Marohn is nothing if not prolific, so there are hundreds of his essays and podcasts on the StrongTowns.org site. Of those, the single most important one is about a very simple but profound message that we’ve all learned but forgotten: Speed Kills. Below is the transcription of a 12 June 2015 monologue podcast by Marohn called “Gross Negligence.” This talk should be in the curriculum of every single engineering program and school of public administration in the United States.
Marohn’s message is one that Oregon officials and activists most need to read and reflect on at great length, and with an open mind, and an open heart. Because we know that systems produce what they are designed to, because “the purpose of a system is what it does.”
The text is lightly edited, mainly just to remove the kind of verbal tics that creep in when a brilliant mind is speaking with passion about a subject of deep study and personal meaning. Deletions are not marked, but words added by OregonPEN appear in [brackets] to indicate the source.
Many of you know I was in the United States Army. I was in the Army National Guard, actually; there is a distinction there. We train the same. We went to basic training and everything the same but I’m not going to pretend I was regular Army like those guys. Those guys are far more impressive soldiers than I ever was. I want to bring up though basic training because there was an experience I had in basic training that I think relates a little bit to the story I want to talk about today.
[There’s] this one point during basic where you get all your gear on. I don’t know if we had a pack or not but I know I felt like I had a lot of gear, and they put you in a trench, and it’s late at night, the sky is black, it’s dark out. They put you in a trench and they say “you’ve got to crawl forward and take this position a couple hundred yards away.” And what you’re crawling forward through is a field with barbed wire and little dugouts and other trenches and things like that. And as you crawl through this set of obstacles in the dark there’s explosives going off, these little areas that are kind of dug out have pyrotechnics in them, and they blow up and it shakes the ground and dirt flies on your head and that kind of thing. They are at the same time lighting off flares, so up in the sky there are these flares that go off and they illuminate things for a short period of time.
But the thing that is most I think unsettling is, at the time that you’re doing this, they’re shooting M60 rounds over your head. There’s a machine gun that is shooting at a target behind you, and you can see these tracer rounds, the red rounds that are every, I don’t know, fifth, seventh, something like that, round in the shells, are going over your head.
And it’s meant to, I believe from a training standpoint, give you a very basic, basic, and I’m not going to pretend this is at all like combat, but a very basic exposure to what it’s like to be under shell fire. I remember doing this but I remember it being, the one thing I remember most about it, is it being exhausting.
But I also remember it being a little discomforting to look up and see these rounds going over my head. Now at no point was anybody shot, obviously. I don’t think anybody has ever been shot on one of these. I actually think you could have stood up and not gotten shot. I think it was that far over your head. It was not like it was close, but still, the idea of a bullet passing within 20, 30, I don’t know, even 50 feet of your body if it was that high up, it kind of freaks you out a little bit. It kind of freaks you out.
I want to turn to transportation and the system that we have built and some of the assumptions that go into it because I wrote a series of articles this week on the blog that have gotten a lot of traction and a lot of discussion.
And it started with this observation about basic training, about how disconcerting and uncomfortable it was to have these rounds fired over my head. And in fact I went on the blog to point out that if we had someone who was setting up a — let’s say this was a fully acceptable thing — we had someone come to the community and set up in the middle of the street, a [machine gun] nest and pointed at a target a couple hundred yards down the street and that, this was someone who was [expert], target practice was what they did. In other words, there was really no realistic chance that they were going to hit someone or shoot someone or have a round go astray, would you walk down the street where this was going on?
And I’m not talking about walking down behind it, in front of it, I’m talking about next to it, adjacent to it. Bullets whizzing by 40 to 50 feet away, horizontal to you, expert marksmen set up perfectly dialed in, not very likely to have anything go astray, would you walk down the street and of course the answer would be no, that would be crazy, right?
We wouldn’t do that. Even though the odds of you getting hit are incredibly small, why would you take that risk? You’re just not going to do it. And in fact, I even put forth that, when it comes to my kids, I probably wouldn’t let my kids within blocks of this, right? I would say “stay six blocks away. I don’t want you anywhere near this exhibition going on because who knows what could happen.” Maybe the kid darts out into the street and a bullet goes astray or who knows. I just want you to stay far, far away from that.
As engineers, we routinely design streets that have design speeds in excess of what a neighborhood speed would be. We have design speeds in the 30, 40, 50, if you actually look at the lane widths and the shoulder widths and all that stuff, we have design speeds sometimes that are 60 miles an hour. We post them much lower than that when we get into the stroad situation. I’ll talk about stroads here in a second.
When we get in to those environments, we’ll often post them at 40, 45, maybe 30 miles an hour. People, we know, routinely drive 5-10 miles over the speed limit, so if you have something posted at 45 it’s not uncommon to have people driving 50-55.
When you step back and look at these environments you often see — and very, very often see, when we are getting in to cities or approaching cities or in urban environments — directly adjacent to this very fast-moving traffic, you see what? You see sidewalks. You see trails. You see pedestrian amenities right there, right adjacent to it.
