The Strong Towns Podcast
The Hidden Values Behind Our Unsafe Streets

The Hidden Values Behind Our Unsafe Streets

September 6, 2021

On December 3, 2014, a 7-year-old girl named Destiny Gonzalez was killed while crossing State Street in Springfield, Massachusetts.

What gets lost in the shocking statistics about the number of pedestrians who die each year in traffic crashes—4,884 in the U.S. in 2014, more than 6,700 in 2020—is that they aren’t “statistics” at all, or even “pedestrians” really, but people with names, who had hopes and dreams, and family and friends forever changed by the loss of their loved one. That was certainly the case with Destiny, who was killed while leaving the Central Library with her mother and cousin. She also left behind a father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

Something else that gets lost in these discussions is how our streets got so unsafe to begin with. Our streets, roads, and stroads are designed according to values so embedded that traffic engineers themselves might not be constantly aware of them. That’s a problem because you can’t fix something you don’t even know exists. It’s also the topic this week on the Strong Towns Podcast.

In this episode, Chuck Marohn reads an excerpt from the first chapter of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. Chuck describes why the high costs of the North American transportation system—costs in life and injury, as well as time and prosperity—are the byproduct of the values at the heart of traffic engineering. He also explains why the values of engineers, including traffic speed and traffic volume, aren’t the values most people would prioritize.

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer is available everywhere on Wednesday, though if you preorder now you can get immediate access to Chapter One (along with these other great bonuses).

Chuck Marohn Answers Your Questions

Chuck Marohn Answers Your Questions

August 30, 2021

Have you visited the Strong Towns Action Lab? That's where we keep our best, most actionable content. We've written a lot over the years, and we wanted to have a place we could direct people to when they want to quickly access our top content—including videos, podcasts, and e-books. Think of it as a database of resources that we've cultivated just for you!

Beyond that, the Action Lab is also where we've begun collecting questions from our readers and listeners, and today we wanted to take a look at some of those here on the Strong Towns Podcast.

So, Chuck Marohn will be responding to your questions on things like how to begin slowing cars down on residential streets, how to implement Strong Towns principles when you work for a large-scale development firm, how to implement incrementalism in your place, how to measure success in import replacement, and more!

If you've got a burning query that you want us to answer next time, head on over to the Community Section of the Acton Lab, and post it there. Our goal is to address as many questions as we can, and especially the ones that we think are going to help a lot of people out. So, stay tuned for future Q&A sessions!

Additional Show Notes

Rick Harnish: Stronger Transit for Stronger Cities

Rick Harnish: Stronger Transit for Stronger Cities

August 23, 2021

Which comes first: a great transit system or a great city that can support it? What role does high-speed rail play in an overall, effective transportation system? And is an incremental approach really possible with high-speed transit?

These are important questions with potentially complex answers. For insight we turned to Rick Harnish. He’s executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, the nation’s largest high-speed rail advocacy organization. The organization’s goal is to make high-speed trains “fast, frequent, and affordable.” Harnish cofounded the Alliance in 1993 (he’s also a Strong Towns member), and we’re pleased to welcome him as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast.

In this episode, Harnish and Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talk about how much of the transit that gets built is based on what places need versus what they can get funding for. They discuss the problem of thinking about transit as a “charitable overlay” to an auto-oriented system, and whether we can afford to fund high-speed transit while also funding new car infrastructure. They also talk about what the U.S and Canada should—and shouldn’t—learn about high-speed rail from countries like France, Japan, and China.

Additional Show Notes

Bad Benches (and Other Park Problems)

Bad Benches (and Other Park Problems)

August 2, 2021

This week on the Strong Towns podcast, Chuck makes a confession about something he did that he now regrets...and you might be surprised at how much of it revolves around poor placement of park benches in his town of Brainerd, Minnesota.

Of course, that's not all this episode deals with. What Chuck's beef with his local park's benches really boils down to is the systematic devaluation of public space, by people who have both good intentions and not a clue what they're doing. Their misguided attempts to enhance the park has actually made it a worse place to be. By extension, its ability to generate wealth and provide a beautiful public area for the neighborhood has been impaired.

