Episode 129: Killed By A Traffic Engineer

Doug Gordon: Hey, everybody. It’s Doug here, and I am at Velo-city, one of the biggest bike conferences in the world. This year, it is hosted in the city of Ghent in Belgium. It’s just been incredible. And randomly, I have been walking around and I have seen a lot of people wearing their Cleverhood.

Doug: All right, Coach Sam Balto, former guest of the podcast, bike bus advocate extraordinaire, you are wearing your Cleverhood anorak here at Velo-city. Have people said anything about your jacket?

Sam Balto: I feel like this is my cape. I’ve had people from all around the world recognize me with my Cleverhood bike bus jacket. And so it’s been amazing to see how, you know, just the joy and excitement of the bike bus has been so infectious, and that these amazing Cleverhood jackets have kind of been the way that people recognize it.

Doug: And it’s funny that you say it’s your cape because they make capes, but you’re wearing the jacket.

Sam Balto: Originally, I asked Susan to make us capes, and she was very adamant that we have the anorak jackets because it would be better for us signaling and, you know, corking the intersections for the leaders of the bike bus. And I couldn’t agree more that these anoraks are just the best quality. They really make us feel special while we’re leading the bike bus and making sure kids get to school safely.

Doug: And the nice thing is, Susan at Cleverhood, the whole Cleverhood gang, they support the bike bus. It’s not just they’re giving you these jackets, but when you make a purchase of a bike bus jacket, of a War on Cars jacket, that money goes to the groups, the organizations like yourself that are doing the work out there on the streets.

Sam Balto: What’s really exciting is that with Susan and Cleverhood, the money that, you know, goes, a percentage of it, we’re partnering with local nonprofits in Portland, but hopefully to spread it around the country, that go and help teach kids how to ride bikes and give kids bikes. And so it’s really important that, you know, we use our, you know, funds to support more kids being able to have access to bicycles.

Doug: Wherever you are in the world, if you want to stay dry and support some great causes, go to Cleverhood.com/WaronCars. Enter code OVERTHERAINBOW for 15 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store. That’s Cleverhood.com/WaronCars, coupon code OVERTHERAINBOW.

Doug: This is The War on Cars. I am Doug Gordon, and I am sitting with my co hosts, Aaron Naperstek and Sarah Goodyear.

Aaron Naparstek: Hello.

Sarah Goodyear: Hey there.

Doug: How you both doing?

Aaron: Pretty good. How you doing?

Doug: Well … [laughs]

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: Today is the aftermath day of Governor Kathy Hochul announcing that she is going to annihilate congestion pricing.

Doug: If we are a little angrier than usual, that might be why. But we have a good reason to actually be happy because we have a great guest with us, and we’re gonna talk about that in just a minute. But first …

Sarah: We are on Patreon, and you can support us on Patreon if you want. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and sign up today. For just $3 a month, you’ll get exclusive bonus content, ad-free versions of episodes like this one, and your support helps us keep the podcast going and growing. So a huge thank you to all of you who support us.

Doug: Okay, so because it has the word ‘engineering’ right in there, the field of traffic engineering is something a lot of people assume is governed by science, by data, by rules that are based on sort of rational studies and analysis. But there’s a new book written by a traffic engineer himself, and he argues that this is not the case at all. The book is called Killed by a Traffic Engineer, and it’s by Wes Marshall, who’s a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado-Denver. And Wes says that the idea that the design of our transportation system is governed by science, well, that’s a delusion, and that there must be a drastic mindset shift among the very people who are in charge of building our streets so that safety isn’t just an afterthought, but it’s prioritized. Wes Marshall, welcome to The War on Cars.

Wes Marshall: Thank you. It’s good to be here. I feel like I’m maybe welcoming you all to my civil war with traffic engineers a little bit.

Doug: Yeah. You know, so this is a pretty provocative title. And we know something about provocative titles. How is this landing in the world of traffic engineering?

Wes Marshall: If people can get past the title, I think they will agree with what I’m saying, because they don’t know any better. Like, we think that there’s a hundred years of science behind everything we do, and that’s the different rabbit holes I go down to do it. So most everybody has been very positive. Like, even people like DoTs are coming up to me telling how much they love it. So, so far, so good, but I’m sure there are people that are calling me bad names somewhere in the internet world that I’m trying to stay away from.

Aaron: I mean, can we pause on the “they don’t know any better” bit that you just said Wes, because I think that is the fundamental question is, like, how is it that you have this profession that is designing public facilities that are killing 40,000-plus people a year in the United States? And if we were doing bridge engineering, if we were doing aircraft engineering, any other kind of engineering—electrical engineering.

Sarah: Audio engineering.

