Greater Greater Washington

Roads


A conversation with a traffic engineer

A number of people have sent this hilarious xtranormal video where a traditional traffic engineer tries to explain a street "improvement" project to a resident of a nice, safe neighborhood street.

It seems to be based on the recent Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, also from Strong Towns.

Lest you think this is gross parody, I had a conversation very similar to the first few exchanges in this video with a project manager in DDOT's IPMA about how much to round the corner of 18th and S, NW, and I've heard public statements that eerily resemble other parts from leaders of the Montgomery County DOT.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Whoever made this video has likely never seen Sarles Road in Armonk, N.Y. which should definitely be widened, e.g. near the intersection with High Street and north at Rabit Hill, etc at certain points are pinched by rock outcroppings.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 9, 2010 12:29 pm • linkreport

hahahahahaha...... so true

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Dec 9, 2010 12:29 pm • linkreport

@Douglas Willinger:
Thanks for proving the point of the video.

Traffic Engineers believe all roads should be built to a certain design standard, regardless of context or public sentiment.

This video espouses the belief that citizens often know best what their roads should be like, and also that blind adherence to standards frequently creates unintended consequences.

I've never been to Armonk, New York. Nor have most of the people who read this blog. What I think about a random street there doesn't matter. I'd be more concerned with what the people who live in Armonk think. And if they like it the way it is, then I'm disinclined to believe that a vague national road standard should take precedence.

by Matt Johnson on Dec 9, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

Basic geometry, with you attempting to be relevant.

Certain roads, particularly *certain spots* of roads certainly do need upgrading. The current situtaion on this road I drive almost daily is not good for auto traffic, nor pedestrian and bike.

The video is a mixture of plausible overkill (doubling the width of the road- they must be planning some development uproad at the town's edge) and a tribute to myopia with her *blanket* statements against building for the future.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 9, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

What Matt Johnson seems to believe is that roads should NEVER be widened, even in spots, and even those he is unfamilar with, due to a beholden doctrine

http://cos-mobile.blogspot.com/2007/10/beholden-doctrine.html

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 9, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

This video espouses the belief that citizens often know best what their roads should be like

Which in DC apparently means lots and lots of speedbumps everywhere.

by JustMe on Dec 9, 2010 1:11 pm • linkreport

@Douglas Willinger:
That is incorrect. I do not believe that roads should never be widened. I believe that engineers, especially, should take into account a greater regard for public sentiment and context-sensitive design over blind adherence to standards.

by Matt Johnson on Dec 9, 2010 1:16 pm • linkreport

The video these people did for the Iphone 4 is even funnier :)

by grumpy on Dec 9, 2010 1:17 pm • linkreport

This is great :). This is also a great illustration of the importance of re-doing design manuals and "standards."

by Just161 on Dec 9, 2010 1:32 pm • linkreport

@Douglas,

Whoever made this video has likely never seen Sarles Road in Armonk, N.Y. which should definitely be widened, e.g. near the intersection with High Street and north at Rabit Hill...

Yes. Yes, I'd imagine that's a pretty safe bet.

by oboe on Dec 9, 2010 1:58 pm • linkreport

@JustMe:

Which in DC apparently means lots and lots of speedbumps everywhere.

Nah. I say we get rid of all the speedbumps, and replace them with "average speed camera" system.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/driving/article5645536.ece

Til then: Yep. Speed-bumps.

by oboe on Dec 9, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

This is a cartoon illustration of the essay by the 'reformed' traffic engineer that was in Breakfast Links a couple weeks ago, no? This is exactly what he said he used to do -go into communities with perfectly acceptable safe streets and direct the straightening, widening and removal of trees, even recommending that the kids no longer play in the front- and he regrets it now.

by Tina on Dec 9, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

Not all us traffic engineers are evil! Some of us are just slightly malevolent.

by Bossi on Dec 9, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

The often repeated anecdote from Andres Duany comes to mind when asked about places like Georgetown and their "traffic problem". He would say the reason there's a problem is that it's a successful place, and "fixing the problem" would kill what made it succesful. I know technofans might have a problem with this but sometimes a problem is nature's way of letting you know you've gone too far.

by Thayer-D on Dec 9, 2010 2:53 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D
Or put another way (by Yogi Berra I believe), "It's so crowded no one goes there anymore."

by Steve O on Dec 9, 2010 3:28 pm • linkreport

It also captures the mindset of many bureaucracies, not just the traffic engineers.

