Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

True Confessions

Confessions of a recovering engineer


22 NOV 2010 5:26 PM

Cross-posted from Strong Towns.
After graduating from college with a civil engineering degree, I found myself working in my home town for a local engineering firm doing mostly municipal engineering (roads, sewer pipe, water pipe, stormwater). A fair percentage of my time was spent convincing people that, when it came to their road, I knew more than they did.
And of course I should know more. First, I had a technical degree from a top university. Second, I was in a path towards getting a state license (at the time I was an engineer in training, the four-year "apprenticeship" required to become a fully licensed professional engineer), which required me to pass a pretty tough test just to get started and another, more difficult, exam to conclude. Third, I was in a profession that is one of the oldest and most respected in human history, responsible for some of the greatest achievements of mankind. Fourth -- and most important -- I had books and books of standards to follow.
A book of standards to an engineer is better than a bible to a priest. All you have to do is to rely on the standards. Back in college I was told a story about how, in WWII, some Jewish engineers in hiding had run thousands of tedious tests on asphalt, just to produce these graphs that we still use today. Some of our craft descends from Roman engineers who did all of this a couple of millennia ago. How could I be wrong with literally thousands of years of professional practice on my side?
And, more to the point, what business would I -- let alone a property owner on a project I was working on -- have in questioning the way things were done? Of course the people who wrote the standards knew better than we did. That is why they wrote the standard.
When people would tell me that they did not want a wider street, I would tell them that they had to have it for safety reasons.
When they answered that a wider street would make people drive faster and that would be seem to be less safe, especially in front of their house where their kids were playing, I would confidently tell them that the wider road was more safe, especially when combined with the other safety enhancements the standards called for.
When people objected to those other "enhancements", like removing all of the trees near the road, I told them that for safety reasons we needed to improve the sight distances and ensure that the recovery zone was free of obstacles.
When they pointed out that the "recovery zone" was also their "yard" and that their kids played kickball and hopscotch there, I recommended that they put up a fence, so long as the fence was outside of the right-of-way.
When they objected to the cost of the wider, faster, treeless road that would turn their peaceful front yard into the viewing area for a drag strip unless they built a concrete barricade along their front property line, I informed them that progress was sometimes expensive, but these standards have been shown to work across the state, the country, and the world, and I could not compromise with their safety.
In retrospect I understand that this was utter insanity. Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a 14-foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continually. Why?
The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard.
In the engineering profession's version of defensive medicine, we can't recommend standards that are not in the manual. We can't use logic to vary from a standard that gives us 60 mph design speeds on roads with intersections every 200 feet. We can't question why two cars would need to travel at high speed in opposite directions on a city block, let alone why we would want them to. We can yield to public pressure and post a speed limit -- itself a hazard -- but we can't recommend a road section that is not in the highway manual. 
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. 
An engineer designing a street or road prioritizes the world in this way, no matter how they are instructed: 
1. Traffic speed
2. Traffic volume
3. Safety
4. Cost
The rest of the world generally would prioritize things differently, as follows:
1. Safety
2. Cost
3. Traffic volume
4. Traffic speed
In other words, the engineer first assumes that all traffic must travel at speed. Given that speed, all roads and streets are then designed to handle a projected volume. Once those parameters are set, only then does an engineer look at mitigating for safety and, finally, how to reduce the overall cost (which at that point is nearly always ridiculously expensive).
In America, it is this thinking that has designed most of our built environment, and it is nonsensical. In many ways, it is professional malpractice. If we delivered what society asked us for, we would build our local roads and streets to be safe above all else. Only then would we consider what could be done, given our budget, to handle a higher volume of cars at greater speeds.
We go to enormous expense to save ourselves small increments of driving time. This would be delusional in and of itself if it were not also making our roads and streets much less safe. I'll again reference a 2005 article from the APA Journal showing how narrower, slower streets dramatically reduce accidents, especially fatalities.
And it is that simple observation that all of those supposedly "ignorant" property owners were trying to explain to me, the engineer with all the standards, so many years ago. When you can't let your kids play in the yard, let alone ride their bike to the store, because you know the street is dangerous, then the engineering profession is not providing society any real value. It's time to stand up and demand a change.
It's time we demand that engineers build us Strong Towns.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just like now, only better!

So I had the misfortunate good fortune to attend the city’s dog and pony show of sub-political suasion and careerist bluster-- the firing up of a mystery theatre of deliberate delusion, a mighty wind of feel good messaging salted with reassuring moments -- “Don’t worry, the future will be pretty much the same as it is now, only better!”

We gather together inside a capitalist space, curiously orange, temporarily removed from the buying and selling of human lives which usually goes on inside such rooms. It is almost homey, in a minimalist and industrial fashion, an ikea meets danzig aesthetic--if mom were to appear, she’d be in an frilled orange apron and shitkicker leather boots with lots of metal studs. I’d guess the real business of fleecing the sheep happens in the back rooms. Ignore the screaming, please.

