America Has No Transportation Engineers

Op-ed: The American “transportation engineer” is a really a civil engineer who has received a little exposure to the transportation sector. If all a nation can provide are civil engineers who are given a crash course in transportation studies, what do we get?

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People like Jonathan Stalls have seen it all when it comes to being a pedestrian in the United States. On his Instagram and Tiktok accounts Pedestrian Dignity, people can watch hours of footage of skinny sidewalks falling into disrepair, crosswalks that lead across five car lanes, or curbs without ramps that force wheelchair users into the road with high-speed traffic. But it’s not always bad news. Sometimes there’s a tour of new street improvements. As I swipe to the next video, Jonathan is expressing hope over a newly built sidewalk next to an arterial road. I see a wider sidewalk detached from the arterial road, curb ramps that are ADA compliant, and – wait, what’s that? I squint to get a better look at the road behind Jonathan and see it clear as day: a new sharrow symbol.

The shiny new thermoplastic marking displaying a bicycle and two arrows sits smugly on the asphalt surface as forty mph car traffic roars over it. The white marking fades into the distance as Jonathan enthusiastically shares the rest of the improvement project with his audience. For most people watching, it’s not even noticeable. For me, it’s baffling and depressing. Why did this city go through months of design, multiple consultants, and hundreds of thousands of public dollars just to implement something that has been proven repeatedly not to work?

To be fair to the uninspiring sharrow, it isn’t unique in its ineffectiveness. Dozens of cities have embraced a “Vision Zero” policy and heralded its adoption by rolling out new traffic markings and signs, only for news headlines to reveal that traffic fatalities have stayed the same or even increased. Why? There’s a consensus that traffic deaths are bad and need to be reduced. Federal and state funding is available to pay for safety upgrades, and there’s even a burgeoning grassroots movement of people getting involved in local politics to improve their local streets. It’s not even something that is replicated internationally. Other countries such as the Netherlands managed to cut road deaths by 46% from 2001 to 2010. It’s been such a success that it inspired me to immigrate and work in the Netherlands as a transportation engineer to figure out how they’ve been so successful and why we’ve struggled to make a difference.

It turns out that knowledge is the key ingredient missing from our efforts. Amazingly, incredulously, it turns out that myself and most transportation engineers in the United States know almost nothing about transportation.

The suggestion sounds ridiculous. “What on earth do you mean by ‘transportation engineers don’t know anything about transportation’?” you may ask. “It’s literally in the job title. They go to university, get tons of education, then go on to build systems that we use to get around every single day. Yes, mistakes that get made. But we would never be foolish enough to say surgeons know nothing about medicine or that programmers don’t know anything about computer science. How can this be?”

My counter would be, “Would you call someone a surgeon if they took just a single surgery class in medical school?” That is around the same level of education that students going into transportation are receiving.

The kind of professional that our education system produces is a bit of a misnomer. The American “transportation engineer” is a really a civil engineer who has received a little exposure to the transportation sector. That’s because in almost every ABET accredited college program, “transportation” is offered as a concentration within civil engineering.

These concentrations are usually the following five: structural, environmental, geotechnical, water resources, and transportation.

Which means that our civil engineering student received a bit of exposure to everything on top of a general engineering education. This is great for producing well rounded professionals who can do a good job at constructing a built environment. Our future civil engineer would be very helpful for figuring out how to build what we need, such as:

  • Calculating the needed thickness of a road and what type of asphalt to use
  • Where the drains at an intersection need to go
  • Figuring out how much maintenance is needed

However, the same professional is completely unprepared to tackle the challenge of figuring out what we need to build, such as:

  • What is the optimal width of an express road inside of the city limits?
  • What is the most appropriate intersection for the desired use?
  • How do we prioritize and balance congestion levels with other concerns such as safety, pollution or quality of life in the city
  • How do we practice ethics in the design phase?
  • How should the road system be laid out at a network/route level
  • Or surprisingly, how to fix congestion permanently.

None of this is really the fault of our aspiring future civil engineers, or has anything to do with how smart they are. This is because in a best-case scenario, a civil engineer will only take three transportation classes during their bachelor’s degree. In the worst case, they’ll only take one: Introduction to Highway Engineering. To put this into perspective, the most educated professionals we entrust to design and run our roads and streets have received only half of a minor with a handful of credits on the topic.

“OK, well, there’s many jobs where people can enter with little background in it, but become qualified over time as they collect more work experience,” some of you may ask. “Couldn’t transportation engineering be the same?” This is somewhat true. However, gathering work experience in the States largely helps an individual learn to operate in the industry effectively as it has been currently set up.

This means that our future American transportation engineer is learning how to navigate the impressive amounts of bureaucracy that have been built up in the industry, memorizing an impressive vocabulary of technical jargon, practicing with design software like AutoCAD to produce engineering plans, and how to copy the current engineering standards. There is no exposure to deep levels of theory than can help our future professional create original solutions to fundamental problems like safety, congestion, emissions and ethics.