Coming in to my hometown, we have South 6th Street. I had a council member on a few months ago or a few weeks ago talking about South 6th Street and the traffic along there goes at 45-50 miles per hour. I think it’s marked in that stretch at 40 miles per hour but — it could be slightly slower than that — but I know people drive through very fast, and on the very edge of South 6th Street is a sidewalk.
Now, very few people use the sidewalk, and that’s a rational response, but it’s not a rational response to the fact that people don’t want to walk or people wouldn’t walk if it were an option. It’s a rational response to the fact that people don’t want to walk within feet of fast moving cars.
People would not walk down a street with someone shooting a rifle at a target, even if it was an expert marksman who was never going to miss. People will also not walk down a street where there is a car driving 45-50 miles an hour ten feet away from them, even if the likelihood of that car going off the street and killing them is very small.
The number of instances that it happens is very small. This is all rational and we get this, we understand this. Yet, when we step back and we look at these environments as engineers, we design them — where we go through and we say “Alright, we’re going to have clear zones, we’re going to have setbacks, we’re going to have posts that have breakaway fixtures on the bottoms.”
If you ever notice a street light within [the clear zone] along a street, [or] a traffic signal. If you look at the bottom of those, they’ll have this kind of odd bolt configuration. They don’t go just straight into the ground. They have, at the ground level, they have a kind of double-bolt kind of thing. And that is a breakaway. Essentially, a sheer pin, so that — if a vehicle goes off the road and hits one of these posts, hits one of these poles, which was a common enough occurrence where it actually made sense to do this — if someone goes off the road and hits one of these, the pole will actually give and absorb some of the shock of this collision and all that shock won’t be absorbed by the vehicle and by the person driving.
[It’s] a common-enough occurrence [that] we’ve done this breakaway stuff.
Knowing this, and understanding this, and having this be a routine part of the way we design streets, we still design them to have sidewalks right adjacent to people driving very, very fast.
We design them where we know people go off the road because we design breakaway stuff, right? We know people go off the road, because we put in clear zones, we put in other areas, so we know this happens, it’s not a rare, rare occurrence. It occurs often enough for us to take all these proactive steps to deal with the people going off the road. Yet we design, as engineers, sidewalks and other pedestrian facilities to be right there in that same area. Why do we do this?
Now we can look at it from the pedestrian standpoint and say, well if we didn’t provide this accommodation, how would people without cars get anywhere? How would people who were walking or biking get anywhere? Would they have to go in the middle of the street with the 50 mile an hour traffic? That doesn’t seem very safe.
Would they have to find a different route, would they have to get a car? Actually it’s kind of funny, that’s what a lot of engineers have told me this week: Get a car, right?
But what if they don’t have a car? What if they’re young? What if they’re too old to drive? What if they’re not able to drive? What if they can’t afford a car? What if they have chosen to spend their money on something else and locate in a neighborhood where they can get to things without having to drive a car?
Well, right now, the engineering profession says “Okay, well the street is all about moving cars and all about moving cars quickly, that’s our charge, that’s our mandate. And if we have to handle pedestrians, if we have to handle other people who are not in automobiles, yeah, that’s not our preference, that’s not what we like to do and we really can’t do it very safely but I’ll tell you what we’ll do, we’ll put the sidewalk over here and you guys can use that, good luck.”
Good luck. And, by the way, we know, we’re well aware, that cars go out of control all the time and cars run into things that are in the same area that you’re going to be in on the sidewalk as a pedestrian, but good luck with that. Good luck with that.
In Buffalo, New York, within the last few weeks, there was a terrible, terrible accident. And I’m going to get the names of all this stuff wrong. It’s on the, it’s, I’m not even going to try to say it. It’s some Native American name that I’m sure is a beautiful and gorgeous name that my Norwegian tongue will just do horrible things to. So let’s just say, my first glance said it looked like Sacajawea, but that shows you that I went to schools using North American textbooks. [Scajaquada], something like that expressway. Anyway let’s just say it’s easier for me as an engineer to call it . . . Highway 198. Let’s just say that. Highway 198.
There’s a park in Buffalo, New York. There’s a college there, there’s some other campus type things there, and then there’s a big park. And this highway runs right through the middle of it. My understanding is that this is one of those Robert Moses-era kind of things, maybe it was a little roadway that ran through there before, a little trail, we went out and “improved this” by making it into a highway. And I actually looked at it pretty thoroughly on Google with the street view, and for the most part it is a highway. It has highway geometries, it has grade-separated interchanges, it has wide clear zones for part of it, it has sound barriers and other things. It’s very much [a] highway. But a part of it runs through a park and this is a park where people actually go. So it’s a park designed for people, and people actually take it upon themselves to go there.
