Getting from here to there

Eric Jaffee has a nice little piece in Atlantic Cities on the way in which city planners find themselves constrained in planning for better transit options. On the one hand, you have metrics, like Level of Service, that were more appropriate in times of heady growth, and when the growth of automobile traffic seemed desirable, or at least not detrimental, to the health of a city or community.

On the other - and given my Institutionalist leanings, I would argue that this is more important - the metric itself becomes a secondary obstacle, in the sense that it is anointed by the organization as a hard-and-fast rule. In fact, it is the history of adherence to this norm that becomes part of that institution’s identity, and gives rise to its intransigence, even when it finds itself at odds with other organizations, or its own mission. As Jaffee’s article points out, in the case of San Francisco, Level of Service has never had the force of a law or regulation, and yet it has led to not only poor planning choices, but outright conflict with the goals set by the city’s own 1973 policy that sought to prioritize non-automobile modes of transport. It is in this sense we shape our landscapes by the manner in which we choose to measure things, whether we are aware of it or not.

Charles Marohn, founder of Strong Towns, has quite a bit to say on the topic of standards-driven dysfunctionality as well. In a recent video, he channels Mystery Science Theater 3000 and delivers an evisceratingly funny voiceover to an engineer’s walkthrough of a “diverging diamond” traffic intersection. This design, intended to facilitate the flow of traffic without the building of overpasses, is also touted as being pedestrian-friendly, but the video is proof of quite the opposite.

Marohn has also posted an absurdist xtranormal video, where the conceptual bureaucracy of standards-driven design, concealed behind the rubric of “safety,” winds up creating anything but a safe environment for anyone actually inhabiting it. Unfortunately, it reinforces the stereotype of engineers as automata, which might be a bit unkind, as, after all, these are the people who build our solutions for us. One might consider, then, that the best we can do is give engineers the right problem to solve.

I disagree with this entirely: we should rather give our engineers - and planners - the capacity and license to ask themselves, What are the right questions we should be asking? Or, even better, what is the best outcome that we want to deliver? The ossifying processes identified by Institutionalism are always already ready to be present. In the case of San Francisco, they are attempting to replace Level of Service with other metrics. I wonder if anyone is asking themselves, What might be the unintended consequences of those?