I sit and listen and listen some more, and wonder. Everyone seems to be ignoring the herd of elephants, asking polite and predictable questions. A hundred and a half questions fly through my mind, most unanswerable, and many, it would seem, unaskable.

With gold cufflinks and a reverend smile, a steady-on demeanor, a paced and practiced4 delivery, our man positively glitters in the promise of the future, so bright I had to wear shades.

“More of the same, only better!” I heard our man say. “Cleaner, greener, new and improved, “ he recited. “We can shop our way to consumer nirvana, forever munching away at the banquet of goods and services, forever sprawling to the five corners of the earth; all of nature bows to our will, we are the masters of the universe, never to be defeated.”

More plastic toys to fill our primate cages.

“More,” he shouted. “More,” the crowd intoned in unison.

Okay, it might not have gone exactly like that, but the subtext was inescapable.

The house is on fire and we argue where to place the sofa.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Park(ing) Day

PARK(ing) Day: Reclaiming Our Streets from Our Cars
by Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi
On Friday activists and artists will be celebrating PARK(ing) Day in hundreds of cities around the world.

Begun in San Francisco six years ago the aim of the annual event is “to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “‘PARK(ing)’ spaces: temporary public places.” Organizers generally add benches or fake grass to pieces of public property usually taken up by a private car. Some are more adventurous, filling spots with ping-pong tables, basketball hoops or even a knitted garden in a PARK.

Incredibly, PARK(ing) Day participants often find themselves contravening the law, even when they fill the meter. In many cities only a motorized vehicle is allowed to occupy a parking space unless the city has granted a special permit.

PARK(ing) Day successfully draws attention to a topic that receives little in the way of social commentary. Beyond the seemingly endless quest for an empty spot, parking is rarely discussed, yet it shapes urban environments. Parked 95 percent of the time, personal cars require a huge amount of storage space and whether on the exurban fringe or downtown, parking blight is a plague upon the land.

“Perhaps nothing has made American cities less memorable,” write John Jakle and Keith Sculle in Lots of Parking. “Parking lots have eaten away cities in the United States like moths devouring a lace wedding gown,” chimes in Mark Childs. History reinforces his vivid imagery. In the first half of the century, many charming centers were stripped of their character as historic buildings were razed to make way for surface parking. In 1910, for instance, Detroit’s Cadillac Square met its end and became a giant parking lot. “All across the United States,” write Jakle and Sculle, “especially in county seat towns with court house squares, public space was systematically diverted to parking, thus eroding traditional open space in favor of auto storage.”

No great city has an abundance of parking. At least, that was the conclusion of Better Neighborhoods, a study by the San Francisco planning department, which described places like Joe DiMaggio’s childhood neighborhood of North Beach as a dying breed: “If we had to rebuild a place like North Beach under today’s [government imposed] parking requirements, as much as a third of the space where people live would be given up for parking. We would lose much of the street-life — the shops and cafes, the vendors and the stoops — that make areas like North Beach vibrant and interesting. We don’t build places like these today because we require so much parking. There are plenty of examples of the kinds of buildings our parking requirements result in. We just need to imagine a city composed entirely of these buildings, and ask ourselves if this is the kind of city we want in the future.”

Contrary to orthodox planning, great streets do well without “enough” parking. In the vibrant central district of Carmel, California for instance, off-street parking is prohibited. Similarly, Boston, New York and San Francisco limit parking downtown (though they require it everywhere else).

In 1923, Columbus, Ohio, became the first city to make off-street parking mandatory for all new apartment buildings. Twenty-five years later, 185 cities had introduced parking requirements for land uses ranging from hospitals and theatres to office buildings and houses. “By 1960,” Jakle and Sculle explain, “nearly every large American city included parking requirements in its zoning program not just for tall buildings but for all buildings.” Even Houston — a city without zoning — requires off-street parking for every imaginable land use (restaurants, shops, apartments and more).

In many counties, five parking spaces — about 1,500 square feet — are required for every 1,000 square feet of shop or restaurant floor space. In one especially arduous stipulation, Montgomery County, Maryland, required funeral parlors to provide 83 parking spaces (24,900 square feet) per 1,000 square feet of floor area. Perhaps that explains the high cost of dying.

Divorce Your Car author Katie Alvord reflects upon the priorities of a California city that required 2.8 public library books per thousand residents and 2.2 parking spaces for every housing unit; a 4,000 unit development with an average of 2.7 people per unit would need 30 new library books and 8,800 parking spaces (2,640,000 square feet). This could be why more people seem to know the make and model of a car than the capital of the neighboring state.