And in a horrible, horrible tragedy a motorist left the road and, predictably, as happens from time to time on these places . . . right? This is why we design breakaway poles, this is why we design breakaway facilities, this is why we have clear zones, because we know people go off the roadway. Someone went off the roadway, hit a mother with a stroller, killed one of her children and put the other child in the hospital.
This is a horrible catastrophe and I point this one out, I’m going to say this now, I may say it again in a little bit, I’m going to give you three stories about children getting killed on roadways. I don’t do this to shock you, and I’m not doing this because there’s a special thing about children, or it’s salacious because it’s children, I’m not doing this to be gratuitous.
I’m doing this because people send me these things every day all the time. I could do “child getting killed in auto accident, in auto collision, children in cars, children out of cars,” I could do this story three, four times a week. It happens all the time.
I’m going to give you these stories because I want to walk you through our response to them and how it needs to change.
So you have this horrible tragedy where the mother, kids hit, kid killed, terrible, terrible, terrible thing. I want to focus on what our response was. Because the governor, Andrew Cuomo — and I’m not from New York, I’m not going to weigh in on New York politics. New York is a fascinating state and obviously we get a little bit of what goes on there because it’s such a dominant place. The governor came out shortly after this, with all the public outrage, and said he wanted to see two things done — two things that are, to me, kind of the antithesis of each other.
The first thing he wanted was he wanted the speed limits lowered. This should not be a highway speeds through this park, we’ve got to lower speeds, the speed should be lowered to 30 miles an hour throughout this entire stretch.
The second thing he said was we also need to put in guard rails and he called them “park-appropriate guard rails” I think is what he said. Oh yeah, park-appropriate guard rails to protect people. So, essentially, put up some barriers, put up some armor to keep the cars on the roadway.
This response embodies our national confusion — that begins with the engineering profession and just spreads out from there — about roads, streets and the difference between the two.
And I want to pause here and focus on that particular order from the governor a little bit because what he did, in Strong Town’s language, is [he] said “I want Highway 198 to be a street and I want 198 to be a road.” What we have called a stroad.
A stroad is a street-road hybrid. We call this the futon of transportation. As a futon is an uncomfortable couch that makes into an uncomfortable bed, the stroad is a piece of transportation investment that tries to do two things at once and does neither of them optimally. It tries to be both street and road.
What is a road? A road is a high speed connection between two places. It’s a replacement of the railroad, which is a road on rails. You have a place and another place and you connect them with a high-speed connection. That is what a road is. A road is about moving people quickly. When you have roads you don’t have other things there, right? You don’t want turning traffic, you don’t want traffic parking, you don’t want people at different speeds. You certainly don’t want pedestrians. You don’t want bicyclists, you don’t want other people in the road because the road is about moving cars quickly. It’s about moving busses quickly. It’s about moving people from one place to another very, very quickly. This is not conducive to complexity.
A street, on the other hand, is a platform for creating wealth. A street is today, and always has been, a platform for creating wealth. And in streets we want all of the complexity that we don’t want in roads. We want cars turning, we want cars stopping, we want cars parking. We want people, we want people walking, we want people jogging, we want people on bikes. We want them all integrated together in a really, really safe kind of place.
When we build stroads what we do is try to compromise between the two of those. We try to have just enough mobility to allow you to get somewhere, not real quickly, but quicker than you otherwise would. And we also want development. We want access. We want people to be able to be there. We want cars to be able to turn and we want kind of a moderate amount of complexity.
These are not only the most expensive environments to build and the lowest-returning environments in terms of financial productivity, but they are also, from a safety standpoint, the most dangerous types of places we can build.
When you mix fast-moving traffic with complexity, statistically it is inevitable that you will have tragedy. When you mix fast-moving traffic with complexity, it is statistically inevitable that you will have tragedy.
That is what occurred here in Buffalo. And so the governor’s response is essentially “make the stroad even more stroady” in a sense. We want to slow down the cars, which is a primary strategy when we’re building a great street. When we’re building a great street, we need to slow cars way, way down because they need to be able to be compatible and mix with people. So 20 miles an hour or less design speeds are absolutely what’s necessary for great streets.
When we’re talking about roads, we want to get people and obstacles and complexity out of the way so we can increase speeds. Well, the governor wants to do that too. Governor Cuomo says “I want guard rails. I want to keep the pedestrians back. I want to make sure that the vehicles can fly through here without having to worry about any complexity, without having to worry about people stepping out or humanity outside of an automobile.”
This is indicative of the incoherent approach that we have to roads and streets. This is indicative of the incoherent approach that we take. Sometimes you can see, in great tragedy, in our reaction to great tragedy, what our gut instincts are.
In this case, our gut instincts about transportation kind of begin and end with confusion. Is this a road for moving people quickly from one place to another? If it is, then you need to get rid of all the complexity. You need to get rid of all the people. You need to get rid of anything that would slow cars down and allow Highway 198, this beautifully named expressway, to function as an expressway.
