the system that we have built, a system that must change if you are to achieve these goals. And you would actually have to accept congestion for what it is, which is a sign of demand for local alternatives.
Chuck Marohn, author of “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer”
And the reality is, that’s the wrong message to send to drivers. Because what drivers do in urban areas, when you leave them a lot of room, is that they accelerate. And we point out the wrong things to drivers. We point out to drivers that this is a simple environment, like a freeway, so you don’t have to pay very close, very strict attention. And most of the time, that’s very true. But in these random events where things are not where we expect them to be, tragedy does and does happen far too often.
Q: What are some common themes that you find in cities that have made a lot of progress towards better street design and safer street design? What are the ingredients for success?
I see a lot of places that want to do things differently and then they run up against the rules and regulations. And those who are very dogmatic about the rules and regulations, they get stuck at this point. They fight. They’re like, “Well, we can’t do that because …” The ones who thrive are the ones who don’t say, “Well, throw out the rulebook and be careless and who really cares? They’re like, “Okay, here’s an obstacle that we’ve bumped into.” How to get around this obstacle? How to find a local adaptation to this? And often that means changing staff. Often times, this involves creating a different channel for this workflow. But often it just requires us to sit down and collaborate.
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Q: San Diego has set very ambitious goals in reducing driving. It has adopted a Vision Zero goal to end all deaths and serious injuries on the roads by 2025. It is updating its Climate Action Plan, which forecasts that half of all trips in the city is done by bike, on foot or by public transit by 2035. But I don’t think city leaders have a very clear idea of how they’re going to get there exactly, how they’re going to get there. What do you think should be changed? And what would our streets and neighborhoods look like if that was the goal?
People should accept congestion not as a problem, but as a manifestation of the system that we have built, a system that must change if you are to achieve these goals. And you would actually have to accept congestion for what it is, which is a sign of demand for local alternatives. And through local alternatives, this stuff happens in the second part. In order to achieve these goals, which I think are very good goals, very valid goals, what is needed is not a transport approach. You have to have a neighborhood development approach. Because to achieve this goal, people need to have alternatives near where they can walk, alternatives near where they can cycle.
The only way to achieve this goal is to build neighborhoods – neighborhoods where people can replace their longer trips with local ones. So, I need some milk. I need bread. I have to have my hair cut. I have to do whatever basic thing I do on a typical day – there has to be an alternative for that locally.