Aaron: If Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio were killing 40,000 people a year. No, but seriously, how do they not know that this is failing? Like, their names are—they have to sign a thing that says “This facility is safe,” and yet their facility is killing and harming all these people. And I guess that’s just a core question that I’ve had for a long time.

Wes Marshall: Well, I mean, as a young engineer, right? So I get into the workplace, you’re handed a handful of these thousand-page manuals, and you just assume whoever wrote them knows more than you do, right? You assume that it’s steeped in a hundred years of science, that all that stuff kind of got us to this point, and these manuals are the culmination of all of that.

Wes Marshall: And the scary part is, like, when I was an undergraduate, like, in civil engineering, I only took one transportation engineering course. Like, one total. Like, most of my other courses are structural engineering, hydrology. And the mindset of those is always the factor of safety. Like, so bigger is better. And when you bring that same mindset to transportation and you add humans to the mix, you often get a different answer. So when you get into the workplace, it starts like, oh, you don’t know enough to do anything differently than what’s in the manuals, so you just follow them and assume that that’s where safety is.

Doug: So along those lines, you kind of start off the book by parsing this difference between structural engineering and traffic engineering. And the example that you give is if you’re building a bridge, there’s a minimum amount of safety that is engineered into that bridge. And if you want more safety, you put in a bigger beam, you put in more support. You design for the most kind of wear and tear that you think that this bridge is going to see. And then you go beyond that even still. How does that philosophy fail, specifically in traffic engineering?

Wes Marshall: So civil engineering is a big umbrella. And within civil engineering, we have structural hydrology, we have geotech, we have environmental type stuff. And all of those categories, the mentality is a factor of safety mentality. So you figure out how big the beam needs to be, and you often make it three times bigger. And anything bigger might cost you more, but it’s okay. Like, it’s still gonna be safer. Same with, like, a culvert. You design the culvert and you can make it bigger and it’s fine. Like, Mother Nature is not gonna be windier because our beam is bigger. It’s not gonna be rainier because our culvert’s a little bit bigger.

Wes Marshall: But that same mentality doesn’t function the same way in transportation. So if everybody behaved the exact same way on a narrow street and a wide street, then yes, then maybe people would have a little bit of a factor of safety. You know, if they run off the road, they’ll be okay. But the reality is people change their behaviors given the transportation system we put in front of them. So when we make it wider, they drive faster. It changes the mix. And even though the theory might make sense in terms of the other engineering kind of umbrella we’re under, the reality is different. Like, the empirical results we get are often worse safety, and we’re still reckoning with that difference there.

Sarah: So what you’re saying is that the human element, the variable of human behavior, is not part of the equation. There’s sort of a presumption that people are gonna behave in a standardized way, but even that doesn’t make sense because we know that people drive faster when the road is wider and straighter. So is it just that the human variable is left out because it’s just too confusing, and so it messes up the nice rational engineering calculations?

Wes Marshall: Yeah, it’s just much easier. I mean, that’s part of it. I mean, there are plenty of researchers doing stuff into human factors and things like that, but at its core, we just assume if everybody follows the rules of the road, they’re gonna be safe, and if they don’t, it’s their fault. And what I’m saying is, like, well, what we put in front of them entices them in different directions. So, like, if we build a big road that is overly wide, overly straight, and we just throw a sign that says 30 miles an hour, and then this person crashes and dies on that road going 50, like, we blame them. It’s their fault. But I’m saying let’s take a step back and think about why were they driving that fast? Part of it is the cars we have, but part of it is also the built environment in the street we put in front of them.

Doug: So Wes, earlier you were talking about, here’s traffic engineering, there’s a hundred years of science that people think backs it up. But that science is sort of all over the place, written by people with various political agendas, various biases, things like that. Throughout the book, you very often cite a publication called Traffic Quarterly, which I think is a really kind of fascinating relic. Let’s talk about Traffic Quarterly as this shining example of the science, or lack thereof, underpinning traffic engineering.

Wes Marshall: I think taking a step back, when I was first thinking about this book, one way to go was to point out all the things we do wrong and how we could do better. But when I thought more about that, my thinking was, well, that’s not enough. I sort of need to pull the curtain back to see why we do what we do. And the best way I could think of doing that is really to look at a lot of these old papers, to kind of hear their voice, to hear these people talk about what they were doing at that time and why, and kind of shed light on those stories.

Wes Marshall: And Traffic Quarterly is published by the Eno Foundation. But it was a great resource because 1947 to 2003, it was really one of the major sort of traffic engineering, transportation journals. So it let me peek behind those curtains and see what they were saying to themselves on all these different topics that I know that there’s something wrong with what we’re doing, but sort of understanding how we ended up here is what I wanted to show.