Or is this an investment designed to create wealth? Is this designed to be a street, a platform for creating value within this community? If it is, and quite frankly I think it should be, but if it is, then we need to do the exact opposite of what’s being proposed.
We don’t need guard rails, we need more people. We don’t need 30 mile an hour speeds, we need 20 mile an hour speeds or less. We need people to be able to flow back and forth. We need development. We need intensity. We need complexity. We need all the things that make streets fantastic.
I want to highlight then a second story that I brought up this week. And this one’s from Florida. And this one kind of illuminates, once again, the responses that we’re conditioned to make when tragedy occurs. This one a little bit different but kind of similar result:
A stroad environment, one of these street-road environments where we try to have high access and high mobility at the same time. You’ve got fast-moving cars along with turning traffic. An individual coming along left the roadway. There’s debate as to why this person left the roadway. It was noted that the person was a drug trafficker, not sure what that had to do with how the person was driving. Nonetheless, it was implied that the person was driving recklessly because they had drugs in their trunk or something like that.
Either way the individual left the roadway, ran into another car. That car was propelled into the entrance of a daycare facility that was located 100 plus feet back from the edge of the road. When they were propelled into the daycare facility, they struck and killed a child and sent seven more to the hospital with serious injuries. There were a number of other people that were injured as well but [who] didn’t require hospitalization.
Obviously, again, a horrible, horrible tragedy, and I don’t bring this one up to be gratuitous. I don’t bring this one up to pull on your heartstrings with this being children. If that were the goal, like I said, I could do this two, three times a week because these kind of things happen all the time. They happen all the time around this country. Kids getting killed by cars, adults getting killed by cars. People are getting killed, it continuously happens all the time. I could not keep up if this was a podcast about kids getting killed with automobiles.
This one is interesting because it ties into the last one and it shows again our response. There was a lot of shock and outrage in the community. Obviously this pulled on a lot of people’s heartstrings. The mayor of the city where this happened commissioned a study for people to come back and give recommendations on what should be done so that this kind of tragedy never happens again.
And I want to quote a little bit some of the statistics that these studies came back with. It said, this is from the Orlando Sentinel: “In the days after the accident Mayor Teresa Jacobs directed county staff from various departments to look at how much of a public safety threat vehicle crashes pose to ‘vulnerable populations’ such as children and seniors. The KinderCare crash was a result of a mix of factors. An initial crash involving two vehicles followed by one driver failing to brake and hitting the daycare center.”
The numbers are pretty stark he said. This is one of the people who did the study: “What we found is, nationally, there’s 60 a day, causing almost 4,000 injuries and 500 deaths a year. Locally the team found 73 incidents in which vehicles hit buildings in unincorporated Orange County over a two year span, resulting in 37 people requiring a trip to the hospital. They found an additional 1,800 road departures, instances of vehicles losing control and leaving the roadway but not striking buildings over a 15 month span.”
So that’s from the Orlando Sentinel. You see that the county is well aware that vehicles leaving the roadway, what do they call [it], road departures, is a serious problem. It happened 1,800 times in the last year and three months, right? It happens a lot. A lot.
And a lot of these places where we have road departures are places where we have sidewalks right along the edge of the road and, in this instance, [we] have a daycare that, while it was set back with a big parking lot out front, was directly adjacent to this high speed strip road environment.
What do you think the response was of the county and the daycare facility after this horrible, horrible tragedy? Well I, maybe could have predicted it, although it’s appalling to me. This is from the Orlando Sentinel, I am going to read you the lead in this article:
“Where once there was only a hedge, now five heavy planters and six concrete spheres stand guard in front of a building presenting a barrier designed to protect those inside should another vehicle come careening towards it. Plans are underway that should make such barriers standard at daycare centers around Orange County.”
So here’s what happened. The response to this was very simple. We need more concrete barriers. We need, in this environment where we have kids getting picked up and dropped off, where we have children at play, what we need here in order to keep everybody safe and keep everything going right, what we need are concrete bollards. We need armor, right? We need to have more armor, more padding.
This is our same mental approach that we take to carseats, right? It isn’t – never! –that you would recommend that you drive less, right? You have a vulnerable child, a young kid who needs to sit in a car seat. Oh no, don’t reduce the amount you drive, that’s never on the table, just put them in a car seat, right? Even though car seats are only rated up to 35 miles an hour, and even then [they] are not going to protect your kid from having serious concussions etc. if there’s an accident, if they get in a collision of some sort.
In this case, it’s the same exact mentality. We’re not going to deal with the design of the stroad, we’re not going to deal with the fact that cars go off, we’re not going to deal with the sidewalk and the fact that some of these kids are going to be walking down, biking down the sidewalk in order to get to the daycare facility, being pushed perhaps in a stroller by their parents.
No, what we’re going to do is, outside of the entrance which itself is 100 feet back from the edge of the stroad, we’re going to put up concrete bollards so that if a car does come careening off the road again it will get stopped by these bollards before it enters our front doorway.
