Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Red Light, Green Light, No Insight: Part 3

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Dear Winnipeg,

Yesterday, in Part 2 of this three-part series, we examined the “safety theatre” that is the norm in our transportation system, based on an outdated understanding and application of transportation engineering. Those outdated concepts keep us in a transportation system that costs us way more than any of us are willing to pay — not just in dollars, but in time, safety and quality of life.

And to be clear, it is literally bankrupting our City.

Some will want to point the finger at corruption as the cause of our financial woes. But corruption isn’t generally the cause of insolvency, it’s usually a symptom of it:

“Eventually, we reach the condition of Detroit. […] Money is allocated for fixing things like the cracked floor at the fire hall, but nobody knows where it went. The floor is never fixed. City hall is distant and clearly corrupt, but who among decent people would step up and try to fix it?”

— from “We are all Detroit“, Strong Towns

Sound familiar?

But we don’t have to accept it. There is a lot of work to be done, including getting to the bottom of any potential financial mismanagement in the Transportation Department. However, concurrently, we must also attack the root of the problem. And one of the places we must start is our transportation system.

I recently heard Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation for America, compare street design to house design. We would never ask engineers to design our homes, she said. The homeowner decides what they want for their home, and with the help of an architect, a banker, an engineer, and a contractor, among others, will come up with a design that suits their needs. The engineer’s part is to make sure it is structurally sound. But the homeowner is the leader of the design process, nothing happens without their say-so.

Similarly, we shouldn’t let engineers design our streets. Yes, they should be involved as part of the team, but we, the community, are in charge of the process. Is this to be a neighbourhood street with children playing hockey? A thriving shopping district? We decide what our needs are, and that determines what the street needs to look like. The engineers contribute by providing technical guidance, like determining pavement thickness, etc. to meet those needs.

Just like software engineers don’t design the user interface of an app, so traffic engineers should not design the user interface of our city.

Because when we hand the entire process to engineers, from A to Z, like under the old approach, we shouldn’t be surprised that the values of their profession quickly override the values of the public. Done long enough, we start to wrongly believe that their values are our values.

The old approach prioritized high vehicle speeds over everything else, no matter what. But we now realize that there is a place for high vehicle speeds, and a place for slow vehicle speeds. Welcome to the new paradigm.

And when we unchain ourselves from those old shackles, we can come up with approaches to transportation for our city that are actually safer. Approaches that are cheaper. Approaches that boost property values, stimulate economic activity, and create local wealth. Approaches that were impossible under the old assumptions.

Let’s use traffic signals as an example, since that’s what started all of this. When we recognize that some places are for high speeds, and some are for slow speeds, we come to the inevitable conclusion that traffic signals shouldn’t even exist. I know that sounds crazy, but think about it.

In places for high speeds, intersections just slow us down, thus wasting the significant investment we’ve made in the infrastructure. If there are no intersections, there is no need for traffic signals. The right approach in these places is to minimize intersections and access points, and replace the remaining ones with interchanges, not traffic signals. It’s the approach we’ve taken with the North Perimeter Hwy, and even though some residents are complaining, it is the correct approach to maximizing safety, as well as the return on our infrastructure investment in this kind of place.

However, in places for slow speeds, places where people walk, work, live, shop, play and go to school, places where we have or want human activity, vehicle speeds should be so low that traffic signals are unnecessary.

But you don’t need to take my word for it, here’s professional engineer Chuck Marohn from his book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer:

“I find traffic signals maddening, perhaps the most casual waste of time and resources to come out of the practice of civil engineering. If I could, I would eliminate every traffic signal in every city in North America; just rip them out and throw them in a landfill.


Traffic signals are only necessary because of the speed of traffic. If traffic moved slower, say a neighborhood-friendly speed of 10 or 15 mph, traffic signals would become largely unnecessary.

Here is the maddening part: If traffic could flow freely at neighborhood speeds with no traffic signals and red lights to impede it, if people could navigate along city streets at 10 to 15 mph — speeds that might result in a fender bender but rarely a fatality or serious injury — most people would arrive at their destination quicker.”

— From Confessions of a Recovering Engineer by Charles L. Marohn, Jr.

Yeah, I know. Think about it, there are no traffic signals inside a Costco parking lot, and yet, there is a safe mingling of vehicles, people and shopping carts. Using this approach in our neighbourhoods is not only safer, it’s cheaper, and creates more economic value too. The best of all worlds.

But, as I’ve said before, traffic signals are just the tip of the iceberg. When we do the actual math on the return of all our transportation investments, and ask where we get the most value, in terms of safety, quality of life, and just as importantly, in hard dollars, we get a graph that looks like this:

— Adapted from Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, by Charles L. Marohn, Jr.

What it shows is two things:

1) We should never build any places with traffic travelling between 30 km/h and 90 km/h. Maximum returns happen over 90 km/h, and under 30 km/h, that is, in places for high speeds, and in places for slow speeds.

2) All of our current transportation investments are being wasted on the worst performing part of the curve.

So it truly doesn’t make any difference if we end the practice of seemingly random moving around of traffic signals if we’re just going to spend the savings on randomly moving around some blinking lights. Or for that matter, on anything else in our current approach to transportation. We’re simply replacing one wasted dollar with another. “Doing the wrong thing better“, and going bankrupt doing it.

Once again, you don’t need to take my word for it. I’m happy to share that the Green Action Centre is bringing Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn to Winnipeg on April 13th. You’ll be able to hear him speak about how the values of engineers and other transportation professionals are applied in the design process, and how those priorities differ from the values of the general public. Drawing on his decades of experience as a professional engineer and planner, he’ll explain why 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, and how it can all be fixed. Plus you get lunch.

So if you are a traffic safety advocate, a journalist who reports on issues of traffic safety or City budgets, anyone planning a run for Council or Mayor, a person working locally in economic development, or just someone who cares about wasted tax dollars, I expect to see you there.

Because, yes, it’s right to be upset about the possibility that our Public Works Department is wasting money on unnecessary traffic signal replacements. But we should be more upset that they’re wasting our money on the entire approach to urban transportation. And that when we inevitably get “sloppy” after the novelty of the blinking lights wears off, they’ll take our money again through enforcement, and then take again to fancy up the blinking lights a bit and expand the system, and then repeat the cycle. All while systematically suppressing property values, disadvantaging local businesses, putting lives in danger, forcing us into unproductive land use patterns, and ultimately, bankrupting the City. It’s an entire rigged game we can’t win, one that is wasting Billions of our dollars, with a B. And one that, until now, we’ve been fiercely defending.

It’s urgent that we question the entire current approach to traffic engineering in our city, an approach that has left us with a transportation system we have no way of paying for. And worse yet, one that kills a dozen of us each and every year, with no consequences.

I can’t wait to read the Free Press‘ multi-part exposé on that… but I won’t hold my breath. It’s much less uncomfortable to point an accusatory finger at a handful of bad apples and call it a day, than it is to scrutinize and denounce an entire dangerous, broken and bankrupt system and our own roles in perpetuating it.

But it won’t stop me from trying. And it shouldn’t stop you either. Because left unchecked, this transportation system will bankrupt us. If it doesn’t kill us first.

Love you muchly,

Elmwood Guy