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On Being a City Planner In a Room Full of Engineers

A few words of encouragement if you’ve ever been the only non-traffic engineer in a room full of traffic engineers.

  1. It’s OK to question Level of Service and traffic volume projections. They’ve often been wrong before. They will be wrong again.
  2. It’s OK to advocate for narrower lanes.
  3. It’s OK to use the phrases “fast”, “anti-urban” and “does not meet livability goals” when describing one way couplets.
  4. Protected bike lanes are no longer radical ideas, even if they mean taking traffic lanes away from automobiles.
  5. Your intuition is correct. Sharrows on high volume streets are dangerous and should not be used just to placate cyclists.
  6. Full time on-street parking is not an impediment to traffic flow, even on urban arterials. It’s a retail-booster and a revenue generating traffic calming device.
  7. It’s OK to talk about big picture things when the conversation focuses on minutia.
  8. It’s OK to expect something exceptional and transformational from a project.
  9. It’s OK to suggest that the project engineers actually walk or bike on the street they are designing.
  10. It’s OK to question neighborhood design speeds in excess of 20mph, the 85% percentile rule, intersection geometrics and clear zones, even if you’re not an engineer.
  11. Aesthetics are just as important as function. Signal poles, bus stops, sidewalks, and the entire streetscape are as much a part of urban design as buildings and parks.

…learning how to make cities rich and fecund and great places to be so we’re comfortable and healthy and happy is the biggest problem we face. The only way we’ll not go crazy is to build beautiful, rich, life-enhancing cities….The majority of open spaces in cities are streets. That means the street system is too important to leave solely to transportation engineers. They’re way too important to leave to just moving traffic. So I’m interested in cities because they are the design problem for a habitable planet. – Laurie Olin

Keep on going.


  • Nate Evans

    #5 – agree! Sharrows do not placate cyclists; they usually incite cyclists

  • Jen

    This all comes down to a basic question: “What if the authorities of the past were wrong?”. The quote you used is correct – streets are too important to be just the domain of 1 discipline (engineers). Open the canvas up, rethink fundamental assumptions, and the possibilities of what our streets can be expand.

    Places like Copenhagen, Portland, NYC and Amsterdam didn’t become livable, bikable cities over night. But it did take bold leadership to change entrenched auto-centered culture.

  • Steven Vance
  • Scott Johnson

    As an engineer of the computer variety, it is very important to state a more important point that subsumes most of the specific things you cite:

    Engineers are competent to make technical decisions, and to design systems given a set of parameters and constraints.

    They are not the best people to make political decisions as to what a community should look like. Many of the choices we may like to make may lead to WORSE TRAFFIC OUTCOMES—and that’s OK.

    If an engineer tells you that a given design will not likely produce a LOS better than C or D; that’s a reasonable professional judgment. If he tells you that “policy” is that all new projects must have a LOS of B or better; it’s perfectly OK to remind him of just who he is working for–and that if the community wants a main street with a LOS of C or D (but which preserves other urban values), then it’s his job to design that, not to argue with the customer.

    In short–when dealing with engineers, the tail must not be permitted to wag the dog.

  • northendmatt

    Well, as a civil engineer… look, engineers are generally technically competent people. They’ll do stuff to the criteria you give them. If you say you want 25 mph speeds and you want to sacrifice traffic throughput to make sure you have wider sidewalks and bike lanes, they’ll do it. You might have to keep repeating your goals – engineers have been conditioned to expect that all politicians want is to move cars for a long time – but they’ll do it.

    And if you’re an engineer, in a room full of planners, you might point out that engineers aren’t the ones who decided that residential and commercial uses had to be separated, that vast swaths of the city would never be anything other than SFR, and so on.

  • Mark R. Brown

    There’s plenty of blame to go around for 20th century planning mistakes. I’m not pointing the finger solely at engineers – some of the best city planners I know are also PEs. Problems arise when one discipline dominates the design of our public realm though – especially places as important and multipurposed as streets. This is what happened in the 20th century when you see neighborhood streets designed like highways.

    Complete streets, tactical urbanism, social media, and cultural shifts are changing things, though. Inter-disciplinary street design teams and real community involvement are becoming (and should be) the norm.

  • billdav

    What evidence other than your intuition do you have that sharrows on high volume streets are dangerous?

    I ride on high volume streets every day and I ride in the middle of the lane for several miles of my commute each day. I don’t have close calls. There is nothing dangerous about controlling the lane.

  • David

    Good points!

    Having been in similar shoes as the author for over two decades,
    I very much empathize with the author on this topic.

    Fortunately, many younger highway engineers actually will
    support types of these approaches if the Planner actually makes these comments for the record.

    I learned a decade or more ago that asking an engineer to meet for a bicycle ride through the area that they are working on will also usually help with project design. Ride with them and then stop at points to discuss project alternatives to enhance access really can be a productive use of time. It can be eye opening for some engineers to get out of their offices and their vehicles and see the project from a pedestrian or cyclist perspective. Also, the project engineer learns that you are taking the project seriously and not just “going through the motions.” Often they will surprise you and produce better designs to address issues that you raise.

    What is most important is to convey that “automobility” is not the key theme to every type of road project.

    Thanks for writing this!