This is offensive to me. It’s offensive to me in many, many ways.
But it’s offensive particularly when we start thinking about the tradeoffs at play here. And of course, what’s the obvious thing that isn’t being talked about? And this is going to come up in the third example that I give.
The obvious thing not being talked about here is vehicle speed.
We have environments that are designed for very fast vehicle speeds and we design, in these environments, facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, knowing that there will be collisions between the two. Knowing that, in this one county, 1,800 cars in 15 months left the roadway.
We know this is a common occurrence that happens all the time, yet we put these pedestrian facilities right there on the edge of it and no one will talk about speed. What do we need? We need more armor. We need more barriers. We need, in the next example you’ll see, public service announcements and things like that, telling people to be careful, be alert.
But we never, ever talk about the speed. And why don’t we talk about the speed?
There’s really one kind of insidious answer to this. And this is going to contrast a little bit with what I’m going to say in the next example because it’s going to let the engineers off the hook a little bit here.
But the insidious reason why we don’t talk about speed is that we high correlate speed with economic opportunity. We highly correlate speed with mobility. The faster you can go, the more places you can get to in a certain amount of time, and the more places you can get to in a certain amount of time, the better our economic environment is.
This is why we’re so obsessed with congestion, right. Congestion allegedly is really, really bad for economic development. We focus, in the engineering profession, on speed because speed is seen as being a great correlation for mobility, which itself is a great correlation for economic growth and economic success.
When we look at the environment that this daycare’s in, it’s the typical stroad environment. The big box stores, the strip malls, the fast food joints, the stuff that looks good for 20-25 years. And I say “looks good” in being very generous. I think this stuff looks like junk on Day One. But it’s shiny and new, it gives off the aura of being new and well designed and what have you. It gives off that illusion.
But we can go back 25-30 years later and see that these places don’t age well. These places don’t hold their value. These places are not ones that look good from the outside.
What we have discovered here at Strong Towns, and kind of the core essence our message, along with Joe Minicozzi at Urban 3 and the work that he and Josh McCarty there have done, have demonstrated clearly, that these type of environments not only are the most expensive to build but had the lowest return on our investments. They are — on a per-acre basis, on a per-foot basis, whatever basis you want to judge it on, that is an apples-to-apples comparison with other parts of the community — these are the places that yield the least. They are the most expensive to build and the least yielding in terms of tax base, in terms of jobs, in terms of economic growth and development.
We are essentially hooked on speed and hooked on fast-moving traffic because we think it correlates with mobility, and we think mobility correlates with these fast food joints, strip malls and big box stores that we call economic growth and development.
The reason why this offends me so bad is that, that’s not a fair trade off, right? That’s not a fair trade off. Not only is it not true — I mean, we could do a whole podcast on this speed issue and the fact that speed does not equal mobility, does not equal economic growth — but let’s pretend for a second that it did.
Look at the economic growth we’re getting, I mean crappy fast food, right, low-wage franchise jobs, low-wage big-box jobs, right? These are not the places driving our economy. These are the places serving our consumptive needs in a way that could be served far, far differently with a different development pattern.
In other words, it is not essential that we have this stuff. It’s not like, if you didn’t have the stroad with the McDonald’s, that you would never get a fast food hamburger, you’d never get a hamburger, right? This is just silly. This is just silly.
This is the way we’ve convinced ourselves we have to build to provide these things. It is a completely false assumption. We are trading not only our wealth but our safety for the lowest-returning investments that are really, really not that great anyway, even if they weren’t so low returning.
I want to switch now to the third example and this one comes from Oregon, Springfield, Oregon, where a 68-year-old gentleman driving a pickup truck went through a light — and there’s some contest about whether it was red at the time he went through or not, or at what phase of changing it was in. But, nevertheless, this individual went through a light. A mother with three kids going back from getting ice cream were walking through the crosswalk, three children were killed. In just what is a horrible, horrible, horrible tragedy.
There’s been a lot of outrage in the Oregon area and Springfield area about this particular thing. A lot of people saying — and this is a part of the world where people are quite tuned into the cyclist message, quite tuned in to the pedestrian message, much more than in Florida, there’s a very strong dialogue going on about biking and about walking — and a lot of advocates there say “this is not an accident, don’t call it an accident. This is a collision. This person is negligent. He should go to prison. This is vehicular homicide,” and there’s a whole debate going on there.
Some of you listening may be involved in it and some of you listening may have very strong opinions about this. There’s a debate going on there about how do we hold this person accountable as a way to deter others from being so reckless.
Horrible, horrible, horrible situation. Now, again, this is another stroad environment. You’ve got four lanes, wide shoulders, pedestrian facilities right directly adjacent to the roadway. You’ve got a fifth lane, a turn lane in the middle. Everything here is about high speed, high-speed traffic. This runs right through the middle of the town but you’ve got the DOT controlling it.