Doug: Your book also, through Traffic Quarterly, introduces some really interesting characters who had a huge influence even today on how we view the risk associated with driving and road building and all the rest. I wanted to zero in on Paul Hoffman, the former chairman of Studebaker, and his influence—even to this day—on how we view traffic fatalities.

Wes Marshall: When I was thinking about some of the things that were wrong with our current status, one of the ways it just seems obvious to me is just how we fundamentally measure road safety. And we do so using an exposure metric. So we want to make it apples to apples. We don’t like to compare sort of just total fatalities to total fatalities. The numerator is the fatalities or injuries or crashes. The denominator is usually we use vehicle miles traveled.

Wes Marshall: So given that being our crash rate, there’s two ways to get better safety. One is we have fewer crashes, fewer injuries, fewer fatalities. The other way to get better safety is to actually have more driving. And to me, that always fundamentally is leading us in the wrong direction. So one of the rabbit holes I went down is to figure out why we use that metric. And that led me to Paul Hoffman, and he was not happy with the fact that cars are being made to be seen as unsafe. And at the time they were using other metrics, and because of the Depression, you know, if people are buying fewer cars and you have sort of a number of car-based metric and you had sort of more fatalities, that just made road safety seem less safe. And he made the right point that we need to have an exposure metric, but he just picked the one he liked best. He picked the one that would make cars seem safer. He wrote a book about it, Seven Roads to Safety in, like, 1937. And then he went around the country just talking up this new metric that he had to a burgeoning new traffic engineering discipline. And we all kind of bought into it. Like, 15 years later it ended up being codified into our National Highway Act, and that is still what we’re using to this day.

Sarah: So what could we have done differently? What could be a metric that would be more useful in terms of just actually trying to preserve human life?

Wes Marshall: You know, I always joke—I know it’s not a joke, but I mean, dying on the road is not good for your health, right? So we should be treating it like a health metric. And every other health measure we use has a population-based metric. So the way I usually do it is instead of VMT as the denominator, I use, like, per-hundred-thousand population, or something that actually treats it like every other health impact.

Wes Marshall: And when you look at that number, you get a very different trend through the years, and it’s much easier to compare us to another place. And then it also gives us an answer that speaks to where you would rather live or who would you rather be. Like, would you rather be in a place that is killing fewer people per 100,000 population or fewer people for more driving? Like, when more driving is leading to better safety, like, we’re getting a very counterintuitive answer to what any normal, rational human being would just consider to be better safety.

Aaron: I mean Wes, I can understand why the guy who runs Studebaker likes that statistic and wants to use it, because obviously he wants to sell Studebakers and is happy to have lots and lots of driving in America. But why does the traffic engineering profession persist in using this deeply flawed metric? Again, like, it’s their facilities that are basically killing people, so why don’t they change this?

Wes Marshall: Because they’re so focused on what you just said, their facilities. Like, it’s a good way to measure the safety of two different facilities on that basis. We can compare Road A to Road B and think about safety in terms of those facility-type focus. But if you have any sort of human focus, like, if you focus on the people using the system, like, that’s when you get a different answer. And that’s where I think we failed is putting the humans first.

Doug: And Wes, I think one of the things I liked about the book—and this part of it in particular—there was a lot of focus on trying to avoid crashes, but that crashes don’t really tell the whole story, because you basically say you can have a town with tons of fender benders that traffic engineers want to eliminate because that seems unsafe. But then you could have a rural road where people are going 85 miles an hour, where it’s unlikely that a fender bender is going to occur, but when the crash happens, it’s gonna be fatal. And traffic engineers are sort of more focused on—or at least historically have been focused on eliminating the crashes, not the fatalities.

Wes Marshall: Yeah, that speaks to some industrial factory research from, like, 1920s that they had this crash pyramid, and they just assumed that there’s a proportional difference between just fatalities and total crashes, or even just, you know, near misses type thing, right? So, like, there’s some research, like, in that world that makes sense, but that same research doesn’t apply to transportation.

Wes Marshall: Like, for instance, I published my dissertation 15 years ago. I was looking at street networks. So if you live on a cul de sac or if you live in a gridded network, a lot of people, especially, like, once they have kids, they want to move out to a cul de sac because it’s safer. And what I found is yes, it’s safer if you never leave your cul de sac. And those type of communities, they have fewer fender benders, but they were killing, like, three times more people than the gridded networks that have more fender benders, but far fewer injuries, severe injuries, fatalities. So if we’re a discipline focused on the total crashes, you can see how that leads us to the suburban-type solution, but if we’re actually focused on the human health impact of transportation, then a few more fender benders is okay, and we should be okay with that if we’re saving lives.

