Transportation Engineers: Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution

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Note from planologie—I saw this comment by Planetizen user ConcernedAboutWinnipeg at the end of Alex Krieger’s article, “Being Urban Minded: Three Current Debates Around Urban Design Practice,” and thought it worth singling out. It seems like in any profession a rift inevitably forms between the creatives and the technicians, and that this silo-ing is especially pernicious when it affects entire populations. I’ve spoken with several transportation engineers who echoed ConcernedAboutWinnipeg’s sentiments, namely that most of them work within the paradigm they were taught, that awareness of the old paradigm’s destructiveness is spreading rapidly, and that the younger crop of transpo engineers have “seen the light.”

from Planetizen

What about engineers?
submitted by ConcernedAboutWinnipeg

I thought that this was an excellent article, but I also thought that it excluded a very important part of the equation – engineers, especially transportation engineers. As a transportation engineer, I all too often see engineers excluded from the urban design process either because architects, planners and landscape architects think that either (a) we engineers are incapable of thinking about urban design, or (b) we engineers are responsible for all the horrible, ugly sprawl evident throughout North America. Granted, “a” can be true and “b” holds some truth, but there’s a lot more to the story.

To address “b” first of all – while transportation engineers are responsible for some of the worst examples of sprawl-supportive infrastructure (the removal of old street railways, the construction of ugly urban freeways that bisected and destroyed existing neighbourhoods, etc…), the urban horrors of the 50s and 60s were a joint effort that also included architects, urban planners and landscape architects. The gigantic brutalist urban renewal projects of the 60s were no more or no less destructive than the construction of freeways and urban interstates. We need to set all that aside and work together though. Engineers have a huge say over what happens within a roadway, so working with us is a much better solution than trying to work around us. More importantly, engineers have a huge say in planning the form of the road network, and this does so much to determine things like pedestrian connectivity and neighbourhood scale. If you don’t include engineers in the mix, and if they are forced to work in their engineering silos (which engineers unfortunately find it very easy to do), then not much will ever change.

On to “a” – the notion that engineers just don’t (and can’t) “get it” when it comes to issues of urban design. The profession of transportation engineering is undergoing huge changes right now, and this is the perfect time for all professions involved in urbanism to reengage one another. Yes it is true, there are still many engineers who want to see nothing but more freeways built, more lanes added to existing roads, and all street-side “obstacles” (often known as “landscaping” or “street furnishings” to others) cleared away in the name of safety. But as a transportation engineer, I have to say that these folks are more or less a dying breed. Nearly every transportation engineer I know under the age of 45 understands very well the issues of compact form, pedestrian accessibility, walkability, as well as inter-neighbourhood and intra-neighbourhood connectivity for pedestrians, cyclists, transit vehicles and cars. As a profession, we are changing quickly, and for the better.

As an example, look at the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). ITE is responsible for promoting many of the worst development types around, thanks to its Trip Generation and Parking Generation manuals that assume that a given type of development, no matter where it is located or how it is designed, will generate the same number of vehicle trips and require the same number of parking spots. Because these assumptions are taken as gospel amongst many older engineers (and planning departments), we have entire decades where street-fronting developments were hardly ever built, and where truly “urban” development was nearly impossible to obtain approval for. But at the same time, ITE has been putting out publication after publication for the past 10 years that directly contradicts that line of thinking – publications that promote well-designed, compact urban form. It’s a bit of an internal conflict within ITE, and the urbanists are quickly winning.

What I’m trying to say is that many transportation engineers now “get it”, and we are happy to work hand-in-hand with the other urbanism professions. It’s only if we do our job well, and work closely with you to help achieve a better urban form that is not so car-oriented, that you as architects, planners and landscape architects can your job much better than you could otherwise. If engineers don’t work closely with architects, planners and landscape architects, then “urban design” essentially becomes “window dressing”, or “lipstick on a pig” – the canvas you have to work with will be flawed and ugly from the outset, and no matter how talented you are, you won’t be able to make a sprawly suburban development into good urbanism. But a collaborative effort right from the start will produce good urban design that is livable, attractive, and workable.

So please don’t exclude engineers from the equation. Yes we may be a different (sometimes odd) breed, but not working with us will do nothing for our cities.

see comment and article at planetizen.com

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This entry was posted in Auto Independence, Culture, Livability, transit, Transportation, Uncategorized, urban design, What if? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Transportation Engineers: Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution

  1. I think the younger generation of planners and engineers, and even many architects, are all committed to bringing back together the elements of design that splintered into overspecialization in previous generations

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