When this one happened, there’s a bunch of community meetings talking about what do we do, how do we address this, we can’t just let this go, we’ve got to do something. I’m going to read from the local newspaper there. “The City Council is discussing safety proposals at a meeting Monday night. Mayor Christine Lundgren told the Register Guard newspaper she wants everything on the table. Ideas range from increased enforcement to more public safety announcements.”
Does this seem adequate to you?
It doesn’t to me. Let’s just talk about — increased enforcement is one of those things that gets thrown out a lot. Actually, I see engineers do this a lot. Engineers will say “I just design and build the road according to the standards and it’s not up to me to police it, you know — If people aren’t going to obey the law, that’s why we have law enforcement. Get out there and enforce the law.” As if, as one police officer was quoted as saying once “Why is it up to me to spend my resources enforcing your terrible design? You’re the one who designed this thing to encourage everybody to drive fast. Why is it up to me to spend my resources to get them to drive slow?”
It doesn’t work anyway. Enforcement is not a long term deterrent.
Who is most likely to speed in these places? It’s been shown, time and time and time again, that the locals are the ones most likely to speed. Think of yourself when you go to a new place, a place you’ve never been, never, ever been. What do you do? You tend to drive, most people tend to drive, a little bit slower because you’re not exactly sure where the bends are, where the people normally are going to be turning, where they’re going to be stopping. You don’t really know the lay of the land and you tend to proceed with a little bit more caution.
But when you’ve been in a place a long time, when you’ve driven a route a thousand times and you know where everybody’s at, and it’s become so routine, what you do is you tend to relax, and you tend to drive the speed you feel comfortable with, which in the stroad designs is very, very fast, because they’re designed for very fast speeds. They’re designed to accommodate a car operating at peak speeds, right?
So the idea that we’re going to increase enforcement as a way to get people to slow down and stop tragedies like this from happening is just silly. It’s just silly. But even more silly than that is the whole idea of public service announcements.
And I’ve had people say to me, “Chuck, these things work,” right? I think that that is crap. I mean, I don’t believe that at all, and if you’re citing statistics that correlate some public service announcement with statistically significant change in traffic collisions, I want to see [those]. I have a really, really hard time believing there’s a correlation there where we can show A leads directly to B. That just seems insane to me. And I’ll tell you why it seems insane to me.
If you’re trying to tell people to slow down, “Hey, be aware, move with care, watch the road,” we got all these fancy ideas, slogans and stuff we come up with, we hire the PR firms to put this stuff together. You’re telling me that that is more effective than having three kids killed? Isn’t having three kids killed kind of like a public service announcement in and of itself?
I mean, I realize that’s not the reason for it, but, my gosh, you have three kids mowed down on the street, that’s in the paper, that’s being talked about all over, it’s this horrible, horrible community tragedy. You don’t think that is more effective than a public service announcement?
That kind of thing happens all the time. Who listening to this does not know someone who has been killed in an auto accident or horribly injured in an auto accident? Who does not know someone who has experienced that? I know lots of people. I know lots of people that have gotten hit, have gotten killed, have gotten injured. Heck, I’ve gotten in [one]. I wrote a blog post a while back about this horrible head-on collision I had on a highway. Someone came across the lane into my lane, I hit them, I went off the road, I hit a tree, had concussion, was out, I mean, just, like, delirious for about two and a half months. It was a horrible experience.
We all know this, right? We’ve all seen this. You think that’s not public service announcement enough? You think public service announcements actually change people’s [habits]? I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all.
And in fact, on this stretch of road here, I’m going to quote from an article about this particular thing. It came out that in this stretch of road there had been 14 deaths and I’m looking, I’m scanning this really quickly to figure out what that time frame is. There’s 14 deaths on this particular stretch of road in a relatively short period of time. Let’s say a decade. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t like all [that much] time, it was a relatively short period of time.
Do you think having that many accidents, that many collisions, that many deaths in one stretch of road is not a public service announcement enough for this community? Come on. Come on. But that’s what’s on the table, right. That’s what’s on the table.
Now as I’ve been talking here, I’ve used the word accident a number of times, and I know there’s some of you out there that have probably already written and sent me the email when you’ve listened saying “Chuck, these are not accidents. These are whatever way you are going to describe this, it’s not an accident, right?” Someone is being willful here, someone is being negligent here, someone should be held responsible here. Okay, that’s fine. We’re going to disagree on that point to an extent.
But I want to focus on an editorial that was written by the local newspaper there in Springfield that dealt with this and their editorial was called “When A Tragic Accident is Just a Tragic Accident.” And they are essentially addressing you people out there who are at this point mad at me for calling this an accident. And believe me, I’ve had all the people on the blog vent at me as well.