Doug: I felt like there was something similar to your book in terms of what it’s exposing that reminded me of Donald Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking, where he basically says that parking minimums—he also calls them pseudoscience—that they’re just sort of based on what the next town over did and these large manuals that one town copies from another, and that no engineers or architects or designers ever question where any of this came from. So maybe we could talk about some of the other quote-unquote “pseudoscience” in the book. And one of the things that I really thought was great was the way in which you talk about design capacity and the design hourly volume rule. Could you talk about that?

Wes Marshall: Sure. I mean, taking a step back, and I will say Donald Shoup was definitely a big influence on me. Like, when I first went back to grad school at University of Connecticut, the project I was put on was a parking project. So this would have been, like, 2004. So this was before The High Cost of Free Parking came out. My advisor, Norman Garrick, went off to Jamaica on sabbatical, but he literally just handed me a bunch of Donald Shoup’s papers. So I read all those papers before High Cost of Free Parking came out.

Wes Marshall: And at the time I was thinking as a young engineer, like, parking? This is boring. Like, why am I studying this? But then I realized soon just how fundamental it was. And what you’re saying, it’s true. Like, I do think a lot of engineers, again, they legitimately believe, and they have good reason to, like, that there is science behind this stuff. That when we do what we’re told in terms of, like, getting a design hourly volume and trying to figure out, you know, how much traffic there’s gonna be in 20 years, and then by providing and accommodating that traffic with road capacity, like, there are reasons why we think that leads to better safety. And what I end up showing is, like, a lot of them aren’t true, or they’re based on very limited studies.

Wes Marshall: A simple one might be that wider road thing that we’ve been talking about. Like, that idea has persisted in traffic engineering for a hundred years, and when you look at the original study, it compared roads that were 18, 20, 22, 24 feet wide. So the widest road they looked at was 24 feet wide. And yes, that might be safer than 18. And over time, we stop even citing that original study, but that idea that wider roads are safer has persevered in traffic engineering. But if we just looked at that original paper and sort of why we believe that it doesn’t make any sense, and that was the case with so many of these things. And even, like, what you’re saying, the way we predict how much traffic we’re going to have in the future and try to provide for it, like, there is no safety basis for that. We assumed that there was, but when you look at a lot of those original thinking on topics like level of service, at that time, they said, “Oh, we need to make sure we add safety to this later,” but we never did.

Sarah: What’s curious to me is that traffic engineers drive and are drivers. And so as drivers, they must know, as we all do, that if you’re on a straight, wide road and it’s posted at 50, but it’s probably safe to go 70 or 80, that you do creep up and you are going faster. I’m sure all these engineers drive faster on straight, wide roads, and that they would just know that from their own powers of observation. And also, all these engineers probably have experience in the world of the negative impacts of these engineering decisions. And yet this cognitive dissonance persists. And I’m just curious as to the power of these manuals and the power of this received wisdom in perpetuating this cognitive dissonance.

Wes Marshall: There are very rational reasons why they think this. So, like, in terms of, like, a design speed, if they design it for higher speed than they actually want the speed limit to be, they’re trying to protect against, you know, people that are going too fast. We want to make sure that, you know, if you just speed by 20, 30 miles an hour, you’re still gonna be okay. That’s the factor of safety, right? Like, oh yes, of course, our road can handle 40, but if we can handle 70 too, that means we can sort of save all these people.

Wes Marshall: But you can also see how that would lead to people driving faster, we might get worse safety. But that leads to the second thing, and sort of the rationalization the engineers have on this, is how we’ve disconnected speed from safety, which for us, we don’t think more speed is worse for safety, we think as long as everybody is in the same pace, as long as everybody is sort of within the same ten-mile-an-hour band, that that’s where we get the best safety. And that’s one of those research papers I tear apart saying that—you know, all the flaws in it, like, but that mentality has persisted. That that is what leads to safety, is that pace, not just the raw speed, right? It flies against the fundamental physics, but that’s why we believe that, and that’s what we’ve been designing based on.

Sarah: I just have to say that, once again, thinking of another arena in which engineers are like, “Well, it flies in the face of physics, but we’re gonna do it anyway.” It doesn’t seem like a very engineering-ish kind of mindset to me. And it’s just amazing to me how powerful these assumptions are that they can squash those instincts among rational people.

Aaron: It’s like they have the Green Book, the guidelines, and they just have to follow it. So yeah, it feels religious, almost.