How can you deal with similar issues in your own place? Maybe not with the exact approach that Chuck took (again, there are some regrets expressed in this episode), but there's still a lot we can learn from Brainerd's example. And if you really want to learn the ropes of urban design, then you need to enroll in our newest Academy course, Urban Design Principles for a Strong Town. It was designed specifically to teach non-professionals easy steps they can take right now to start improving their city or town.

Additional Show Notes

Fighting an Urban Highway Expansion in Shreveport

Fighting an Urban Highway Expansion in Shreveport

July 26, 2021

For more than four years, Strong Towns has been telling the story of the so-called I-49 Connector project in Shreveport, Louisiana. We say “so-called” because while this project may seek to connect two sections of I-49, it will do so by rending the Allendale neighborhood, a vibrant, predominantly black neighborhood that is the gateway to downtown Shreveport.

It will also cost an extraordinary amount of money—an estimated $700 million—for less than four miles of road. Some state and city officials have been pushing for the project for years, but a growing grassroots movement of neighborhood leaders are fighting back. According to a local ABC affiliate, after decades of studies and meetings and discussion, a decision on the project is expected in late 2021 or early 2022.

In this episode of The Strong Towns Podcast, we’re sharing the audio from a webcast we did last week. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn and Program Director Rachel Quednau interview four exceptional leaders working to stop the urban highway expansion, strengthen the Allendale neighborhood, and prevent officials from pursuing a financially ruinous megaproject.

Neighborhood podcast host Roosevelt Bryant, city councilwoman LeVette Fuller, local nonprofit director Kim Mitchell, and Shreveport-based engineer Tim Wright share their insights on the complex nature of highway projects and politics, and discuss a few of the things that make Allendale such a special place. They talk about why a city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood, how the proposed I-49 project has been lowering the quality of life in Allendale since long before the first bulldozer arrived, and why we can’t simply rely on a philosophical change about urban highways in Washington to save their neighborhood.

They also describe how Allendale residents are coming together not just to oppose the highway but to start food co-ops, protect parks, and nurture homegrown incremental development. As LeVetter Fuller put it, the elevated highway project will turn into “drive-over country”: a neighborhood that has the same capacity for charm as the places—Bentonville, Hot Springs, etc.—project boosters are trying to speed drivers to.

Johnny Sanphillippo: The Trajectory of Suburbia

Johnny Sanphillippo: The Trajectory of Suburbia

July 19, 2021

You've read Granola Shotgun. You've seen Johnny Sanphillippo on our website (including in an article just released today). You've heard him on the Strong Towns Podcast multiple times, and those interviews have each been hits with our listeners. So, we've invited him back again to chat with Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn.

For those who don't know yet, Johnny is a blogger and small-scale developer working with property in and around Madison, Wisconsin. His adventures (and sometimes misadventures) in the suburbs of Madison, along with traveling, interviewing others, and photographing places around the country, have all afforded him some interesting insights into the North American development pattern.

On this episode of the Strong Towns Podcast, he shares his perspectives on “occupying” the suburbs on its own terms, the future of our relationship with the automobile, dealing with complex problems (especially when those problems become a crisis), "dystopian" views, intergenerational cooperation, and more.

Additional Show Notes:

Pete Davis: The Case for Commitment in an Age of “Infinite Browsing”

Pete Davis: The Case for Commitment in an Age of “Infinite Browsing”

July 12, 2021

We hear it all the time: “Keep your options open.” It’s the philosophy that shapes much of our approach to education, career, and relationships. It also shapes where we choose to live and, critically, how we live there.

Pete Davis calls this infinite browsing mode, and he says it is the defining characteristic of our time. Davis compares it to a long hallway with countless doors, each of which leads to new possibilities. Having options can be fun and even liberating. But there are also downsides of hopping from room to room, of living life in the hallway.

And the thing is, says Davis, the people we most admire—for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mister Rogers, Dorothy Day, or the unsung local advocate going about the work of making the neighborhood better—are the folks who ignored the advice to keep their options open. Rather, they are, in a word, dedicated.

