The Strong Towns Podcast
We advocate for a model of development that allows our cities, towns and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient.
Greatest Hits #9: Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform? (2015)
A lot of professions and organizations have an unspoken code, one that says, “We may air our disagreements internally, but to the rest of the world, we present a united front.” The police and the military, for example, tend to be this way. Families are often this way. This code can engender a really powerful sense of solidarity, which isn’t always a bad thing. But do civil engineers need a code like that? And what happens when speaking out for badly needed reform offends those who see it as an unjust provocation, attack on their livelihood, or even an act of betrayal? In our of our most important Strong Towns Podcast episodes of all time, and #9 in our Greatest Hits series, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn discusses his own experience with these attitudes, in an incident which occurred in early 2015. Who Represents the Engineering Profession? Chuck Marohn is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Minnesota. He is also a vocal advocate who has been extremely critical of aspects of the engineering profession, including in particular the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Chuck has called ASCE the leader of the Infrastructure Cult for its relentless advocacy for more money for civil engineering projects, no matter the cost to society. In early 2015, a fellow licensed engineer in Minnesota filed a complaint against Marohn’s engineering license. This complaint did not allege that Marohn was not a competent engineer. Rather, it was filed over a policy disagreement. It alleged that Marohn had violated a state statute by writing and saying things, here at Strong Towns, that served to “diminish public confidence in the engineering profession.” Let’s get this straight: a Professional Engineer (PE) license is a big deal. The licensing test is extremely difficult and rigorous. Most civil engineers, Marohn included, take great pride in their PE title. And yet, criticizing ASCE does not, and should not in anyone’s minds, equate to criticizing the engineering profession. No Incentive to Do Things Differently ASCE is unlike many professional organizations, in that it engages in routine political advocacy. ASCE advocates in the public sphere for things that will produce more money for more projects for more engineers—getting more things built out of concrete and asphalt and steel. Marohn argues strongly that this mindset—more is better—is a deeply harmful dogma within the profession at a time when most American cities and towns suffer both a public-safety crisis (because our streets are too wide and induce unsafe driving) and a fiscal solvency crisis (because our streets are too wide, our development pattern is too spread out, and we have built far too much infrastructure). The ASCE actively promotes the overbuilding of unnecessary and even harmful infrastructure. As an example, Marohn cites the often-used term “functionally obsolete bridges,” heard in debates about how much state and federal money is needed for infrastructure repairs. Many of these, it turns out, are simply one-lane bridges in rural areas, which are not actually in danger of falling down—but the “standard” says they should be two-lane. Because of the way engineering contracts work—often as a percent of construction cost—there is little to no incentive to cut costs. There is little to no incentive to do things in a profoundly more frugal way. There is little to no incentive to question industry design standards for things like street widths, if doing so would also mean losing out on project funding. In our cities and towns, our wide streets are killing people. Design could save lives. When you get into that conversation, some engineers get very upset. And one of those people, in 2015, got upset enough to challenge Chuck Marohn’s license. Spoiler alert: The complaint went nowhere—the state licensing board found “no violation” and recommended no further action. And a lot of people spoke up in defense of Chuck and Strong Towns, inc
Greatest Hits #8: Gross Negligence (2015)
You are grossly negligent if you show a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In other words, you’re aware that the safety of others is endangered, but you don’t do anything to act on that knowledge. Virtually nothing Strong Towns has done or said in ten years has inspired as much anger or controversy as the times we have argued that the engineering profession, for designing and building unsafe streets, deserves a share of the blame for the statistically inevitable tragedies that occur on those streets. And yet, this is some of the most important work we have done in our ten years. Because lives are at stake. People continue to be killed on urban streets that are designed to move cars quickly through complex environments. Among the cases that Strong Towns President Charles Marohn has written about at length: Springfield, MA: “An Open Letter to the City of Springfield” Buffalo, NY: “Dodging Bullets” Orlando, FL: “The Bollard Defense” Albany, NY: “A Statistically In...
Greatest Hits #7: Talking Debt and Self-Sufficiency With Mr. Money Mustache (2016)
In a bizarre round of the endless, massively multiplayer game of Telephone that is the internet, a recent Forbes headline pronounced, “Wealth Guru Plans Dutch-Style Car-Free Bicycle-Friendly City Near Boulder, Colorado.“ Other publications quickly jumped on the story about a supposed eco-friendly, urbanist, cycling utopia in the works at the base of the Rockies, which would have a population of 50,000 people in a single square mile and be the joint project of a Dutch urban design firm and a popular Colorado-based early retirement blogger. Unfortunately for those hoping to sell the car and move to Cyclocroft, there are no actual plans to build this experimental city. The whole thing was just a thought experiment, a series of tweets sharing the detailed (but fictional) 3D mockups of what a better and more fiscally resilient way to live in that corner of the world might look like. Fortunately for those who like good, thought-provoking content on how to detach from the mania of modern...
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