I just Googled "Sarles Street" in Armonk and see a picture of a semi-rural development with plenty of trees and winding roads. I have no particular opinion about the actual road, but then, I would defer to the opinion of those at the intersection affected. Its certainly no freeway.

by SJE on Dec 9, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

Strong towns is a nice blog for technical perspectives on engineering and smarter growth, but the authors are a bit too glibertarian for my tastes. Still read the blog though... I just ignore the authors' comments about macroeconomics, such as the stab at the stimulus in this video.

The project will destroy neighborhood, which is terrible, but the dump truck drivers who worked on the project are just happy to have work. The conclusion shouldn't be: Stimulus bad! It should be, Stimulus doing bad things is bad!

by Chris from PA on Dec 9, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

It's true Thayer, there are some problems humans cannot solve, and that includes heavier-than-air flight.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 9, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

Good point Chris. I'd take that further: just coz you have the money, and some standards, doesn't mean doing it is a good idea.

The rejoinder is that "hey, we have standards etc so that we can guide decision making, and not have to negotiate ad infinitum about every decision." I agree with that in the abstract, but as a practical matter there are many standards and metrics that do not measure what they are supposed to measure. Many zoning and planning rules are of little concern to average people because it doesnt affect them most days. This does not mean that such rules are the sort that the community would consent to if forced to write the rules.

by SJE on Dec 9, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

@ Niel,
Your wit never surprises, yet always amazes. It's not that the problem can't be solved, it's that it's not necessarily a problem (see video above). You would think they'd teach you to think for your self, but some schools just teach you how to think.
enjoy!

by Thayer-D on Dec 9, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport

People who think new solutions can be offered for old problems usually have to reframe the problem. The parking problem in Georgetown is only a small part of transportation and land-use issues, so it can be remediated by indirect approaches, like building bike lanes, and creating Bethesda or Ballston. That would require actual critical thinking and analysis, rather than just giving up and declaring it the Best of All Possible Neighborhoods.

Of course, when all you have is a broken old hammer, everyone who disagrees with you looks like a modernist nail.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 9, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

Matt-

That sounds like we agree.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 9, 2010 5:37 pm • linkreport

@Douglas Willinger:
I doubt it, but I'll take what I can get.

by Matt Johnson on Dec 9, 2010 5:39 pm • linkreport

@Bossi

Amen, amen. We are indeed all not entirely evil. Some of us are driven by public sentiment. Sadly, public sentiment does not always mirror the thoughts on this site. Public Sentiment is not always a good thing.

by Murn on Dec 9, 2010 5:45 pm • linkreport

This is gold. I've heard these argument so many times while working with engineers. Traffic projections and standards have been used to justify unneeded road improvement projects in the name of "safety" while reducing livability, increasing traffic speeds, and making neighborhoods less safe for peds and bikes.

by Markie on Dec 9, 2010 10:40 pm • linkreport

I think there could be a happy medium between the philosophy extremes with instances of spot widening combined with stripings that mimick a less wide roadway.

Spot widening by definition adress the particularly deficent standards for a roadway, bringing that spot up to the standard of the rest of the road.

The example in the cartoon appears instead to be a continious widening complete with two extra vehicular traffic lanes to accomdate planned future development.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 9, 2010 10:58 pm • linkreport

"I just Googled "Sarles Street" in Armonk and see a picture of a semi-rural development with plenty of trees and winding roads. I have no particular opinion about the actual road, but then, I would defer to the opinion of those at the intersection affected. Its certainly no freeway."

Indeed, but what is that pair of 3 lane roadways running roughly parallel to the east (and built some 40 years ago)

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 9, 2010 11:01 pm • linkreport

@Markie: The word "smoothly" is a wonderful bit of jargon. It just sounds so right, no matter what it means for a neighborhood.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 9, 2010 11:25 pm • linkreport

Neil -- love your allusion to Candide in honor of opening night... "The Best of All Possible Neighborhoods" Hee Hee! ! !

by Some Ideas on Dec 10, 2010 12:04 am • linkreport

Turning Georgetown into Bethesda or Ballston to solve the parking problem = critical thinking. Tearing down the heart of Georgetown = reframing the problem...really?

