On Being a City Planner in a Room Full of Engineers

Great transportation projects are built through broad, inter-disciplinary cooperation. For major projects, city planners and civil engineers usually work together during project development, with planners setting the scope, vision and major design features and engineers making sure the details work and engineering standards are met. Their different perspectives are often an asset as both professions bring something unique to the table, but because transportation and street right of way has historically been the domain of engineers, many planners are still catching up in trying to influence transportation project design. Here are a few words of encouragement if you’ve ever been the only planner in a room full of traffic engineers.

  1. It’s OK to de-emphasize Level of Service and traffic volume projections. They are only one factor that should be considered during project feasibility analysis. Given the broad benefits of road diets, bike lanes, and other sustainable transportation modes, models predicting automobile volumes decades out into the future shouldn’t be the primary green light during project development.
  2. It’s OK to advocate for fewer traffic lanes and even narrower lanes.
  3. It’s OK to use the phrases “fast”, “anti-urban” and “does not meet livability goals” when describing excessively wide streets.
  4. Protected bike lanes are no longer radical ideas, even if they mean taking traffic lanes away from automobiles.
  5. Sharrows on wider, high volume streets are the table scraps of bike infrastructure and shouldn’t be used just to placate cyclists.
  6. Full time on-street parking is not an impediment to traffic flow, even on urban arterials. It’s a retail-booster and a revenue generating traffic calming device.
  7. It’s OK to talk about big picture things like community goals and long range neighborhood plans when the conversation focuses on minutia.
  8. It’s OK to expect something exceptional and transformational from a project.
  9. It’s OK to suggest that the project team actually walk or bike on the street they are designing.
  10. It’s OK to question neighborhood design speeds in excess of 20mph, the 85% percentile rule, intersection geometrics and roadway clear zones, even if you’re not an engineer.
  11. Aesthetics are just as important as function. Signal poles, bus stops, sidewalks, and the entire streetscape are as much a part of urban design as buildings and parks.

…learning how to make cities rich and fecund and great places to be so we’re comfortable and healthy and happy is the biggest problem we face. The only way we’ll not go crazy is to build beautiful, rich, life-enhancing cities….The majority of open spaces in cities are streets. That means the street system is too important to leave solely to transportation engineers. They’re way too important to leave to just moving traffic. So I’m interested in cities because they are the design problem for a habitable planet. – Laurie Olin