Here’s what the newspaper said. And, by the way, I totally agree with them on this. Let me read this:
“There are few words as inadequate as accident in describing a tragedy of this magnitude. It’s hard not to feel outraged that Thorpe (this is the guy who was driving) isn’t being held criminally accountable for a clear failure with such devastating consequences. How can there be no one to pay for the violent deaths these three children suffered? But, as wholly unsatisfying as it might be, accident is the only way to accurately describe what unfolded at that intersection on February 22. Investigators found no evidence that Thorpe was impaired, using a phone or speeding. While the community may be searching for a way to ease its grief prosecutors cannot look at heartbreak and anger as the building blocks of a case.”
What if — and I want all of you who are upset right now about the use of the word accident, to take a deep breath — and I want all of you out there who are just inclined to use the word accident to also take a deep breath, because you both are probably going to be upset with me by the time we’re done here.
I want you to take a step back and just play with me here for a second. Assume that this individual was, as reported, not driving recklessly, not texting, not speeding, not daydreaming, was completely attentive. Let’s suppose for an instant that everybody was operating exactly how the roadway was optimally designed, everybody was following the rules, everybody was, and tragedy nonetheless occurred, right? Tragedy nonetheless occurred.
I can tell you, in my personal car accident, where I got hit with a car, you could blame someone. I mean, you could point and say “the woman who rear-ended this person was in the wrong, the other woman who had her wheels turned should not have done that.” There were all these like tiny little things that people had done slightly wrong that could have prevented that. But yet — I mean, I was the one who got, everybody else was okay. I was the one who got taken to the hospital. I was the one who had the worst trauma. I don’t look at this and say they’re all to blame.
I mean these were a series of small predictable unfortunate things that accumulated, but let’s even say in this instance there isn’t that. What do you do?
What do you do at this point? No public service announcement can fix that. No enforcement can fix that. No taking away of someone’s license can fix that. There is nothing in the world that could have prevented that in the current context of what we have built and what we have constructed.
This is where I get to what I think needs to be done. And it goes to that issue of speed. Speed equals mobility, mobility equals economic development and gain, we have to have speed because we need the development, we need the growth. That’s the way we make the world work.
And I’ve argued for a long time that we don’t. We need great streets, right? We need great roads and we need great streets. We need to eliminate these stroad environments. And I’ve made that argument over and over again from an economic development standpoint, but I’m now going to make it from both a liability standpoint and also a public safety standpoint.
The article that ran in that letter to the editor, or was an editorial that ran in the local newspaper there in Springfield, contained a really interesting statement about liability. Because they got into this issue that all of you “never use the word accident” people get into, which is “someone is liable,” right? Someone is liable. Someone is guilty. Someone needs to pay. Someone should be strung up in the town square as a deterrent to everybody. Someone has to be made to pay. They actually got into that, and they got into court cases citing what makes someone liable and what make someone negligent and what have you.
And here’s one of the things that they said. They said [that] there’s a court case that established “that mere inadvertence, brief inattention or error in judgment as the proper speed does not constitute gross negligence.” Unless there’s a component of recklessness such as drinking or a — and here’s where I want to emphasize — “a conscious indifference to the safety of others.”
So what courts have said, and I think this is a human standard that we can all kind of essentially agree with — I mean, there might be people who would want to go further than this, but I think, for the most part, most of us can agree that you are grossly negligent if you are reckless.
For instance you’re out drinking and driving, or what have you, you’re driving impaired in some way or you show a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In other words, you’re aware that the safety of others is in danger and impaired but you are indifferent to it. You don’t do anything really to act proactively on that knowledge and awareness.
In this situation that we’re looking at, these three situations that I’ve described to you, the one in Buffalo, the one in Florida, the one in Oregon, who — of all the parties that have an interest here — are very well aware of the safety and how certain people are imperiled but yet are choosing to do absolutely nothing about it? And [who], in fact, have actually created the conditions whereby that imperilment is increased?
I can only point to one subset of people, and that is the people who design these environments, who sign the plans, who have professional licensure that requires them to consider these things but are not doing so. This being the professional engineers, the transportation engineers, the traffic engineers, the design engineers, the people who are putting these places together.
They are showing a conscious indifference to the safety of people.
I’m going to go back to the very beginning, where I talked about breakaway light poles. We know as engineers that cars go off the roads. We know this because, not only do we have statistics that show it, but we’ve actually taken steps to ensure that, when they go off the road, they’re not going to hit things because we know that that’s really, really dangerous. We have breakaway poles, we have clear zones, we have all these things. Yet, knowing that, and understanding that clearly, so clearly that we spend millions of dollars designing facilities to handle that, we also design pedestrian and bike facilities to be directly adjacent, in the same exact areas that we know cars are going to go. If that is not showing a conscious indifference to the safety of others I don’t know what is. I don’t know what is.
Now the articles that I wrote got picked up on Reddit by an engineer group. I don’t have time to go through here in this podcast all the things that were brought up in that group. First of all just the silliness of assuming I’m not an engineer. “This person obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about because they don’t have a license. Oh you do have a license, oh you must be brand new and naive. Oh I guess you’re 42, you’re not a brand new engineer and naïve, well you must not be practicing in the places we are.”