Unlike most zoning ordinances that simply prohibit something, parking requirements are proscriptive: They tell developers exactly what to do. No city bans the construction of apartments with one bedroom or bathroom. Many, however, ban the construction of apartments with only one parking spot. Converting buildings to different uses is difficult in places with supercharged parking requirements. In many cities, a new business simply cannot move into a building that formerly housed an operation with lower parking requirements without adding more spaces (or obtaining a variance).

Extensive parking requirements have reduced many architects to designing buildings around parking laws. “Form follows parking requirements,” laments parking guru, Donald Shoup. This was already the case in 1948 Los Angeles, when the Journal of American Institute of Planners noted that, “in many cases, the number of garage spaces actually control the number of dwelling units which could be accommodated on a lot.”

Since all units, irrespective of size, are generally required to have a parking spot, apartments have become larger and more expensive. The financial and logistical burden created by parking requirements restricts the rooming supply. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Shoup. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.”

Mandatory parking is almost always “free” (the law sometimes stipulates that it must be). In Los Angeles, for example, commercial and office spaces must provide at least three free parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet. Even when zoning laws don’t mandate free parking, the saturated “market” creates an expectation that parking will be free. Would there be any need for parking requirements if people were willing to pay? Wouldn’t profit-oriented businesses sell as much parking as they could charge for? Yet, drivers park free for 99 percent of all car trips. “It is no doubt ironic,” quipped German auto historian, Wolfgang Zuckermann, “that the motorcar, superstar of the capitalist system, expects to live rent-free.”

The push for subsidized parking began in the 1910s and 20s. Cities across the USA began devoting tens of millions of dollars to widen streets and cut down trees to increase parking space. Today it’s hard to find a street without space for curb parking, which Shoup argues, “may be the most costly subsidy Americans cities provide for most of their citizens.”

The cost of “free” parking is almost always hidden. Be it at Wal-Mart, McDonalds or a hospital, the free parking that lurks in the backyard of almost all private enterprise is buried in product prices. “Seemingly, everyone but the motorist pays for parking,” lament Jakle and Sculle. The cost of “free” parking is astronomical. In 2002, for instance, the total subsidy for off-street parking in the USA was between $127 billion and $374 billion. Shoup argues that, “The cost of all parking spaces in the U.S. exceeds the value of all cars and may even exceed the value of all roads.”

The financial and social costs of automobile storage are enormous. PARK(ing) Day helps shine a spotlight on this little discussed topic.

To participate go to

Friday, July 15, 2011


We don’t normally report on vehicle crashes here on the Capitol Hill blog, but this was so outrageous we couldn’t help ourselves.

A 30-year-old woman in Marietta, Georgia was convicted of vehicular homicide this week – and she wasn’t even driving a car. The woman was crossing the street with her three children when a driver, who had been drinking, hit and killed her four-year-old. The driver, Jerry Guy, was initially charged with “hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children,” Elise Hitchcock of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “Charges were later dropped to just the hit and run charge.”

The man has previously been convicted of two hit-and-runs – on the same day, in 1997, one of them on the same road where he killed Raquel Nelson’s son.

Guy will serve six months for killing the boy, but Nelson will serve up to 36 months – just for crossing the street with her child. Yes, it’s true: they were not in a crosswalk. Are there any crosswalks on that street at all?

Hitchcock at the AJC says:

The conviction does not sit well with Sally Flocks, president and CEO of PEDS, a pedestrian advocacy organization.

“Invest the money in safe crossings,” Flocks said. “For the costs of the trial yesterday, they could have made a safe crossing. But they don’t want to do that.”

The Atlanta-Sandy-Springs-Marietta, Georgia metro area ranks 11th in the country for most dangerous streets for pedestrians, according to Transportation for America’s recent report on pedestrian safety and street design. The region had nearly 800 pedestrian deaths between 2000 and 2009.

Despite the fact that Atlanta-area municipalities continue to build roads, like the one where Nelson’s son was killed, with inadequate pedestrian crossings and sidewalks, and despite the fact that the federal government continues to vastly underfund pedestrian safety infrastructure on federally-funded roads and highways, the courts have pointed the finger at Nelson, blaming her for the death of her son on a road that was designed with no regard for pedestrian safety.

via streetsblog


A Georgia mother who faced a longer prison sentence than the drunk driver who killed her son has avoided time behind bars, following a public outcry. An all-white jury had convicted Raquel Nelson, an African American, of homicide by vehicle and of jaywalking. Nelson’s son, A.J., was killed as the family attempted to cross a busy street between a bus stop and their apartment complex. There were no crosswalks nearby. After facing three years in prison, Nelson has been ordered to serve one year’s probation and carry out 40 hours of community service. The driver who struck and killed A.J. — a partially blind man who admitted to drinking and using painkillers the day of the accident — served six months and is currently on probation. An online petition demanding leniency for Nelson prior to her sentencing gathered more than 125,000 supporters.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Life in Louisiana, and on Earth, Struggles to Survive

Published on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 by New. Clear. Vision.
Life in Louisiana, and on Earth, Struggles to Survive
by John Clark

On this anniversary of the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, attention here in south Louisiana is focused on the consequences of that traumatic event. As the Deepwater Horizon disaster begins to recede into history, we have heard wildly divergent views of what its effects have been for our region.

