The Strong Towns Podcast

Greatest Hits #9: Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform? (2015)

March 18, 2019

A lot of professions and organizations have an unspoken code, one that says, “We may air our disagreements internally, but to the rest of the world, we present a united front.” The police and the military, for example, tend to be this way. Families are often this way. This code can engender a really powerful sense of solidarity, which isn’t always a bad thing.

But do civil engineers need a code like that? And what happens when speaking out for badly needed reform offends those who see it as an unjust provocation, attack on their livelihood, or even an act of betrayal?

In our of our most important Strong Towns Podcast episodes of all time, and #9 in our Greatest Hits series, Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn discusses his own experience with these attitudes, in an incident which occurred in early 2015.

Who Represents the Engineering Profession?

Chuck Marohn is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Minnesota. He is also a vocal advocate who has been extremely critical of aspects of the engineering profession, including in particular the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Chuck has called ASCE the leader of the Infrastructure Cult for its relentless advocacy for more money for civil engineering projects, no matter the cost to society.

In early 2015, a fellow licensed engineer in Minnesota filed a complaint against Marohn’s engineering license. This complaint did not allege that Marohn was not a competent engineer. Rather, it was filed over a policy disagreement. It alleged that Marohn had violated a state statute by writing and saying things, here at Strong Towns, that served to “diminish public confidence in the engineering profession.”

Let’s get this straight: a Professional Engineer (PE) license is a big deal. The licensing test is extremely difficult and rigorous. Most civil engineers, Marohn included, take great pride in their PE title.

And yet, criticizing ASCE does not, and should not in anyone’s minds, equate to criticizing the engineering profession.

No Incentive to Do Things Differently

ASCE is unlike many professional organizations, in that it engages in routine political advocacy. ASCE advocates in the public sphere for things that will produce more money for more projects for more engineers—getting more things built out of concrete and asphalt and steel.

Marohn argues strongly that this mindset—more is better—is a deeply harmful dogma within the profession at a time when most American cities and towns suffer both a public-safety crisis (because our streets are too wide and induce unsafe driving) and a fiscal solvency crisis (because our streets are too wide, our development pattern is too spread out, and we have built far too much infrastructure).

The ASCE actively promotes the overbuilding of unnecessary and even harmful infrastructure. As an example, Marohn cites the often-used term “functionally obsolete bridges,” heard in debates about how much state and federal money is needed for infrastructure repairs. Many of these, it turns out, are simply one-lane bridges in rural areas, which are not actually in danger of falling down—but the “standard” says they should be two-lane.

Because of the way engineering contracts work—often as a percent of construction cost—there is little to no incentive to cut costs. There is little to no incentive to do things in a profoundly more frugal way. There is little to no incentive to question industry design standards for things like street widths, if doing so would also mean losing out on project funding.

In our cities and towns, our wide streets are killing people. Design could save lives. When you get into that conversation, some engineers get very upset. And one of those people, in 2015, got upset enough to challenge Chuck Marohn’s license.

Spoiler alert: The complaint went nowhere—the state licensing board found “no violation” and recommended no further action. And a lot of people spoke up in defense of Chuck and Strong Towns, including a number of lawyers and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The engineering profession, says Marohn, is full of good people who want to make the world better. And increasingly, those good people are questioning some of the old dogmas of their profession. This podcast episode, one of our Greatest Hits that you don’t want to miss, makes an eloquent case for the legitimacy and importance of such questioning.