Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Red Light, Green Light, No Insight: Part 1

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Dear Winnipeg,

Let’s be honest. I have spent a not insignificant amount of time being critical of the City’s Transportation Department. So the Free Press’ most recent investigative series, Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight, on some of the Transportation Department’s construction practices, one which contains descriptions such as “incompetent”, “corrupt” and “smoking gun”, really got me going.

But not for the reasons you think.

This is Part 1 of my own three-part series. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

First, let me start off by saying I love Ryan Thorpe. He is a top-notch investigative journalist, and we are exceedingly lucky to have him working in our city.

That said, I fear that this article series is completely missing the forest for the trees. But I can’t blame Ryan Thorpe, or even Chris Sweryda, for not seeing this. Nor can I blame Council or the general public for jumping on the bandwagon with their torches and pitchforks. Because unfortunately, this issue isn’t limited to traffic engineers at the City of Winnipeg; we’re all part of the problem. Which means a lot of assumptions are being left unquestioned. And while we fret about wasted pennies, we’re throwing dollars away in the bigger picture.

But I’ll come back to that.

First, let’s get the pennies out of the way:

“a massive campaign of frivolous construction projects carried out by the public works department spanning the entire city and dating back at least a dozen years, to the tune of millions of dollars.”

Winnipeg Free Press, “Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight”, February 19, 2022

Woah. Millions of dollars. That sounds serious.

And it is.

But here’s some context. First, how many millions is it? It doesn’t say, but I think we can safely assume that if it was more than, say, $15-20 million, the writer would have said “tens of millions”. For impact.

So imagine a bit under $15 million was wasted over 12 years. That doesn’t sound great. Especially since that is money that could have gone to Active Transportation, or trees, or libraries, or any number of other things that make our city a better place to live.

But given that over the 12-year period of 2009-2020, we spent just shy of $1.5 Billion in total on road projects, that amounts to, at most, 1%. Let me say this unequivocally: all waste is bad waste. We should always be striving for zero waste when public dollars are at stake. But if “the waste at City Hall” we keep hearing so much about is less than 1%, then I’m not sure it’s worthy of this level of freak-out.

But, even if it is significantly more than that, we shouldn’t forget the fact that we need to find somewhere in the order of an extra half a Billion dollars per year just to sustainably maintain the roads we already have. In that context, this amount of misspent cash barely registers as a rounding error.

Talk about a waste of money.

On the other hand, given that community requests for traffic safety interventions are frequently met with a response of “there isn’t any money for that“, then every wasted dollar counts.

And to give him credit, the writer has said as much on Twitter:

And I fully agree that this is money that could have, should have even, been used for much-needed safety improvements.

After all, the safety of our streets, or rather the lack of it, is a massive problem.

Saturday’s article even went as far as to suggest a remedy of sorts:

“The underlying problem is the City of Winnipeg lacks standardization for traffic-control infrastructure, design and materials.”

Winnipeg Free Press, “Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight”, February 19, 2022

And today, the article series went on:

“The extent and the magnitude is so great that it staggers the imagination. It suggests something very, very wrong in the way intersection engineering is being done in the City of Winnipeg.”

Winnipeg Free Press, “Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight”, February 22, 2022

But, you remember those unquestioned assumptions?

That we think that the issue is limited to “intersection engineering” in the “City of Winnipeg” is adorably naïve. We’re concerned about wasting money on unnecessary replacements of some of the city’s 681 traffic signals? The fact that we even have traffic signals at all points to a much bigger issue altogether. That issue is with the entire traffic engineering approach in North America, and the hidden values built into it that override the public welfare, keep our streets unsafe, and will eventually lead to bankrupting the City. And traffic signals are just the tip of the iceberg.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On its surface, the articles’ claims look like logical, neutral statements, free of any opinion, statement of value or bias. And they neatly sum up what seems to be the core issue: our streets are unsafe because our traffic-control infrastructure, design and materials lack standardization. And if we just adhered to standards, not only would our streets be safer, but we could avoid unnecessary work, and therefore unnecessary costs.

And it sounds so logical. Who could argue with that?

