The Struggle of Planning, of Engineering, of the Next Six Months

Today is the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, which basically every urbanist, plannerlytype blog and Twitter account has been posting about all day long. It’s also Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you!), and the day after the improbable nomination of Donald Trump.

As a person keenly concerned about matters of equity and opportunity, the nomination of Donald Trump has been immensely troubling (as I noted toward the end of this blog post). Furthermore, I realized that even though we’ve gone through ten months of primary election backstabbing, name calling, and incoherent rants, we still have six more months before the general election – and the next six months are going to be even more intense than the primary.

In the context of profound disagreement and existential consternation, I thought I would take a moment to revisit a topic I presented at UMass recently – why planners and engineers clash, and how they can better get along.

The Match of the Century

The great cage match of the built environment in popular imagination is that of Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs.

The rumble in the (urban) jungle, Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs

For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Moses, he is perhaps the most consequential person in the history of 20th-century urban development. Most of his life is chronicled in this superb biography, The Power Broker. I won’t get into everything about him, but in brief, he oversaw the transformation of the New York City metropolitan area from a transit-dominated place to an autocentric megalopolis, and led the way for similar transformations around the country.

He oversaw the construction of countless highways, razing neighborhoods to the ground (usually low-income areas populated by people of color) in the process. He eventually butted heads with Jane Jacobs, resident of SoHo, over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Map of proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Source: Wikipedia

Having seen what similar highway projects had done in other parts of the city (like the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which totally shattered the Tremont neighborhood), Jane Jacobs led the successful fight to kill the highway project. She fought Goliath, saved her iconic neighborhood, pioneered a new branch of social science concerned with urban placemaking, and inspired generations to carry on her work. It’s the kind of anti-highway, grassroots community swell that makes planners go all gushy, wanting to sit around a fire holding hands and singing “We Are the Champions” to acoustic guitar.

And of course, that’s the popular conception of planning versus engineering (at least for planners). Community-oriented planners supporting decisions that work best for residents, not just for maintaining a free-flow travel speed of 55 mph or better. The notion that planners go to bat for people without a voice, guiding them through public meetings and environmental reviews, all to combat – in the most Homeric sense – those heartless traffic engineers who care only about cold asphalt and steel.

What Keeps Engineers up at Night

I’m happy to report that even though such drama makes for excellent opera material (like A Marvelous Order, an opera slated to open soon about Moses and Jacobs), it’s far from reality. I’ve worked with countless engineers over the years, and none of them are nefarious technocrats sniffing around for the next opportunity to rip out a sidewalk or install a parking lot. Every engineer I’ve worked with has genuinely wanted to serve the community they are working in, and use all the tools at their disposal to do so.

But where planners and engineers diverge has to do with their greatest fears.

What is it that keeps you up at night? For a planner, it’s usually a derailed public process, or a cantankerous crowd at a public meeting, or maybe an elected official putting pressure on you to issue a permit or make a recommendation that you shouldn’t.

For an engineer, your greatest fear is something you designed failing and people dying as a result.

If a planner has a bad day, he goes home and has a glass of wine to meditate out the stress. If an engineer has a bad day, she could be sued for wrongful death.

Point in case is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or Galloping Gertie for short. This was a bridge built in the Seattle area in the late 1930s that soon collapsed on an especially windy day. Thankfully no one was killed, but imagine if a similar mistake had been made on the Golden Gate Bridge. Literally thousands of people could die.

tacoma narrows bridge
The collapsing Tacoma Narrows Bridge

So engineers are risk-averse, and don’t like deviating from established design standards, and for good reason. And unfortunately we have decades’ worth of auto-centric engineering standards mandating minimum lane widths, minimal congestion, and maximum travel speed – but a blindspot when it comes to bicycle, pedestrian, and other person-scale street design. When us planners, or even other engineers, start making noise about designing places to slow traffic down, or design for pedestrians and bicyclists and buses, many engineers can’t find guidance in the official design documents. And engineers really don’t like that.

Building Bridges

Fortunately, I see this traditional conflict between planners and engineers resolving itself. This is for a few reasons:

  1. The design documents engineers rely on are getting better. AASHTO has released a bicycle design guide, for example, and NACTO is gaining credibility among engineers. If you’re not sure what those acronyms stand for, here’s a pretty good description.
  2. The two fields are starting to overlap. Planning is getting much more data intensive and evidence based, and engineers are having to become more politically savvy as transportation projects become ever more politicized.
  3. Education is getting more holistic. Engineering programs in particular are emphasizing Complete Streets, people-centered design, and the connection of roadways to livable places. Basically every engineer I know under 35 wants to retrofit multi-lane arterials into mixed use main streets, not the other way around.

We can help the process by recognizing everyone’s motivations and fears. Planners can work with engineers to identify existing design standards that achieve the community vision. And engineers can try to be flexible, if possible, when designing their facilities to best accommodate community needs.

Springfield Bike Lanes

A good example of bridging this divide was the effort to bring the first continuous set of bike lanes to Springfield. At the time I was working for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, and we were working with Live Well Springfield to encourage active living in the city. Springfield only had a short stretch of bike lanes (maybe 100 feet), and we wanted to get some actual lanes painted before the grant funding ended. Plumtree Road seemed like the opportunity to do that.

bike lane
Section of Plumtree Road with bike lanes

Plumtree Road is a low-traffic street through a mostly residential area of the city. The city’s engineering staff wasn’t exactly reluctant to install bike lanes, but they were definitely cautious. Thank God for the AASHTO Bike Design Guide – it really helped make the case to install the bike lanes, demonstrating that the road width was sufficient to meet official design standards.

So, the city installed the bike lanes, held a press event, and celebrated! This was definitely a case where that old enmity could have reared its ugly head, but because of the progress of design standards, professional competencies, and education, we all just got along.

bike lanes
Inaugural bike ride on Plumtree Road. Source: MassLive

So in this time of discord, let’s honor those who taught us much. Jane Jacobs’ sage words written in that supreme urbanist bible The Death and Life of Great American Cities should and will live on as we work together to improve our communities; planners and engineers and community members and local electeds all working to make their communities more livable. Even Robert Moses, with his single-minded vision and uncompromising drive to achieve it, should inspire us. Nevermind nasty federal elections that infuriate and emasculate us. We’re better than that.

Happy birthday, Jane Jacobs – May the fourth be with you.


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