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