Maybe I'm just getting old and crotchety......or just tired of all the hand wringing about the federal highway trust fund going broke....
Since the 1940's, to me it seems like the major factor guiding policy and design in the engineering profession has been eliminating traffic congestion. Has the profession made any impact in solving that problem?
It's why a lot of deadly two lane roads are sitting unimproved. Past thinking has dictated that capacity drives gas tax investment and roads seem to never get improved unless they are widened. The resulting effect is that a project budget becomes cost prohibitive because of all the extra pavement, dirt, and property acquisition that go into building four lane roads so the road just sits and continues to kill and maim.
That capacity-first mentality worked until the 2000's when the cost of construction inflation and reduced fuel taxes have ground government road budgets into the dust.
Real example? Check out this boondoggle in Seattle. The cost to replace or expand highway/road projects has reached the point where the investment won't give us a positive return on investment. Will a tunnel with no access ever promote new economic development? Maybe if someone asked that at the start, a billion dollars or two would have been saved.
At this point in my career, I feel we, as engineers, need to fine tune the roads we have and focus on safety first. Millions of dollars are spent on guardrail, shoulders, wide graded ditches for cars to recover, street lights, etc to protect someone in a car from running off the road. Millions more dollars are blown on overhead sign trusses and signs everywhere to direct the lowest common denominator driver to the right place. Roads are widened for future development that might some day occur (yet by the time the development occurs, the pavement has deteriorated and needed to be repaved a couple of times).
Meanwhile a pedestrian or bicyclist seem to be like an afterthought and the first thing cut from a project budget. Why? I think engineers just think those folks can fend for themselves. They can cut through the grass or hop a ditch to get around. They can do things cars are never expected to do yet they are the most vulnerable when trying to get around.
Anyways, here are some pictures from a local project completed this decade. I am not picking on the designer or the agency that built it. I only use it as an example because it easily illustrates my point. It's just one of the many projects built over the years where things could have been done better.
The car (which has steel frame, seat belts, airbags, and other safety features) gets guardrail to keep it from running of the road and hitting a blunt object. Bicyclist or pedestrian? Don't stray off the path because paralysis kind of sucks.
Guardrail ends for cars have energy dissipating devices at the ends to prevent the guardrail from spearing the car and driver. Bicyclist or pedestrian who hits a guardrail? There's blood transfusions and stitches to fix you up if you hit it.
Cars get advance warning signage for vertical obstructions and sign trusses and bridges are designed to be taller than a semi truck. Bicyclist or pedestrian? Decapitation or strangulation from a metal wire isn't really a bad way to go.
If you're an engineer, I strongly encourage you to step back every so often and ask why and what the ramifications are in a design to people not in a car, the environment, or people's homes and property.
To my colleagues who may be reading this post and getting irritated at my comments, I ask one question. Why is that so? Picture your kids or your spouse or your grandmother using a project that you are involved in. Have you really made it safe? What would they say to you if they had to use the project? Would your design protect them? What if something happened to you and you were confined to a wheel chair and had to navigate your design?
All I ask is that bicyclists and pedestrians be treated the same as a vehicle. Be a part of the solution and let's re-focus the profession to focus on safety first and moving vehicles from point A to point B in the fastest amount of time as possible last. I also ask that you walk or preferably bike every project you design after it is complete to see what could have been done better so that the next project is better.
The current transportation funding path is un-sustainable even with gas tax increases. The first step in trying to fix it is not over-building things for a perceived traffic problem while ignoring the real issues.
Even if you're not in the road business, I encourage everyone to check out Strong Towns which is a group founded by professional engineer Charles Marohn (Twitter handle here) and is dedicated to financially strong communities with safe streets for all and start questioning how we are going to get out of this funding mess we are faced with.