Wes Marshall: It does. And in the book, I talk about how sort of the disconnect between it seeming more like a religion and why versus we need to get it back to being a science. You’re very right that, you know, I think engineers do believe there’s science behind it, and that’s the problem, is that they think it’s based on science. But, like, for me, it makes sense why we’re here, but that’s the problem. Like, we need—we’re so based on these theories instead of now realizing that the empirical results aren’t matching what our theories have said. And knowing why, knowing that when you add humans to the mix, you’re gonna get a counterintuitive answer to this that you would not get with, like, a beam or something like that.

Doug: So along those lines, Wes, of things being counterintuitive, like, there’s a lot we talk about on the podcast and that you mention in the book that we don’t always expect the regular person, the layperson—to use other religious language—to understand. Like widening a road, that surely that’ll cure traffic congestion. But we all know that’s not true. It just leads to more traffic. You have a really great example of one of those counterintuitive studies in the book. It’s edge line experiments. Could you explain that? Because I thought this was a really good example of that sort of your brain wants to think it’s gonna work one way, but the actual reality works a completely different way.

Wes Marshall: So I think it was Ohio and Kansas where they were doing these edge line studies back in the 1950s. So an edge line is sort of the white line on the side of the road. You might have it, like, on a rural two-lane highway through places like Ohio and Kansas. And there was a push to add these edge lines everywhere on all those type of roads in those states. But they did what good scientists should do. They tested it. But the theory was well, if we can see the edge lines, we should be safer, right? That makes perfect sense. But the results weren’t that. They were getting results showing more crashes, and they were showing, you know, more people running off the road.

Wes Marshall: And when you take a step back and think about maybe why that might be the case, people might feel more comfortable, like, driving in, let’s say, fog, because they can see the lines. And you sort of see the same thing with some of the retroreflectivity studies of today. Like, all the states want to add retroreflectivity, and it’s a big issue here, like, in the mountains of Colorado. But at the same time, you can understand how if you really can’t see the road at all on a snowy night or foggy night, you might not even drive, but because you can see them a little bit with the retroreflectivity, you might get out there and do it.

Wes Marshall: So back to 1950s Ohio, Kansas. They did this. They found that they were getting worse safety results, but it didn’t make sense in terms of their theories, so they ignored them, and they went ahead and they edgelined the whole state.

Aaron: You know, it reminds me a lot of the traffic engineering school of thought of Hans Monderman and Ben Hamilton-Baillie. Hans was a Dutch traffic engineer. Ben was British. Really interesting guys who did these experiments in, I guess, what was sometimes called ‘naked streets,’ where these kinds of lines and basically signs and signals and road designs were mostly taken away, and it made roads safer. And I’m curious if—what you think of that school of thought of traffic engineering, and if you think there’s any chance that we could get things like that to happen in the United States?

Wes Marshall: Yeah, so I’ve met both of them, too, before they both passed away. And I will say I think the term people use these days is, like, ‘shared spaces’ or ‘shared streets,’ because if you type ‘naked streets’ in Google, you get something …

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: It’s not a good look.

Wes Marshall: You’re not gonna find Hans Monderman, let’s say. So Hans did this in his hometown. Like, on the way into that town, there was a sign that basically said—I’m paraphrasing here—like, this is the last sign you’re gonna see. Once you get here, there’s no more signs and you’re gonna have to figure out stuff for yourself. So they take away the signs, they take away even vertical separation. So no more curbs. So they kind of just make it a free for all.

Wes Marshall: And I’ve done some research on this sort of stuff. We did a study in India showing at the point when pedestrians start to outnumber the cars is when that starts to work. And it’s really interesting where when you have more cars than pedestrians, the cars are never yielding the right away to pedestrians. But once you sort of flipped, that’s when you started getting the cars yielding to the pedestrian.

Wes Marshall: You know, I do think it’s possible, but we really have to shift more towards an empirical look at transportation. Like, even when you think about some of the multiway boulevards, like, those intersections, you have, like, the three ways, you have the access ways, but the intersections have a ton of conflicts. And, like, if traffic engineers are focused on conflicts or total crashes, they might seem unsafe, but because those places are so almost confusing and difficult, like, people behave very differently there and they drive slower, and then you end up with better safety.

Wes Marshall: And it’s the same thing with the shared spaces: because there’s no traffic light telling you what to do, you have to look around, you have to make eye contact with people, or you have to just try to figure out what everyone is doing. So you end up driving a lot slower. So that is sort of the extreme example of adding humans to the mix and getting a counterintuitive answer, because it seems almost un-American to design a road like this with nothing telling the drivers what to do. But oftentimes, again and again, the safety ends up being better.

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Doug: I mean, we’re talking a lot about safety, but it feels like there’s this fundamental conflict between safety and capacity, which is what traffic engineers are usually focused on. How many cars can we get through an intersection or down a road in a fixed amount of time per light cycle? So as much as there could and should be empirical research that we really can go back and check like any scientific study, if the people designing that study are more interested in moving as many cars as possible and not saving as many lives as possible, that’s sort of where we’re stuck.