Where's a hammer when you need it!

by Thayer-D on Dec 10, 2010 7:25 am • linkreport

Thayer, are you a closet Eisenmaniac? Deliberate misreading to deconstruct my point? Quite interesting.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 10, 2010 10:53 am • linkreport

Unlike the video, here's a an example of an amazing thing, traffic engineers and smart growth advocates getting together to produce something worthwhile, see: www.cnu.org/streets and www.cnu.org/node/3406 from the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Institute of Transportation Engineers. This is proof that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and adapt to the times. That is, as long as the new dogs and old dogs can walk hand in hand together.

by Some Ideas on Dec 10, 2010 11:07 am • linkreport

Apropos of "technofans", I don't think KMFDM or its listeners really have anything to say about traffic management in Georgetown one way or the other.

Unless, of course, this is a way of pretending that the same anti-scientific, anti-modernist nonsense I've heard before is something new, at which point I'd just refer you to these responses to similar questions.

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 10, 2010 8:43 pm • linkreport

What a dumb .... she is!

by Lance on Dec 10, 2010 11:53 pm • linkreport

Perspective from an engineer. Standards are minimum requirements or benchmarks. There is nothing worng in exceeding the minimum as long as saftey is not compromised and budget is not busted. That's a reality. If there are no standards, I'll be suggesting a Red, white and blue traffic signal in most neigborhoods.
But the video was funny.

by Chan Woo on Dec 11, 2010 2:47 am • linkreport

Check out this Washington Post article. It's almost like they planned to follow up this post.

In August, as part of the widening of Spring Hill Road from two lanes to four, crews installed a seemingly innocuous 450-foot-long median on the hilly street between International Drive and Route 7.

The median has been part of Fairfax County's long-term plan to widen Spring Hill and improve traffic flow, preventing traffic from backing up behind drivers waiting to turn left into driveways.

"The median is there as a way to control that traffic signal at Route 7," said Todd Minnix, a division chief with the Fairfax transportation department.

I'm thinking the new road "meets the standard."

by Steve O on Dec 11, 2010 9:29 am • linkreport

I love it. I have seen exactly this sort of engineering over and over--blind adherence to a "standard" which prioritizes maximizing vehicle throughput over all else, engineering roads to support high-speed traffic and then setting an artificially-low speed limit. I watched many charming rural farm roads in my hometown go from 1.5 lanes to four (albeit striped for two) and now-massive intersections shove utility poles right into people's front porches. Does every intersection have to be built for tractor-trailers?

by Matthias on Dec 13, 2010 11:42 pm • linkreport

"Does every intersection have to be built for tractor-trailers? "

Those, and likewise hopefully school buses, emergency vehicles, fire trucks.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 14, 2010 12:06 am • linkreport

Our street wasn't widened into an expressway and five fire trucks fit into it perfectly well when it caught on fire last year.

But, of course, my mind has been poisoned by the Masonic conspiracy that deprived us of more freeways than were even in the 1950s plan, so what do I know?

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 14, 2010 1:48 am • linkreport

Have you ever driven a big rig?

Widened into an expressway? The comment was about intersections.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 14, 2010 2:17 am • linkreport

Oh, come on, man. You can't possibly think that U Street wouldn't be more beautiful with a linear park atop a massive interstate highway where dozens of businesses used to be.

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 14, 2010 5:20 am • linkreport

JD likes to place words in others mouths and hence sounds like an idiot.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 14, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

Hey - calling people idiots, or saying they sound like idiots, is not allowed here.

by David Alpert on Dec 14, 2010 3:47 pm • linkreport

But placing words in their mouths is okay?

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 14, 2010 3:53 pm • linkreport

Only if they taste good.

by Bossi on Dec 14, 2010 3:57 pm • linkreport

That they do! Especially since I didn't say he said anything, specifically, and merely rephrased inferences from his repeated claims.

(Tho I'll confess I was mistaken about his belief that the destruction of everything on North Capitol was the fault of Freemasons. Upon further reading, he appears to imply it was the Catholic Church. Though, of course, inferring anything about his writing from what he actually wrote is "to place words in others mouths" [sic].)

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 14, 2010 4:03 pm • linkreport

JD- you sound utterly confused.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Dec 14, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport

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