Alternatives to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices?

Patrick DeBrosse

Mr. Marohn,

One of the things that has stuck with me through reading Confessions and listening to your talk is the way that standards from engineering resources such as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices get applied indiscriminately in new projects. This phenomenon seems very unlikely to change, since it is the way all professions tend to operate (deference to authority, standards becoming habits, school textbooks as ingrained approaches). So I wonder if the best approach is to advocate for a new book, which offers an alternative set of engineering standards that are specifically for safe urban environments? It seems to me that with a concrete alternative to MoUTCD (and other such engineering resources), it would be easier to teach new engineering students, as well as to tell our elected officials what we want them to ask engineers to use. The latter question is on my mind, since my county in PA is currently soliciting public feedback for their 2050 master plan. 

I'm a total outsider to engineering, so perhaps such safer manuals of standards already exist (or perhaps StrongTowns should gather some engineers together for the task of writing one!), but I thought it was better to ask you than to wonder what's out there. Thanks!



  • Comment author
    Charles Marohn
    • Official comment

    I appreciate this thought; essentially, can we build a better mousetrap?

    There are people working on that, and there are others working on reforming the MUTCD. I don't oppose those efforts, but I'm skeptical of them and have chosen not to spend my time on that approach. Success would require the center-of-gravity of the engineering profession to shift dramatically in a way that goes against the business model and reduces their power and influence. I know many engineers that want reform, but every engineer I know is human.

    The approach we're advocating for creates a divide between (a) what is a technical decision and thus needs an engineer and (b) what is a non-technical decision that doesn't require a licensed, trained professional. Most decisions around transportation fall into the latter category. For example, as I wrote last year, design speed is a value statement, not a technical decision.

    In Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, I included a chapter about streets and street design teams (Chapter 5). If we can focus on the design process for local streets (places where state and federal funding and the standards they mandate isn't an issue) we can create a new body of knowledge that is bottom-up and place-based, instead of dependent on design manuals. This is essentially what we're trying to do with the Crash Analysis Studio, which we're calling a the new "standard of care" for dealing with fatal and traumatic crashes on local streets. 

    The Strong Towns Academy has a Local Motive session on Establishing a Street Design Team.


  • Comment author
    Patrick DeBrosse

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response! I really appreciate the distinction you have drawn between technical decisions and value decisions, and think that the implication of your argument (that democracy is the best process for making infrastructure value judgments) is absolutely right.

    It does lead you into almost uncharted waters, since it requires thinking about how to de-professionalize something that has already been professionalized. Part of what you're up against is a huge culture of deference to those with university degrees, as well as an asymmetric level of organization of those who are outside of the profession vs. those inside it. As attempts to challenge the power structures of doctors and lawyers show, these are steep challenges to overcome. You know all of this, but I wonder if you draw inspiration from particular movements that have successfully gotten professionals to relinquish wealth and power?

    For myself, I can say that your book has already been a great inspiration for me, and I look forward to exploring the findings of the Crash Analysis Studio! Many thanks. 


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