Engineers enjoy working on unrealistic grand visions. I want to continue to discuss the Myths of Development and Planning. In my first post, I shared the two myths that are commonly at the core of poor development. In the second post, I shared this from the perspective of the planner. Today, I would like to describe these myths through the perspective of the Engineer. More specifically, I want to share this perspective from the transportation engineer.
Every community no matter how large or how small has a transportation engineer, who is advising and directing the future of your community. Your community’s transportation engineer is possibly the most powerful person in you community, and is someone you need to know.
Transportation engineers have the key to the pocket book of our cities. I am amazed at the grand respect that transportation engineers receive in our cities. There is no other profession or government department that can walk into a public meeting, make billion dollar recommendation, and walk out as heroes.
Engineers are also immune to many of the realities the rest of us face in planning cities. They can promote the construction of new bigger and faster roads to justify the transportation model which projects exponential growth in car trips, and at the same time may obliterate walkability. They can gold and platinum plate every pipe or curb, as if this infrastructure will never degrade or become obsolete over time. Finally, the biggest of all is that all of this can be done in the present without ever accounting for the expense of the maintenance of these projects.
Let me illustrate this in a different way. You own a 1999 Ford Torus with over 150,000 miles on it. Out of the blue, your car’s mechanic calling you up and offering to put the latest seats in your car that offer anti-fatigue features, heat, and lumbar massage. These are great features, and will allow you to drive more miles because you will be so comfortable. The problem is that you really need to replace your ball joints which are at risk of failing on your 1999 Torus. The mechanic explains that even though the seats cost more then the needed ball joint repair, there is a factory rebate on the seats and he will reduce his labor costs to install the seats. You only have enough money for either the seats or the repair. The mechanic Recommends the seats over the repair, because of the rebates and reduced labor costs. You chose the seats at the Recommendation of the professional mechanic.
A day later, you pick up your car. The seats are the best seats you have ever sat in before in your life. You can imagine the hours you can now spend behind the wheel in comfort. As you pull out of the mechanic’s shop, you turn the corner and you hear scraping metal. You pull over and you find that the front ball joint gave out and your car is immobile.
You call your mechanic with great concern. The mechanic responds simply and says, despite your car not being able to to move, you are siting on the best seats available on the market.
This parable is completely absurd, and you probably said that I know better then this. Unfortunately, we do not know better because this is what is happening everyday in our cities under the direction and advice of our transportation engineers. New, wider, and faster, roads can be funded with federal funds and gas tax dollars. These funds perversely translates to free money through the rose colored glasses of local government.
When we return to the great myth of development and planning, we have to remind ourselves that we cannot build ourselves out of this mess. Engineers are programmed like ants. Given the time, they will construct the greatest structures and systems the world has ever seen. Unlike ants, the engineers can lose sight of the the other important issues like funding, or where these structures are placed.
We also have to recognize that the funding for building and maintaining infrastructure is limited. Our great-grand parents built amazing places without credit, bonds, or debt. They understood that you build what you can, when you can. The development myths would have been easily recognized by our great-grand parents.
There is hope out there once you can recognize these myths. I will continue to share how we can build great cities once we abandon these myths.