Confessions of (Another) Recovering Engineer

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Fiscal health and affordability for residents/tax payers are directly connected to land use. Land use, neighborhood experience, and transportation are also connected. And finally, how we design our transportation systems impacts the fiscal health of our communities, and the quality of life and cost of living for residents. To my fellow engineers out there, we’re doing it all wrong.

These are not things I was taught in college as a civil engineering major. My project managers and mentors early in my career as a consulting engineer did not mention them either, instead teaching and encouraging me to apply industry adopted design standards such as the AASHTO “Green Book,” the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), and various city and state DOT standards. I was interested in civil engineering as a way to partner with cities and residents to solve problems and build great communities, but what engineering actually turned out to be was the exact opposite of what I was hoping to do. I spent the first 16 years of my career as a licensed civil engineer working on municipal infrastructure and site development projects across Texas with a large A/E firm. Every day I would look things up in tables based on industry accepted practices, and then force these rigid standards into the design of roads and sites, often taking people’s property, filling in floodplains, and widening roadways to make them more safe (for drivers, not people—read Chuck’s book to learn more). I did this under my professional oath to “protect the health, safety, and welfare” of those people and communities I was serving. Looking back now, I can say that many projects I designed actually hurt people and their communities. 

That’s quite the load to process, and it took me a combination of somewhat unique personal experiences (I’ve lived and traveled in Europe and multiple states) and a long time to figure it out. I’ve been contacted by a number of young engineers who are struggling with this and looking for guidance. In the rest of this “confession,” I’m going to share how I came to learn these things and how it’s impacted me, in hopes that it will encourage other engineers and community builders to read Chuck’s book and make the career shift that I did.

In 2009, I was offered the opportunity to serve as National Director of the firm’s Community Planning and Urban Design practice, where I supported our team and clients on various plans, site development projects, and sustainability initiatives. As I traveled around, I began to see a trend emerging that no matter what type of city I visited—big or small, rural or urban or suburban, progressive or conservative—they were all struggling with how to pay for existing infrastructure, but continuing to build more. The more I visited with planners and studied development trends, I realized the development pattern and common transportation engineering practices were the primary causes of the funding gaps in cities. Yet, in my home region of Dallas–Fort Worth, we were not just implementing the same approaches these other places had, but were doing it at a much larger scale and faster pace. 

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