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Sunday, September 05, 2021

Taking (Democratic) Control of One's Own Traffic

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

That Charles Marohn is a friend to localist movements across the United States and beyond is indisputable. It’s not just that he has said so, repeatedly; both the whole operating premise of Strong Towns, the organization he has built, and the strategy it has followed, has been localist: encouraging ordinary people to attend to their own localities by gathering together, sharing information and concerns about the places where they live, and addressing those problems in small, organic, achievable ways. As I wrote in praise of his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, while Marohn may not be a trained social critic or political philosopher, he has nonetheless, through his insistence upon the necessity of slowly and democratically adapting our urban places in the direction of greater fiscal and environmental sustainability, articulated as clear and as practical a localist theory as almost any other thinker writing today.

The title of Marohn’s new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (whose release date is today--buy it now!), might suggest a wonky doubling down upon the practical at the expense of the broadly theoretical, and that judgment isn’t wrong. By connecting this set of interconnected reflections to what Marohn now recognizes as the flawed design principles and professional assumptions he internalized during his decades of road-building work as a civil engineer, he has written a book more in the style of a technical manual than a philosophical treatise. But that doesn’t mean the philosophy isn’t there. In the midst short, data-heavy discussions of travel times, risk assessments, speed studies, Marohn’s ideas are very much still present, and in some ways they’re more political than ever.

The fundamental focus in this book is traffic, meaning the movement of people and goods along streets and roads, which is literally the lifeblood, the circulatory system, of any urbanized space. (In a book with more than its share of good lines, Marohn’s two-sentence take-down of the over-inflated complaints about traffic congestion we are all guilty of is perhaps my favorite: “People often say that they are ‘stuck in traffic,’ as if their vehicle is somehow not a literal part of the traffic in which they are stuck. They are not stuck in traffic; they are traffic”—pg. 84.) One doesn’t have to be a student of Gibbons v. Ogden and the Supreme Court’s commerce clause jurisprudence to recognize that this in an inherently political topic, with ramifications for economics, culture, government, and sometimes life and death. Marohn opens the book with the story of a haunting traffic accident, the lessons of which he returns to throughout the chapters that follow, and ends the book with another accident, one that involved himself. He does this not to politicize tragedies or near-tragedies, but rather the show the degree to which human mistakes are enabled by decisions regarding the construction and management of traffic, decisions whose political values should be available to us, but usually are not.  

This is Marohn’s goal in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer:  to reveal the undemocratic—because rarely discussed and almost never subject to actual civic input—values which underlie the traffic regime that American cities are overwhelmingly subject to. Chapter after chapter, Marohn, with the zeal of a penitent convert, digs into the practices and norms of civil engineers like himself, teaching his readers—usually with impressive clarity—about LOS (Level of Service) rankings, MUTCD (Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices) warrants, the economic and sociological distinction between “streets” and “roads,” the 85th Percentile Speed rule, and much more. By so doing, Marohn carefully details the disconnect between the people who actually live in urban areas, and those who are tasked with designing the circulatory systems which enable them to move about. That is, he succinctly shows how streets, roads, intersections, traffic signage, bus stops, and more are constructed so as to incentivize—or impel—drivers to act in ways disconnected from—or completely contrary to—what those same people, when truly presented with the full range of traffic options, generally prioritize.

So just what do people—what do we—generally prioritize? Mostly safety and cost, even when such stand in the way of maximizing traffic capacity and speed. Unsurprisingly, the language and methods of urban design in America today (and for most of the past 70 years) privilege the opposite. That does not mean America’s cities care nothing about safety or cost: on the contrary, city leaders hear citizen complaints and respond to them all the time…only usually in ways that complete fail to get at the opaque values at work in the bureaucratic contexts which so often shape our urban environments.

