What went wrong with the traffic engineering profession?

The other night I tweeted: “Since the end of conscription, it has been the offices of traffic engineers causing the deaths“. A fellow blogger and cyclist, but from the civil engineering side of the fence, objected that engineers are just servants of politicians. As we all know politicians represent a public that wants to go faster in cars and are blithely accepting of the daily movement of ambulances attending the deaths of pedestrians, cyclists and indeed, many car users. But in this do engineers really have no volition?

I’m imagining how the medical profession would respond if politicians passed a law requiring them to deny treatment to certain kinds of patients. We could be talking about the old, the unemployed, members of the communist party…   hell, we might as well imagine a law being passed that cyclists and pedestrians should be denied treatment, as punishment for dinting majority voters’ high powered cars. We needn’t fear though, as the medical profession answers first to itself. They decide who will be treated, over-treated, maltreated, whatever. Non-doctors don’t get a look in (my apologies to American readers, who may have a different experience).


All of us who have studied professional degrees have had it drummed in since first year at uni that our profession is autonomous in agreeing on standards of professional practice. That’s why in negligence cases, it is our peers who are called in to judge us. When I was a junior architect in the mid 90s, I remember a client asking me to leave out a disabled/pram ramp to the front door of a childcare centre. I said, “It’s needed.” He said, “There must be some loophole in the codes.” He was probably right, but I really don’t care. Universal access is an end in itself. I made sure the child care centre had a ramp to the front door.

And I haven’t even spoken yet about life and death matters. In my profession, balustrades and fire egress are what will cause buildings to kill. I’m proud to teach architecture in a country where architects submit to child-safe railing design, and where we don’t envy the death-trap atriums we see in photos of buildings in Asia.

Meanwhile, we have a subset of the Civil Engineering profession, variously known as traffic, road, or transport engineers, ignoring empirical evidence relating to safety. Why? Surely not because some politicians have promised less jams? Road engineers are drowning in peer-reviewed articles on accident prevention, to the point where they can actually predict the deaths that one design will cause, compared to another. They know that lower speed limits, traffic calming, protected cycle tracks, and Dutch designs for intersections will save people from being killed. Yet they put their signatures on plans for retrograde works?

I’ll admit, I haven’t even began to look at this profession in the depth I would like to. I don’t know their peak bodies, foundational texts, or what registration or ongoing professional development may be required. However, an architect friend of mine (you can build yourself one of his houses) did tell me recently about America’s first ever traffic engineer, and pointed me toward this telling story of his turn to the dark side, in Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City:

Happy City Quote jpg



  1. James says:

    Take it as a sign that everyone agrees, that there are no comments after a couple of days already 😉

    • Steven says:

      Not sure if that’s spam. Could you leave some more humanspeak?

    • Gerardo says:

      The link is to a seminar from the Portland State University and it is a presentation that covers the Highway Design Manual and the regulation that affect multimodal ism, bikes, pedestrian, and transit over the car.

      The video provides a good overview of what traffic engineers.


    • Steven says:

      Thanks Gerardo. I’m not sure about others. Unfortunately I can’t get it to play.

  2. Herb says:

    There is this, Confessions of a Recovering Traffic Engineer: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2010/11/22/confessions-of-a-recovering-engineer.html

    And this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3DP9BUyWVg1xI

    Both are by Chuck Marohn, who was a traffic engineer and is now the founder of Strong Towns, a nonprofit trying to make towns more livable and financially viable.

    • crank says:

      “When the public and politicians tell engineers that their top priorities are safety and then cost, the engineer’s brain hears something completely different. The engineer hears, “Once you set a design speed and handle the projected volume of traffic, safety is the top priority. Do what it takes to make the road safe, but do it as cheaply as you can.” This is why engineers return projects with asinine “safety” features, like pedestrian bridges and tunnels that nobody will ever use, and costs that are astronomical.” … and absurd Australian bike infra.

      Great link, thanks, Herb.

    • crank says:

      It always seems to me the traffic engineers are solving the wrong problems. For instance, City of Melbourne claim to care about bike safety and increasing ridership, but create dangerous intersections so as to not impede traffic flow. They aren’t engineering a solution to “people riding more bikes” or “reducing car trips” or “improved mobility” or anything of the sort. They need to think holistically.

      “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” (Eric Sevareid) definitely true of our road system today.

  3. Willam Benson says:

    Architects are just as much to blame, if not more – rarely including adequate bike facilities (if any) in their designs during the 20th century. Traffic engineers simply work on the links between the places that generate the transport modes. The places designed by architects – so even though the traffic engineers haven’t designed the pipes correctly, the architects forgot to design the tap to start the flow to begin with (or caved to pressure from the developer to include it on the plans). In fact, while most traffic engineers are slowly getting their heads around cycling facility provision, the vast majority of architects continue to short change cyclists by putting bike parking in shitty corners at the bottom of basements or out in the elements at the arse end of a building or just completely forgetting about them altogether.

  4. Willam Benson says:

    That should’ve read “caved to pressure from the developer to NOT include it on the plans”

    • Steven says:

      famously the bike storage room in the new NYTimes building by Renzo Piano was swallowed by plant equipment during construction.

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