It’s just this long litany of stupidity, right? But one of the things that kept coming up over and over again is that pedestrians just shouldn’t be there. Like, “Why would you go there, it’s dangerous. Pedestrians should know that. Essentially they’re taking the risk upon themselves when they go there knowing that it’s dangerous. It’s not our fault, it’s not our fault. They should know.”
Not only is that a horrid viewpoint. Not only is that a barbaric sentiment. Listen, I think if you sat a thousand engineers down, the majority of them would deny that statement, would say “I’m not with that.” But, nevertheless, it was a prevalent part of the conversation, and it kept coming up over and over. “Pedestrians should not be there. They should know they shouldn’t be in these places.”
Okay I’m fine with — there’s a part of me that gets that, like — I’m fine with it in the extent that we shouldn’t be designing facilities for them if the objective is to move cars quickly.
But if the objective is to move people there’s only one response that engineers can take. There is only one response that we can do that will make these places safe, that will make these places work, that will stop showing a conscious indifference to the people who are directly adjacent to them and that is to slow the cars. That is to slow cars down.
And it’s not “slow cars by having lower speed limits,” thank you, Andrew Cuomo. It’s not “slow cars by public service announcements.” It’s actually slowing down cars by having a design that induces people to drive slower.
In some parts of the world they call these self-explaining streets. There are many ways to do this. Narrower lanes, get rid of the clear zones. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while you’ve heard Ben Hamilton Bailey quote Hans Monderman saying the only way to make a road safe is to make it dangerous.
What he’s implying there, what I am suggesting here, is that when we remove all the obstacles and try to make things as safe as we can for drivers what we do is we give them an illusion of safety that encourages them to drive faster. It gives them a license, it warrants them to be able to drive faster because they can drive at higher speeds and not feel at all impaired themselves.
They’re impairing others, right? You hit someone at 40 miles an hour walking in the sidewalk because you have a moment of inattentiveness, not something that is the driver’s fault by criminal statutes, right? A moment of inattentiveness, and you kill someone, that’s very predictable. We see that kind of thing happen all the time, right, you’re not negligent, it just happens.
We go to great lengths to clear obstacles from a path, but we know people are going to be there, right? The only way we deal with this is to slow down traffic. We’ve got to slow down cars. So we make things feel — for the driver, not that they can go fast because all the obstacles have been removed from the way, but that they themselves are going to suffer some peril unless they drive slow, right? — that it really does not feel safe for them to drive faster than what is a safe neighborhood speed, 20 miles per hour.
We do this by narrowing lanes, we do this by putting obstacles back in. We do this by eliminating clear zones, eliminating shouldering and buffers and all the stuff we do today that gives drivers of automobiles a license to drive more quickly. These are the steps we need to take.
And the engineering profession, in my conversations with people on Reddit and on other places, just seems wholly unprepared intellectually as well as just institutionally to deal with a world where we have urban streets at slow, slow speeds. Yet this is the world that needs to come about.
And I have to admit, and maybe in closing, here, as an engineer, that over the [years], if I go back in my career and look at when I designed and built places like this, it was certainly easy for me to show a conscious indifference to pedestrians.
I knew they were there. I put in facilities for them, knowing that they were there. I designed the breakaway facilities, knowing that cars would go off the road even though pedestrians were there, and pedestrians, while being breakaway, are not exactly replaceable, right.
But it was easy for me to show a conscious indifference to pedestrians because their safety was not what I was charged with, right? I was charged with moving cars quickly in an environment that could be as high performing and as safe for automobile travelers as it possibly could. It was easy for me to show that conscious indifference.
What we need is for the public, our public officials and our non-engineering staff to demand that our engineers stop showing a conscious indifference to the safety of pedestrians. That they start taking into account the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists when they design facilities.
The first thing they’re going to do is come back to you and say, well we need a ton more money then, because we’re going to need pedestrian over ramps and we’re going to need tunnels, and we’re going to need extra facilities, and we’re going to have to buy tons of right of way, we can’t do this with the budgets that you have given us.
And your response needs to be yes, you can. Yes, you can. You can do it by slowing down cars.
If you slow down cars, if you design space so that cars travel at 20 miles an hour or less, so we go out with a radar gun and we do a speed test and we find that the 85th percentile speed is 20 miles per hour or less, if you do that when cars go off the road — which they will much less [often] at lower speeds — but when they do go off the road, there will be a far, far, far less likelihood that they are going to kill somebody. That’s what we want. That’s what we want to see. That’s the change we need to have happen.
Engineers are good people. They want to do the right thing. I really firmly believe that. But they’re trapped institutionally, they’re trapped intellectually in a realm where they are showing conscious indifference to a vast spectrum of humanity. That must end. That must end.