So, insofar as safety is concerned, it would be hard to find an American city dweller who isn’t familiar with wide streets clearly built for speed…which have subsequently been filled with traffic warnings, broken up with poorly coordinated signal lights, and closely attended by police conducting a near-abusive number of traffic stops (the symbiotic relationship here should be obvious). Or, insofar as cost is concerned, it would be equally hard to find an urban resident in America who can’t point to expansive and soaring highway interchanges or grand elevated thoroughfares gracing their city…while at the same time debt-payments and budget cuts and arbitrary ceilings on tax collection have left the basic maintenance of the city’s streets and roads further and further behind. These situations are both common and perverse, the result of city governments attempting to sincerely respond to genuine problems without daring to rethink the decision-making which got them there.

What would that rethinking consist of? Perhaps designing smaller streets for slower speeds and less carrying capacity in the first place. Perhaps organizing city finances so as to serve local sites of commercial intercourse and thus moderating and diversifying traffic flow from its start. And thereby perhaps lessening the overall debt taken on by America’s urban areas, freeing up money for already-existing maintenance obligations. In other words, perhaps the option of actually choosing not to privilege the top-down growth of a city’s traffic footprint, but instead choosing to privilege “more corner stores and neighborhood businesses…more local jobs and housing options…[more] sidewalks and biking infrastructure…more alternative ways to respond to congestion” (pg. 98). That these choices are politically difficult is obvious: the assumption that faster traffic is superior to slower traffic, that automobile access to distant locations is superior to bike or pedestrian access to local destinations, that minimizing automobile delay is superior to making room for transportation alternatives, and that speculative economic growth is superior to preserving community wealth, are all, in the civil engineering and urban design professions, a kind of “orthodoxy” (pg. 12). But that they remain, nonetheless, politically possible is Marohn’s fervent call. By supply his readers with the relevant data, Marohn's Confessions helps explain how.

This push against the presumed necessity of over-building, the supposed “inevitability” of the growth machine in American cities (as Marohn facetiously writes in the book’s introduction, which humorously expands upon his justly famous “Conversation with an Engineer” video, civil engineers are “really in the growth business”—pg. xviii), is what makes his localism populist in the spirit of Wendell Berry, who labeled this same cult of inevitability in The Art of Loading Brush “an economic and technological determinism.“ It’s also what makes his localism profoundly political. In the end, for all it’s technical, economic, psychological, and environmental details, Confessions is a plea for local democracy, as Marohn makes clear throughout the book, from beginning…

[Decisions about street safety, speed, capacity, and cost] are policy decision, and like all policy decisions, they should be decided by some duly elected or appointed collection of public officials. In a democratic system of representative government, representatives of the people should be provided the full range of options and be allowed to weigh them against each other. That rarely happens, and I have never heard of an instance where it has happened for a local street (pg. 6).

…to end:

None of these decisions [regarding all the supposed obstacles to making a busy street more pedestrian friendly] are merely technical; they are all somewhat discretionary and, thus, political….Cities are not powerless. Great local engineers who want to assert the values of the community, instead of opposing them, can become strong advocates….All...common methods of thwarting the public will are merely assertions of power. The engineer has knowledge and access to information that elected officials and the public do not. This makes the engineer a gatekeeper….There are ways to deal with this problem, most of which involve shifting power away from the engineer and the systems which empower their values….There are many great engineers out there ready to prioritize public safety over traffic speed and neighborhood prosperity over traffic volume. There are a lot of engineers ready to step out from behind the shield provided by industry standards and fulfill their ethical obligations to use their professional judgment in the service of the public. Any city council wanting to can find these people, empower them, and then support them so they can do great things (pgs. 209-210).

My reference to Wendell Berry above—whose work has inspired many writers at Strong Towns—is intentional. The political expression of localism is often derided as mere nostalgia at worst, or only appropriate for the increasingly small portion of the American population which lives in rural areas at best. Marohn is no agrarian. But here he shows us a practical localism, one centered upon the admittedly wonky technical and financial designing, building, and maintaining of America’s circulatory systems of traffic, but nonetheless as reflective of the same localist democratic ideals as anything produced within America’s agrarian or Tocquevillian traditions. No, Marohn is not a theorist, and not every argument or example or chapter in this book is intellectually consistent. But enough of them do for me to say: if only traffic engineers and urban designers read this book, the localist cause will have missed out on something great indeed.