Wes Marshall: Well, everything we design, we have to do what’s called the traffic impact analysis. Like, whenever you even put a new store in, you have to do this to sort of see how much traffic you’re adding to the system to see if there’s any significant impact, to see if we have to mitigate that impact. And we do all this, and it’s so focused on capacity, and we just assume that safety is already built into this. You know, but I joke in the book that it’s at best, safety third, that we all say that safety is our first priority, but it’s really not true. Capacity is our first priority. And we’re all heading in that direction, assuming safety is coming along for the ride, but there is no connection. We never added safety to any of this. So instead of a traffic impact analysis, towards the end of the book, I’m saying, “Well, maybe we should have a road safety impact analysis.” We could say, “Well, if we design it this way versus this way, what would the actual safety differences be?” But the problem is nobody asked for that. So most universities don’t teach that, and most engineers couldn’t even do that if you ask them to. Like, how would you even figure out what the safety differences would be? So we need a shift in focus, but we’re not there yet.

Sarah: I do wonder about you describing traffic engineers getting together to think about level of service and so forth, and then the public health analogy. I mean, one of the differences between traffic engineers and people in public health is that people in public health, at some point in their training and their careers, they deal with the public. They deal with people who, you know, have had health outcomes related to the public health issues. Like, my sister-in-law works at an organ bank, and she can tell you all sorts of things about who comes in ready to donate their organs after using our transportation system. You know, she has a quite scientific opinion about it that says, you know, she’s teaching her children and everyone in her family, don’t ever stop your car by the side of a highway, ever for any reason, if it is at all possible not to, because we see a lot of those people come in as organ donors. But traffic engineers don’t have to face that. Is there some way that fostering this idea that transportation systems have public health outcomes, that traffic engineers might at some point need to be trained in what those health outcomes look like on people’s bodies?

Wes Marshall: Yeah, I think it helps. I mean, in some of my teaching, I try to put students in different positions. You know, we had done some things where we blindfold them and we try to walk across the street and see what that feels like in a place that doesn’t have the audible signal. Like, I grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, where the Perkins School for the Blind was, and every intersection there has that. So I thought that was the case everywhere. But that turns out not to be true.

Wes Marshall: In terms of interacting with the public, I think engineers—it’s very limited. We think of the public participation process as just a box we needed to check. We’ve already decided what we’re gonna do. Now we’re gonna go and tell everyone in this meeting what’s gonna happen. And we’re not there for their input, even though that’s sort of what we think it is. And we figure that whoever comes to these meetings anyways is the squeaky wheel, that we don’t even need to listen to them.

Wes Marshall: Like I said, that’s where a lot of the work Aaron did with StreetsBlog, getting 100-plus people to come to a public meeting that a few years before would probably have five people there, right? And they’re all clapping each other on the backs, congratulating each other on this new road widening. Like, that had to shift and for traffic engineers to realize that we can’t just push things through. But in most places, that hasn’t happened yet. We’re still doing that. So our interaction with the public isn’t kind of what it needs to be.

Wes Marshall: At the same time, there’s no feedback loop. Like, we—even walking around a city like Denver, you see a lot of very old sidewalks, like, built in the 1950s. And the reason you know that is because, you know, somebody stamped it right there. It says whatever the name of the contractor was, 1957. But nobody knows that this big street behind me, who was the engineer that stamped that. So maybe if we kind of put our names on stuff and there was a website that gave us the data. So how many streets did the road I designed kill versus that person? Like—and you compare the outcomes of different traffic engineers. It seems kind of like a silly idea, but it would totally change everyone’s thinking on our built environment.

Aaron: You know, Wes, there’s this other piece of the puzzle that I feel like often gets lost in these conversations where we’re blaming the design and engineering of roads for safety problems, and that is that there are cars on the road, cars and trucks, and they are also designed and engineered in a way that is increasingly unsafe. Our personal mobility products are getting bigger and more distracting and more powerful. You know, they’ve gotten very safe, actually, for the people inside of the cars generally, but are quite unsafe and growing worse for the people outside of the cars and trucks.

Aaron: It’s just something I’ve been thinking more and more about in recent years, how, you know, when you’re asking DoTs to make streets and roads safer, you’re really putting the responsibility on the public and on the taxpayer and on the local DoT to do all the safety work. And yet the automakers just continue to put more and more dangerous products on our streets that we’re supposed to sort of then defend against. I’m curious, do traffic engineers ever say, like, “Hey, wait a second. You guys are asking us to design roads that are supposed to protect people from products that are just really inherently unsafe, and we need you to change the cars and trucks. We can’t just be held responsible for doing all of this with road design.”

