Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Are Traffic Engineers Sociopaths?

Photo by Ian Beckley from Pexels

Dear Winnipeg,

You may have heard about a trial project we have going on in Elmwood recently: a parklet on Watt St!

I know what you’re thinking… isn’t that dangerous? Crazy even? Why would anyone in their right mind want to put a baby shark on the street?

[Well, you’re actually thinking of a sharklet.]

A parklet is a mini-park that’s placed on the street. It’s meant to slow traffic, and give more of the public space to people, making it safer and more comfortable for them to walk, sit, live, play and spend money at local businesses.

This project is the result of nearly a dozen community groups working together with City staff. [Full disclosure: I am one of the many volunteers involved in this project.]

But it almost didn’t happen. When our community approached the City with our plans for two projects earlier this year, City staff responded by presenting a report to the Public Works committee outlining the reasons why traffic engineers thought this was a bad idea. “Safety” was one of them. [Even though we explained that there would be no sharks.]

And that led to a lot of worry from Councillors about overriding the expert professional opinion of our traffic engineers. And that is, absolutely, a relevant worry. To be clear, I don’t think that any of us are qualified to override the expert professional opinion of traffic engineers on matters related to engineering. Especially when safety is at risk.

But I think we all understand that there’s a difference between “as safe as possible”, and “as safe as possible without disrupting traffic”.

So we must also recognize, that when we’re receiving a report or an engineering opinion, that report is not only expressing a professional engineering opinion, but embedded in it is also a statement of priorities, of values, of a choice of what is deemed more important than what. That’s just reality. In a world of finite resources, we will always have to set priorities in everything we do.

For example, we can make it as equitable as possible… without slowing traffic.

Or make it as safe as possible… for under a million dollars.

There are always going to be trade-offs that need to be made.

But the issue here is that it isn’t the traffic engineers’ job to decide the priorities. That’s Council’s job, that’s OUR job, to set the priorities that reflect what we value most. THEN the engineering professionals use their expertise to design a solution that fits those priorities.

And yet, the report presented to us was saying that we couldn’t move forward with our neighbourhood projects because of traffic concerns. That is a statement of priorities. Not a technical concern, not an engineering opinion. A statement of priorities, of values.

It is saying we value traffic flow above all else. Above safety, above economic development, above equity, above financial sustainability, above climate change. Above everything we were trying to accomplish in our neighbourhood.

But is that true? Is traffic what we value most?

We should probably ask, but the reality is we already have. We’ve spent millions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of person-hours to determine what Winnipeggers value, and we’ve put them into our city plans, strategies and policies: OurWinnipeg, Complete Communities, Transit Master Plan, Pedestrian and Cycling Strategies, Universal Design Policy, Climate Action Plan… those are all reflective of our values. And those plans talk about values such as equity, safety, climate action, financial sustainability.

None of them talk about traffic flow as something we value. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not important, it doesn’t mean we don’t value it. It’s just that we don’t value it above all those other values.

And that’s obvious, right?

If we were to ask the average Winnipegger if they are willing to kill someone to save a minute on their commute, or if they are willing to BE killed so someone else can save a minute on their commute, what would the answer be? Of course it would be no. We’re not sociopaths.

Are Winnipeggers willing to double their property taxes to save a minute on their commute?

Should seniors be stranded at home waiting for somebody to drive them to where they need to go so Winnipeggers can save a minute on their commute?

We already know the answers. We know what Winnipeggers value, we’ve put it in our plans.

And yet on that day, we had a report before us that said we valued traffic above all of them, including safety. And if you doubt that, consider that the word “safety” appears 3 times in this report, whereas the word “traffic” appears 19 times.

And not only is traffic valued above safety, but so is cost: the traffic engineers’ report said they would not support any permanent changes to Watt St, because it already underwent “rehabilitation” in 2020. This, even though our community says today that it is unsafe.

Now, to compare that, a dozen people die on our streets and thousands more are injured. Every. Single. Year.

If 12 people per year drowned in our city pools, and thousands more were injured, we would want to do something about it. And if the Community Services department said “well, you know, unfortunately we can’t support making any changes at this time, because we just renovated the pool”, that would be insane. We would never accept that.

