Saturday, February 14, 2015

First They Came for Chuck Marohn....Then They Came for Me

 “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”  --Martin Niemoller

Chuck Marohn, a licensed engineer and certified planner in Minnesota, recently had a complaint filed against him with his licensing board by a fellow engineer, Jeffrey Peltola as discussed in the Streetsblog article and related links. Peltola, according to Streetsblog, supports a group (MOVEMN) that lobbies for more transportation spending. Countering the complaint to the licensing board, there is a statement in support of Chuck's First Amendment right to criticize his profession (without retaliation, of course) written by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Why the dustup? Not because a bridge Chuck designed collapsed. Not because he took money under the table to get a contract or committed some other civic sin. Why? Because he criticized the current system whereby massive amounts of public money are thrown at new construction of sometimes dubious virtue which not only ignores the needs of existing infrastructure but often leads to really bad (unsustainable) urban planning and dangerous compromises in multimodal design. Here is an example of his writing that pisses people off. Of course, he is poking at the bread and butter of fellow engineers who make their dime on the public payroll. As well as bike ped advocates who, as he points out, lunge for the table scraps of the big bucks in the transportation feeding trough. He does this on the Strong Towns blog, which is his blog and one of the ones on this blog's highlight list.

Those of us who have worked in the public realm, either as professionals, or as I have been involved, as an appointed volunteer on the Los Alamos County Transportation Board, know that there is plenty good and plenty to criticize in how transportation planning is done and how it impacts successful urban design. I was deeply involved with writing the 2005 Los Alamos bike plan and in the formulation of, and eventual adoption by Council of our 2010 Policy for the Design of Streets and Rights of Way. I have worked with our public works professionals including former DPW director Kyle Zimmerman and former Traffic Manager Nancy Talley and now, with current DPW director Philo Shelton. I've reamed the NMDOT a new one many times for its lapses of judgement in multimodal design and its failure to maintain roads properly, i.e, partial paving of roadway shoulders. Because I'm a volunteer, there is not much anyone can do other than not reappoint me. If it was my livelihood, I would be vulnerable.

So if you care about engineers being thoughtful rather than just taking the big bucks by supporting the existing, sometimes flawed paradigm (see video below!), support Chuck in this one. Here is his own discussion of what happened, on the Strong Towns blog. For another perspective on Chuck's thinking, check out this National Resources Defense Council piece.

My two cents? A fellow engineer who filed such a frivolous complaint should have his own license in the balance.


Darren Cox said...

I have known Chuck since we were in high school together, though we haven't spoken since college many years ago. I read his blog sometimes and we are friends on facebook so I can say, without hesitation, that I do not believe that anything that Chuck writes on his blog is done without passion or belief. Chuck is, in my experience, a good, earnest, guy and I've always liked him.

However, I have pointed out, directly to him, on a couple of occasions that, while I am very clear about what Chuck stands AGAINST, after years of reading, I still don't know, specifically, what he stands FOR.

The stuff Chucks writes, at least that which I have read, is almost complete bullshit. He doesn't seem to have put any long-range, downstream thought into any of it. He rails about funding issues without considering the alternatives or (seemingly) understanding how funding actually comes about on the legislative level. He bitches about design elements, but I have yet to see a concrete example of what he would do instead, designed by him, to prove that he is anything more than the untethered opposition to everything status quo, regardless of its import, usefullnes or popularity.

In short, I don't usually agree with anything the guy writes and I think he is woefully under-educated to espouse the opinions he does, on many subects.

Having said that, I do not understand idiots that want to make formal complaints against people like Chuck who, regardless of what you think of his politics, beliefs or even his engineering prowess, have every right in the world to yell them from the mountain top, should they choose to do so.

In fact, having a guy like Chuck around to spur debate is the absolute BEST thing that could happen to field like civil engineering and civic planning; fields that most folks don't understand or even give any thought to. By bringing these issues to the forefront of our consciousness, we bring more opinions to the table and are likely to end up with a well reasoned consensus, rather than the engineering monstrosities, often dreamed up by one person and approved without vigorous debate. Our Tax dollars should never be spent, on anything, without dissenting voices having had their opportunity to be heard, if for no other reason than by hearing dissent we can strengthen our resolve. If the idea isn't good enough to stand up to an argument, maybe it also isn't strong enough to support the weight of our tax dollars being piled on it.