Wes Marshall: I used to say the reason why we even need protected bikeways in urban places is because we’ve designed the streets so poorly. But now we’ve reached the point where even if we design the street well, like, you’re right, we have these mammoth cars that you still need to protect against, even if the street is designed pretty well for people that are using that type of facility.

Wes Marshall: I mean, at the same time, when you take a step back, I would say that, you know, obviously, there’s egregious examples of the car manufacturers being evil throughout the years and stuff like that. They’re doing what for them is a very rational thing. Like, they’re trying to make money, they’re trying to sell cars, And we’ve built a system where a bigger car makes more sense to the people that are using that system. We built a system we’re driving is the most rational choice for most people that live in this country, where all of a sudden bigger cars start to make more sense. Like, to me, we’ve set up a system if that’s the most rational approach to life, like, we’ve screwed up.

Wes Marshall: So this can be both from traffic engineering, transportation planning, land use. This can also be from policy, like, allowing these cars, like, focusing our safety metrics on the occupant of the car as opposed to the people outside the car. You know, thinking back to Peter Norton’s book and fighting traffic and how jaywalking only became an issue, not just having the laws in place, but changing the culture around it. So we also need to change the culture. So it’s policy, it’s culture, it’s the environment around it. We’ll get to a point hopefully where having a big car is not the most rational decision. And then if that happens, then the car companies would start catering to other choices.

Sarah: I mean, this use of the word “rational,” which we’ve used many times today already, you know, this strikes me as part of the problem, is that we say these decisions are rational, and yet on some levels, they’re not rational. You know, people will complain about gas prices and then they buy a car that takes more fuel to run, and they complain about parking and not having enough space for parking in their city, and then they all go out and buy cars that are three or four feet longer than they used to be. And I mean, you know, geometry hates cars. Geometry is a very rational discipline, and we say how rational we’re being, and yet a lot of the time, this supposedly rational action, to me, is actively disregarding evidentiary inputs.

Doug: Well, certainly building a school with bulletproof glass windows is a rational choice in a lot of America. But, like, if you take a step back, the fact that you have to do that is a completely irrational and quite ridiculous situation. So it’s like rational choices to irrational situations.

Sarah: Right. It’s like the rational choices are sort of like the frosting on the cake of irrationality.

Doug: Yeah. Yeah.

Wes Marshall: Oh, yeah. And then if you just think, a lot of that rationality is focused on that individual person. Like, what’s rational for me as opposed to what’s rational for the greater good? And those are very different, right?

Doug: So Wes, along the lines of car design, you talk a little bit in the book about how a lot of the technology that is being built into cars to make them safer is challenging traffic engineering and a lot of the behaviors that we’re talking about. So that, for example, you have an alert that, you know, if you drift over into the next lane and you’re about to change lanes and there’s something coming up on your right and you don’t see it, a light goes off, an alarm goes off. But you have situations now where some drivers are using that in lieu of actually looking in the mirror or looking over their shoulder. How has this technology helped and hurt your profession?

Wes Marshall: Well, I think my profession feels like technology can be a panacea for these problems. Like, we feel like we don’t actually have to do anything because technology will fix it, right? So in all those sort of things, it makes perfect sense that if we add that technology to what we already do—I mean, just like we talked about before, people behave the same way in a narrow road and a wide road, then you can imagine the wide road actually being safer. But that doesn’t happen. Same thing with technology. If, you know, I look over my shoulder and then I get a camera, and then I start doing both, you can imagine this being safer. I’m sort of adding more information, that sort of thing.

Wes Marshall: But if we start behaving differently, we start relying on just the camera instead of looking over our shoulder—I tell the story of my neighbor and I. This was a dozen years ago. We were driving to the mountains to go snowboarding, and he had just gotten, like, a new BMW, I think, at the time. And he was just changing lanes willy nilly. I’m like, “What are you doing, man? Like, you should look.” He’s like, “Oh, no. My car will tell me if there’s someone there.” In a perfect world, maybe? Sure? But at the same time, like, you know, the cars get dusty. Like, maybe that doesn’t work all the time.

Wes Marshall: And you see the same thing now with technology that helps your car stop for a pedestrian in front of you, right? We know looking at the research that at night, it’s like a 50/50 shot that’s gonna work. And it’s even worse if the pedestrian has dark skin. So we have what’s become sort of a racist technology. And then if it doesn’t work like we hope, it could lead to worse safety. So that’s sort of the bigger picture problem is, like, it’s not even an automatic win for any of these technologies. We could actually get worse outcomes.