This paradigm is largely responsible for the lack of innovation in the field and how we seem impotent to tackle the traffic death epidemic and congestion levels that costs our economy billions of dollars a year. All the experience in the world of copying and pasting a standard invented fifty years ago is useless when the problems that the standard was invented to resolve have changed. Understanding this sheds a lot of light as to why 40,000 people are still dying on our roads every year and why your local city insists on laying down sharrows in their latest round of “safety improvements.”

Quite frankly, it’s because we have no idea what we are doing.

There is some self-awareness and a lot of deep insecurity in the industry over this problem. This insecurity is what leads to the typically infuriating interactions between community advocates and city staff. Community advocates will push for what seems like a commonsense solution to reduce speed and improve safety in the neighborhood, only to receive a rambling response from the city’s traffic engineer that is so jumbled and dressed up in technical jargon that it scarcely resembles English.

The proposals from the community make sense but go against everything the traffic engineer has learned over nine units of transportation education, so the local official simply recites the local code or standard they have memorized and jumps straight to a conclusion without explaining why the code or standard is correct to begin with. Us engineers are too embarrassed to admit that we haven’t been given the tools or knowledge we need to solve the problems that have been entrusted to us to fix. However, we did manage to come up with enough technical jargon and bureaucracy to fool anyone who might suspect otherwise.

Some of you with experience in civil engineering might question why receiving two to three specialized classes is such a problem, when it seems to work for other subfields such as structural and geotechnical engineering.

The nature of these fields, I would argue, lends itself to fewer but more focused classes on fundamentals. Structural and geotechnical engineering are more of a “hard science” and theoretical. All the design and calculations in these fields can be traced back to the fundamental physics formulas that define stress, strain and torsion. A smaller scope makes it easier to master these fundamentals and then develop them further to apply to real world scenarios. Reliable codebooks and design manuals for these fields, which have also been written decades ago, make the transition from fundamentals to real world application significantly easier as a structural or geotechnical engineer may ponder over what reinforcing beam or retaining wall to use.

In contrast, transportation engineering is more descriptive and empirical. There aren’t one or two physics equations that form the basis of the whole sector. In some ways, it’s a field that’s closer to a softer science like economics. We observe natural phenomena and human behavior, and then use tools like statistics and math to create working models to predict results and build better environments.

For example, a traffic engineer might observe congestion at an intersection and use an exponential equation to graph the cumulative amount of time drivers are stuck in traffic and then try to adjust the phase timing of the signals to reduce this number. A transportation engineer might try to use a displacement equation to predict how much room the average car needs to come to a full stop, and then use this to set up a crosswalk at safe distance from a blind spot on the road. The same transportation engineer could also use statistics to determine the average speed at which a crash between a car and cyclist becomes fatal, and use this to set a new speed limit for the area.

These examples are all instances of a professional interpreting information from the real world and then using a deeper understanding of the scenario’s nature to figure out an improvement. Fixing an urban area’s traffic jam while slashing car crash deaths to zero and also improving the financial productivity of a street – but not forgetting to include the new bicycle corridor – is not easy to do. No manual in the world is going to provide copy and paste solution for this.

We need specialized professionals for this, and the education for these people is going to need to be long and extensive process – far too long and extensive to fit inside of a standard four-year civil engineering degree. Transportation engineering needs to be separated from civil engineering and taught as a separate program.

This is pretty much what world leaders like the Netherlands have done with their transportation sector. Transportation, mobility, and traffic students are all offered distinct programs which have a very different curriculum than the standard civil engineering degree. Depending on the program, students can expect to be enrolled in anywhere from 10-15 specialty classes, two to three computer aided design courses, three to four projects that replicate scenarios in the real world, and a mandatory paid internship with a Dutch company before graduating.

Educating and employing these professionals has been one of the major reasons behind the Netherlands’ impressive successes such as its sprawling cycling network, falling death rates on roads, or one of the best train systems in the world. True transportation engineers have been able to translate the abstract goals of policy makers and urban planners into workable designs that is then be handed over to the civil engineer and contractor to be constructed.

While comparing my experience of working in the professional industries of both nations, I’m reminded of the old adage: You get out what you put in.

If all a nation can provide are civil engineers who are given a crash course in transportation studies, what do we get? A paralyzing overreliance on standards, traffic departments whose solution to traffic jams caused by drive-throughs is to order coffee shop employees to work faster, and local officials that call sharrows on busy 45 mph six lane roads an “improvement” even though they are proven to be ineffective.

On the flip side, by pumping well educated professionals into a nation’s transportation sector for decades, we can create an industry that stays on the cutting edge, performs comprehensive safety audits of older road designs, is confident enough to experiment with new ideas, and is even self-aware enough to explain in the national traffic design manual how its influence over projects should diminish as the design speed goes down.

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Steffen Berr is a design engineer in the Netherlands. He studied civil engineering at California State University Sacramento. 

Tags: education

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