We Need a New Conventional Wisdom About Streets

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What Comes Next?

But there’s a pivotal point in the failure of every paradigm. It comes when it has lost legitimacy and has a shrinking number of stalwart defenders. But no replacement paradigm has arrived on the main stage yet. There’s no alternative set of widely-accepted narratives and facts to make sense of how the world ought to work.

In this void, zombie ideas continue to drive decision-making, simply through inertia and a lack of political consensus around alternative approaches. This is the world in which a deadly road gets reconstructed somewhere every day with an even wider, deadlier design, not because anyone soberly concluded it was necessary, but because the money was there and so was “the standard” in a book on a shelf at City Hall.

We need a better common knowledge that is accepted not just by professionals, but by the public and the elected officials who represent them.

An uncomfortable little secret we don’t talk about all that much here: public sentiment is now, in many (though far from all) cases, the biggest obstacle to getting safer, more financially productive, and more humane streets implemented. I say this not in an elitist way—”If only we could do away with that pesky democracy!”—but in a sympathetic one.

I think most people get on an instinctive level that our transportation system produces bad outcomes that nobody is really happy with. This has given them a reflexive, and frankly healthy, mistrust of city planners and engineers and their glossy promises. 

But what most people don’t have is a vocabulary to explain what the experts got wrong in the past, why they got it wrong, and what a better vision for our streets could look like. In the absence of that vocabulary, mistrust of technical expertise becomes a weapon too often fired blindly rather than aimed.

We’re now in the strange in-between position in which a rapidly growing share of technical experts have already embraced the insights that you’ll find in Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, while the public isn’t quite there yet. Chuck has told me that when he gives talks to planners and engineers, a common response is cheers and high-fives from the under-40 crowd, and puzzled or stone-faced silence from the over-55 engineers in the audience. Expert consensus is shifting.

But public consensus is slower and harder to move. In my city of Sarasota, Florida, we have a nasty stroad, Fruitville Road, dividing our downtown. It’s four lanes of noisy, smelly, dangerous traffic with narrow sidewalks and zero charm. Everyone understands this: no one likes Fruitville Road. In 2019, our city planning staff, tasked with proposing a redesign of Fruitville’s downtown segment, came up with a vision for an urban street that could have come straight out of Strong Towns. Fewer lanes of car traffic, wider sidewalks, street trees, roundabouts replacing stoplights to keep things moving at humane and safe speeds. A street designed to be a productive place for the community, a platform for generating wealth.

The road diet was rejected by the City Commission. The loudest sentiment from the members of the public who weigh in on such things was, “This is absolutely insane. The gridlock will be unbearable!” Suggestions aired on social media, in community meetings, and in newspaper op-eds and letters included:

“Our infrastructure isn’t keeping up with all the development happening around here. We need to be talking about adding more lanes to our roads, not taking them away!”

“Maybe we should build a flyover ramp and turn Fruitville into a freeway to make it easier to get through downtown to the beach.” 

“The new pedestrian signal is causing traffic delays; we shouldn’t be letting people cross there!”

“The city planners seem to be determined to force people out of their cars by embracing gridlock; we need to push back against these unelected bureaucrats’ agenda.”

Often, citizen advocates latch on to the very same engineering concepts that held sway in the 20th century but that a younger generation of engineers is questioning and rejecting. I routinely hear references to Level of Service (a measure of how fast and free-flowing traffic is) and ITE Trip Generation Formulas (pseudoscientific estimates of how much car traffic new development will produce) from activists at public meetings.

It’s roughly the same story every time a major road change is proposed. And in the minds of our elected city commissioners, it was clear in the Fruitville Road Diet debate that fear-driven public sentiment—What are these planners scheming to do to us now?—ultimately weighed more heavily than the testimony of their expert staff. They rejected the Fruitville redesign and voted to retain the dysfunctional stroad status quo.

I don’t want the experts to have the power or unquestioned credibility to steamroll the public. That’s not what I’m saying here. We’ve already seen where that got us.

Rather, I want everyone who voiced a strong opinion to the City Commission about that road diet to read Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. I think we would have had a dramatically different conversation as a community if they could have.

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