Doug: So, you know, Wes, I found the book really great. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that is news, even to people within your profession. Was there anything that surprised you while doing the research that led to the writing of this book?

Wes Marshall: Oh, there was so much that surprised me. That was what made the whole process so much fun. I mean, I literally had, like, a thousand pages of notes that I had taken on all these, like, old papers and old books. You know, I think taking a step back and thinking about my initial thoughts, like, let’s point out what we do wrong. Like, oh, man, we were so dumb to do it this way. And at the time you look back and they acknowledged the problems with it. They weren’t dumb at all. They were saying, “Oh, here’s what we know so far. You need to make sure you do X, Y and Z in the future.” And then 10 or 20 years pass, and people are still studying the study, but they forget the details, and we just had moved on. So sometimes we weren’t nearly as dumb as I thought we were. There was a lot of interesting bottoms of rabbit holes I think I found down there.

Aaron: You did your PhD with, as you mentioned earlier, Norman Garrick at University of Connecticut. And he’s such a—I don’t know. He’s such a great guy.

Wes Marshall: Yes, he is.

Aaron: He’s really, like—he was just so early to these ideas of progressive transportation engineering, whatever you want to call this. You know, and now you’re at the University of Colorado-Denver. You have your own students. Do you at all see yourself in a kind of lineage? I feel like Norman is such a guru. And now you’re, like, Norman’s student, and you can produce new students. Do you feel like there’s some sort of responsibility there to kind of just keep producing new, good traffic engineers?

Wes Marshall: Oh, yeah. You know, the funny thing is, like, not long before I got to UConn, Norman was a pavement engineer. Like, that was his PhD. Like, he studied how much asphalt we need, how much gravel we need, like, all that sort of stuff. And he hated it. Like, he was ready to quit his tenured position, and then he took a sabbatical in England, and it totally revamped his mindset for transportation. And he came back and he started getting involved in trying to figure out with, like, new urbanism, things like that. And, like, it just totally changed his career. And I show up soon thereafter and, like, now I have students that are faculty places. Like, and those students have students that are getting their PhD. And when they see Norman at a conference and they call him their great grand advisor, he hates it. Like, he hates being called a grand advisor.

Doug: [laughs]

Wes Marshall: But in the book—actually, in the acknowledgements—I say something to the effect, like, we are building something great. And I’m so thankful that I ended up at UConn and found him. And a lot of it was sort of luck of the draw that that happened, but it could not have been a better person or place for me to end up where I am.

Sarah: This has been a tough day, as we mentioned earlier. And so I’m just kind of trying to look for some hope here. There you are, you’re a traffic engineer. You’re training other people to do this work. This is not a secret what you’re talking about in this book. So is there a generational shift happening, or is there the potential for a generational shift in your profession being able to perhaps be a little less murderous in the future?

Wes Marshall: A hundred percent. And I’m seeing that more and more. Like, I’ve been teaching here for 15 years, and we just had, like, a little book launch event, and I just saw so many of my old former students out there in now positions of power that are also the ones hiring more people. Like, so there is a shift, but again, they’re still using the same manuals, but those fundamental manuals are the problem. And over the years, I have, like, 70, 75 peer-reviewed, published papers, but it feels like I’m always chipping away at the tip of the iceberg. And the book was more a chance to get at the foundation of this giant pyramid of traffic engineering. And I honestly don’t think anybody knew that there’s less of a foundation than we ever thought possible. So we’re heading in the right direction. There’s definitely a shift in terms of the people that are working at these agencies. And even looking around at cities too, you see just how far a city like Denver’s come since I got here. Like, the streets are changing so much. I mean, a lot of the things you see now would have been a moonshot 10 years ago, but they’re out there in place today.

Doug: Well, that’s a great place to end it. Wes Marshall, thank you for joining The War on Cars.

Wes Marshall: Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Doug: Wes’s new book, Killed by a Traffic Engineer, is out now. You can buy it from your neighborhood bookseller, get it at your library, or find it on The War on Cars store at Bookshop.org. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Sarah: And please support us on Patreon. You can go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and pitch in starting at just $3 a month. We’ll send you stickers, and you’ll get discounts on merchandise and access to dozens of bonus episodes.

Aaron: We want to thank our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund, and the Parking Reform Network.

Doug: We also want to thank our sponsors, BullMoose Soft Goods. For 15 percent off on handcrafted, water-resistant bicycle gear bags, go to BullMooseSoftGoods.com, enter code WOC15 for 15 percent off. And Cleverhood, hands down the best rain gear for biking and walking. So go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter coupon code OVERTHERAINBOW for 15 percent off.

Sarah: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Yessenia Moreno. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our transcriptions are done by Russell Gragg. I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon, and this is The War on Cars.