And yet, here we are talking about safety and traffic in that lens. So… are traffic engineers sociopaths?

Well, I don’t think so. This isn’t about specific individuals in the public service. They’re not doing this out of ignorance or out of malice. This is a pattern of thought that has been institutionalized over decades, and not just in the city of Winnipeg, but throughout North America, and throughout the traffic engineering profession.

This is something engineers don’t even realize they’re doing, and it’s something the public doesn’t realize they’re doing. It’s become invisible to us because it’s slowly infiltrated decision-making processes over a very long period of time.

And it’s very clear that it’s happening, because in this same report, in the standard section where public servants must justify how their report’s position aligns with OurWinnipeg policy, none of it actually makes sense, UNLESS you consider, implicitly, that traffic is king.

When it says that their position “is consistent with a transportation system that is dynamically integrated with land use”, and yet we have a business district here with no off-street parking, and a transportation system that does not allow on-street parking during the busiest periods, that is not dynamically integrated.

I mean, it IS dynamically integrated, as much as it can be… without affecting traffic.

And when they say it’s “safe, efficient and equitable”… without affecting traffic.

When they say it’s “financially sustainable”… without affecting traffic.

And when, regarding alignment with our Climate Action Plan, they say that preventing our project, meant to make our neighbourhood more hospitable to pedestrians, transit users and cyclists, has “no climate action plan alignment”, that only makes sense if they mean “without affecting traffic”.

Apparently, traffic is valued so highly above everything else, that no permanent changes are possible. So high, even, that temporary changes are off the table too. But if traffic was really that high a priority for us, surely we would have made it explicit in our plans.

We would have said, we want an equitable city… if it doesn’t affect traffic.

We want financial sustainability… if it doesn’t affect traffic.

We want safety… if it doesn’t affect traffic.

We want climate action… if it doesn’t affect traffic.

But nobody said that.

That begs the question. What IS our highest priority? Well, our City’s vision says:

To be a vibrant and healthy city which places its highest priority on quality of life for all its citizens.

— City of Winnipeg Vision

That is our highest priority.

Not, highest priority on quality of life for all its citizens, as long as it doesn’t affect traffic.

It doesn’t say that.

The point here is, we’re not questioning engineers’ expertise. What we are questioning are the priorities used in exercising that expertise.

And it is our right, as Winnipeggers, our obligation even, to do so. It’s up to us to set the priorities that reflect our values, to set the parameters within which the public service will exercise its engineering expertise. And to question and correct them when they stray from those values and priorities.

For a very long time, we haven’t done that. And while we weren’t looking, we let the engineers turn our streets into stroads, nearly bankrupting us in the process.

That’s how we ended up with a transportation system that kills a dozen of us, and seriously injures thousands of us, each and every year. It’s how we ended up with a transportation system that would require doubling our property taxes to properly maintain. It’s also how we killed our downtown, and it’s how we are slowly killing neighbourhoods like mine.

A transportation system is supposed to be a tool we use to help us meet our goals, not a goal in itself. But we’ve let the traffic engineering profession put their values, of moving cars for the sake of moving cars, ahead of our own.

We need to change that.

We went to City Hall as a coalition of 11 community groups working in Elmwood to, essentially, improve the quality of life for all our citizens. We had the support of our elected officials at every level of government, from school trustee to City Councillor, to provincial MLA, to federal MP.

We just had to convince the engineers to stop working against us. And we did. [After all, they’re not sociopaths.]

So this story has a happy ending: our neighbourhood gets to trial a parklet on Watt St, at least until September 6th.

Plus, the traffic engineers said we may be allowed to keep it until the end of October… as long as it doesn’t affect traffic.

Sigh. Baby steps.

Love,

Elmwood Guy

P.S. If you want to learn more about how the conventional approach to traffic engineering is making people less safe, bankrupting towns and cities, destroying the fabric of communities, and actually worsening the problems (like congestion) engineers set out to solve, then I highly recommend reading Chuck Marohn’s new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. [Gasp! He’s one of THEM!] Like I said before, if ever there was a book that so perfectly captures Winnipeg’s dysfunction with regards to transportation, this is it. It releases next week, but you can pre-order a copy through your favourite local bookstore (or major retailer). Or you can borrow it from the public library.