Well, for one, the traffic engineers at the City of Winnipeg. They had this to say in response (my emphasis added):

“City of Winnipeg engineers recommend solutions and make decisions (related to signals, traffic, and otherwise) with diligence, care, and consideration of both best practices and the context of the location where they are to be applied.”

Winnipeg Free Press, “Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight”, February 19, 2022.

But wait, that sounds like the opposite of standardization… if local context is considered during the design process, wouldn’t that mean that every intersection in the city might conceivably have something unique about it that would lead to every intersection getting a different design? That’s madness! Haven’t they heard of the MUTCDC?

The MUTCDC, for the uninitiated, is the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Canada, published by the Transportation Association of Canada.

Now, anyone who has ever tried to do any kind of tactical safety improvements to a street in their neighbourhood will know that the MUTCDC is a go-to for a lot of traffic engineers to put the kibosh on whatever it is your neighbourhood is trying to do: “you can’t do that, it doesn’t meet the standards”, “the standards don’t allow that”, “that’s not within the standards”, “I’m gonna marry the standards”, “the standards, the standards, the standards”.

Except that the MUTCDC is not a standards document that Canadian transportation agencies must follow. Says who? Well, just the people who wrote it is all.

“The Manual is not a regulatory tool or a standards document that Canadian transportation agencies must follow.”

— Transportation Association of Canada, in the MUTCDC FAQ.

Wait, there’s more (my emphasis added):

“Rather, it offers state-of-the-art technical guidance for jurisdictions to consider in developing their own legislation and regulations, and for individual practitioners to consider when applying professional judgement in their local context.”

— Transportation Association of Canada, in the MUTCDC FAQ.

Did I just hear a mic drop? [Well played, engineers.]

To be fair to the MUTCDC, its technical guidance is perfectly appropriate for simple environments where moving cars at high speeds is the only goal: like on highways. But for complex environments such as urban neighbourhoods, where there are multiple goals, its use is not only inappropriate, it’s almost downright negligent.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. After all, I’m just an auto-didact with no formal training. Instead, read this scathing take-down of the MUTCD (the U.S. edition of the MUTCDC) from a little outfit called the Harvard Law Review.

Then, when you’re done that, you may want to listen to this video from the National Association of City Transportation Officials. NACTO was formed by urban transportation departments who recognized the fundamental difference between highways and city streets. Chaired by one of the world’s foremost authorities on transportation, it currently has 92 member cities in North America, including 5 Canadian ones: Halifax, Hamilton, Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver. [Hmmm, no Winnipeg… yet!]

Finding the MUTCD severely lacking for use in an urban context, they’ve come up with their own series of design guides to “help cities make the best use of their most abundant resource: their streets.”

While not perfect, these design guides are a significant improvement over the use of the MUTCDC in cities. Luckily, engineers can apply their professional judgement in their local context. After all, these aren’t “standards” either.

Further, even if there was such a thing as “standards”, then why would we need to have any engineers on staff at all? Almost anyone who can read is able to mindlessly look up specs in a book and copy them. In contrast, it does take an engineer to solve complex design problems that consider a number of differing factors in a local context.

Now, it is disconcerting that traffic engineers seem to want to have it both ways, defending themselves by saying they’re not “standards”, but then hiding behind them as a shield when the “standards” suit them.

But despite that, I think we’ve established a decent case that the MUTCDC isn’t a set of standards to be blindly followed. But even so, surely there’s no harm in choosing to use them as such?

Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, there is.

Because even if they’re not “standards”, they’re not a purely technical reference either. They are an embodiment of the values of the traffic engineering profession, values which could be considered sociopathic if held by individual human members of society. Values that even individual engineers themselves don’t actually hold.

So while we’re busy fretting about a few wasted millions this past decade, we’re overlooking the fact that our entire approach to transportation has wasted Billions over the same time period, systematically suppressing property values, disadvantaging local businesses, putting lives in danger, incentivizing the inflation of project sizes, and ultimately, bankrupting the City.

And not only is it happening under our very noses, it has us willingly playing the role of champions of our own destruction.

That’s part 2 tomorrow.

Love you muchly,

Elmwood Guy