A few years ago, Pete Davis helped bring Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn to speak at Harvard. We’re thrilled now to welcome Davis in return as our guest this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. Davis is a writer and civic advocate from Falls Church, Virginia. He’s the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, a state policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy. Davis’s 2018 Harvard Law School graduation speech, ”A Counterculture of Commitment,” has been viewed more than 30 million times. And he’s now expanded that into a new book: Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.

In this episode, Marohn and Davis discuss where the maximize-your-options mindset comes from and why it is and isn’t a generational thing. They also talk about how the “counterculture of commitment” manifests itself in various spheres—including our education system, economy, and local communities—and why we should celebrate maintainers at least as much as innovators. They also tell stories about some of their own favorite “long-haul heroes.”

Additional Show Notes:

Here’s How Cities Undermine Their Own Competitiveness

Here’s How Cities Undermine Their Own Competitiveness

July 6, 2021

The traditional development pattern of towns and cities evolved with humans, the same way ant hills evolved with the ant and bee hives evolved with the bee. Yet around the time of the Great Depression, North Americans began jettisoning millennia of accumulated wisdom about city-building in favor of a suburban development pattern that was scaled for cars rather than people, built to a finished state and all at once, resistant to feedback and adaptation, and ultimately unable to pay for itself. At Strong Towns we call this massive and relatively sudden shift the “Suburban Experiment”—and we’re all the guinea pigs.

Several generations into this experiment, the data is in: the suburban development pattern doesn’t work: North American cities exchanged long-term stability for near-term growth, but now the bills are coming due. An entire continent of cities are slipping toward insolvency.

Last month, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn was the guest on Saving Elephants, a podcast geared toward conservative Millennials. Chuck and host Josh Lewis had a great conversation on a range of topics, and we received permission to re-run the episode here.

In this episode, Chuck and Josh talk about the ways in which cities undermine their own competitiveness, why the big box store model is competitive at the national level but extractive at the local level, and how cities pursue megaprojects backwards. They also discuss the role of local conservatives and why the Strong Towns message is “trans-partisan.” You’ll also want to hear Chuck’s answer to this question from Josh: “How screwed are we, as younger Americans?”

Additional Show Notes

Expertise Is Not Absolute

Expertise Is Not Absolute

June 21, 2021

How far should we go in trusting experts? That's the question that Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn tackles this week on the Strong Towns Podcast. By taking a trip through the past to the present, Chuck looks at various events in recent history—from 9/11 and the Iraq War to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic—to see what they can teach us about blindly trusting in "absolute" expertise.

It's a question that plays a central role in Chuck's new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, which is available for preorder and will be coming out on September 8. In the book, Chuck systematically disassembles all of the things that engineers have gotten wrong over the years, and all the faulty, costly, dangerous standards they have embedded into the profession, as a result. In spite of these issues and in spite of the need for reform, the word of engineers is treated as nearly infallible. They are, after all, the experts.

That's not to say that there is no place for experts in society. If you're going to build a bridge, then of course you want engineers. However, what Chuck explores in this episode is the type of expert we need: not those who see their knowledge as so absolute as to be unquestionable, but rather, experts who are aware of the limitations of their own knowledge.

Additional Show Notes

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Jason Slaughter: The Goal Isn’t to Build a Cycling City

Jason Slaughter: The Goal Isn’t to Build a Cycling City

June 7, 2021

Jason Slaughter is the creator of Not Just Bikes, a fast-growing YouTube channel about urban planning and urban life. Based in Amsterdam, he often makes videos about why city living in The Netherlands is so good...including the bikes, but not just the bikes. Yet Slaughter grew up in London, Ontario, and many of his most-watched videos feature trenchant analyses of the North American suburban development pattern. He’s also creating a popular series (with five installments so far) on core Strong Towns themes.

We’re excited to welcome Jason Slaughter as this week’s guest on the Strong Towns Podcast. In this episode, Slaughter tells Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn the story of how a half-mile, death-defying walk along a Houston stroad changed everything for him. They talk about why Amsterdam’s renown for its bikeability and bike culture wasn’t an inevitability, and what other cities—from Brussels to Brainerd—can learn from Amsterdam’s example. They also discuss Amsterdam’s safe streets movement, why Slaughter has been surprised by his channel’s growing (and shifting) popularity, and why building a biking city shouldn’t be the goal.

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Additional Show Notes

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