On the one hand, we hear optimistic statements about the almost complete recovery of the Gulf. On the other, we hear troubling reports of what still lies beneath the surface, and of possible long-term ecological damage that can only be assessed after much careful scientific study. Meanwhile, tourist agencies and public officials urge us to relax, take a swim, and eat some seafood.

I suggest that in assessing the real costs of oil, we take a larger view of the matter.  What are its costs over the long term for this region, for humanity, and for the whole planet?

My family came to New Orleans almost three hundred years ago.  Over the centuries that we have been here, we have lived in a culture that has been shaped by the bodies of water that surround us: by the Gulf, the lakes, the bayous, the wetlands, and by the great river that created our landscape, the very ground on which we stand.

We might reflect for a moment on our local and regional history over that period, and on a much larger history of which we are a part. If we go back a century and a half, we find a Louisiana that was rich and powerful. Its power came from an economy based on cotton, sugar cane and slavery. This economy brought poverty and oppression to many, but wealth and prosperity to the rulers and the more privileged. It was also an economy that was doomed to extinction.

On the eve of the Civil War, the great geographer Reclus could observe that according to the conventional wisdom of the American South, this system of production “was not only a necessary and inexorable institution, but also a moral and humane one, producing the greatest political and social advantages.” Just as the economic system based on cotton, sugar cane, and slavery was about to collapse, and the entire old society with it, there was an almost universal outcry among those who could speak and be heard that that system was inevitable and eternal, that our society depended on it, and that without it there would be catastrophe. But this system was itself the catastrophe.

Since the recent dawn of the Petroleum Age, Louisiana has produced nearly twenty billion barrels of oil, generating enormous wealth for the national and global economies. Once again, the conventional wisdom has seen the prevailing economic order as both absolutely necessary and highly advantageous. But what, in reality, have the dominant extractive and petrochemical industries, and especially oil, brought to Louisiana? We are one of the poorest states. We are one of the least educated states. We are one of the unhealthiest states. We are one of the states in which government is most abjectly subservient to industry. We are one of the states most scarred by rampant corruption. We are one of the most environmentally devastated states.  And now, the oil industry has damaged coastal wetlands and Gulf ecosystems, quite possibly for a considerable period into the future, in the worst marine oil disaster in history.

But these are far from the greatest evils that have been inflicted on us by petro-tyranny. Thanks largely to the operations of the oil industry, two thousand square miles of our coastal wetlands have disappeared.  Communities whose lives have been dependent on these wetlands and on the Gulf for hundreds or, in the case of indigenous people, even thousands of years, are disappearing.  Finally, and most disastrously, global climate change caused by a carbon-based, and above all, a petroleum-based economy, will soon submerge coastal Louisiana entirely. Our home, our native land, will disappear forever.

We are not unique victims of such petro-terrorism. We might also ask what the oil industry has brought to humanity as a whole, and to the planet. Oil has fueled a powerful system of production, which, while creating massive amounts of material goods, has also been essential to creating the Sixth Great Mass Extinction in the three-billion-year history of life on earth. This is the great catastrophe of our age. It is, indeed, the single most important fact about life on earth at the present moment, and the single most traumatic one, which is why it is almost never mentioned in electoral campaigns, news reports, or textbooks.

Oil has also brought us global climate change that threatens to inundate not only our region, but lands where hundreds of millions of people live. It threatens to create a disaster for global agriculture, thus contributing to the possibility of a catastrophic population crash.  It threatens to aggravate species and ecosystem destruction, and thus accelerate the existing biodiversity crisis. This massive climate disruption is the second greatest catastrophe of our age, one which is now much discussed, but almost never faced as if it were a real, impending reality.

If we take an only slightly larger view of history than is customary, we will realize an obvious truth. Oil will end, and it will end very soon. The petroleum economy will decline, and it will do so in this century. The Petroleum Age will have existed for only a brief moment in human history, no more than a fleeting nanosecond in earth’s history.  The great question is how much social and ecological havoc it will wreak before it disappears.

The tragic irony is that we have the technological means to create abundance for all without the massive ecological devastation caused by fossil fuels (and other destructive technologies).  A large part of our challenge today, on the one-year anniversary of the worst marine oil disaster in history, is to learn to assess both the costs and benefits of oil in relation to something much greater: the value of the healthy flourishing of life on earth.
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