Khal said...

Thanks for the comment, Darren, and I'll mull it over. I cannot speak for Chuck since I am not Chuck, but I can speak for myself, having sat on our county's transportation planning board for a dozen years and often enough, chaired the thing. So I work a lot with PEs, CEs, etc.

My main beefs with transportation planning and design is the inability to make what I think are solid, rational design changes that reflect the urban landscape. A good example of the problem is on that video "when a state highway becomes main street" (title is something like that). When you get into a city, you have to design for the complex interactions of a city and that means level of service is no longer supreme. So careful intersection design, proper crosswalks, lane widths, crosswalk frequency, and speeds need to reflect overall safety rather than motorist safety. Trinity Drive in Los Alamos and all of the arguments we have about what it should look like come to mind.

I won't defend every statement Chuck said nor would I expect anyone to defend mine. What I do expect is that we can, as you say, shout from the rooftop without being silenced by brute force rather than by the response of better ideas.

Nathanael said...

Chuck Marohn doesn't understand macroeconomics. (Macroeconomics is a tricky subject.)

As a result he makes some 'own goals' in his arguments: he keeps talking as if towns will run out of 'money' by sprawling, when in fact they won't necessarily run out of 'money' -- what they'll run out of for sure is real resources.

He does understand traffic safety and urban planning.

Mathis Sneed said...

I just thought I'd add a couple of points in rebuttal...

While I agree with Mr. Cox that Chuck seems to spend more time railing against something, rather than for something, I don't think it's fair to say that he doesn't "put any long-range, downstream thought into any of it."

For him to have inspired and fostered an entire movement around an idea to change the recent development patterns and ideas requires that he look and think "long-range" and "downstream".

I would argue that Chuck is very forthcoming in his assessment and position on it all... He can clearly see, by his own analysis, that the current system and pattern does not work, long-term. He then further admits that he does not have the answer(s). He doesn't dance around the fact that this is hard, that this is complicated. He does offer "Kudos!" to projects and ideas that are more in-line with traditional devleopment patterns. And while it seems his praise is hard to come by, I would suggest that projects worthy of that praise are hard to come by and his praise follows as best he can find them.

He also relents that those who came before him, that pioneered and created this system, were doing the best they could. Just because it doesn't appear that it will be long-term-viable is no reason to ream those who developed the ideas in the first place. His "railing" is typically directed at those who, today, continue to prop up and champion that system which is already showing signs of failure. He doesn't necessarily fault those who are caught-up in the system, but he certainly goes after those who say that the system isn't broken or that we need of it. Whether you agree that it's broken or not, I think you have to respect his consistency; if he thinks it's broken,then he should berate those who don't, otherwise, he's a hypocrite.

Mr. Cox and others have pointed out that Chuck doesn't know anything about macroeconomics. I've never read or heard any instance where he claimed to. His view of things is from the perspective of a design professional and planning professional, not an economist. And while, yes, macroeconomics is very, very complicated, my own take on Chuck's perspective is that while "the system" is very "macro", he sees great (if not the greatest) opportunity in the small changes that can be made. And no, he's not advocating for macro changes, he is advocating for small, micro changes, hopefully applied on a macro scale.

I, for one, tend to agree with many of his assessments. I have read a few blog posts that seem to be a little pie-in-the-sky and/or academiccally idealistic, but I think without some of that thinking, we'll always settle for less. If no one is trying for the ideal, then we will never achieve anywhere near it.

I, personally, applaud Chuck Marohn for his efforts. And I certainly agree with Mr. Cox that opposition voices are the key to getting the right solutions in almost every situation.

That's my $0.02...
Mathis Sneed, PLA, ASLA
Landscape Architect
Huntsville, AL

Khal said...

I'm not convinced that macroeconomists have crystal balls that are better than anyone else's. What we do know is the present system of transportation planning and metropolitan system design thrives on throwing money at 20th Century development patterns and transportation engineering "rules". The fact that many urban areas have thrown up their hands at AASHTO and formed NACTO (with whom I have serious bones to pick)is an example of the pushback. With bridges falling down as politicians refuse to figure out how to fund repair of even our current infrastructure, its obvious that more than just Chuck needs to tell the system that it has no clothes.

Mathis Sneed said...