Podcast: Transportation for a Strong Town with Charles Marohn

Posted on September 7, 2021

Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn
President & Co-Founder
Strong Towns
LinkedIn | Twitter

Designing streets for neighborhoods. Charles Marohn, the President and Co-Founder of Strong Towns, joined the podcast to talk about his new book on transportation, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. He discussed streets, roads, and stroads, as well as the importance of designing streets for the speeds and outcomes communities want to see. He also shared his thoughts on speed design, traffic signals, and departments of transportation.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

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Episode Transcript


Ben Kittelson  00:09

Hey ya’ll, coming to you from Jacksonville, Florida, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittleson, consultant at Raftelis and Gov Love co-host. We have a great episode for you today, we have a returning guest talking transportation for a strong town. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in government, and ELGL 21, our annual conference is coming up. The all virtual conference will be on September 23rd and 24th and registration is available now. The conference includes two full days of local government learning plus connection and networking opportunities. So you can check out the agenda and register at ELGL21.com. Now, let me introduce today’s guest, Charles Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit focused on shaping the conversation around growth, development, and the future of cities. He’s a professional engineer and land use planner and spent time as a consultant doing capital improvement projects in utilities and transportation. He’s the host of the strong towns podcast, which if you are not already listening to, you should subscribe to his podcast. It’s a great resource. And he’s the author of a new book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, which comes out September 8th. So it’s it’s the publication date as we talk today is right around the corner. So with that, Chuck, Welcome to Gov Love. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Charles Marohn  01:34

Hey, Ben. Thank you. Thank you. It’s fun to be back and chat. And yeah, man. It’s a it’s kind of exciting time. So I’m excited to chat with you.

Ben Kittelson  01:43

Yeah, thank you. And we talked, I guess, this last year, I think early in the pandemic. You mentioned that you were working on this book. So what made you want to dive, I know, you had a chapter in on transportation in your first book. But what made you want to expand that into a whole, you know, a whole book?

Charles Marohn  02:03

Yeah, that’s, that’s a good question. Because, you know, I write I mean, that’s what I’ve been doing for over a decade now. Started out writing this blog, and it kind of grew into the strong towns movement. And my joy and passion is writing. It’s what I really like to do. When I sat down and I had the contract for the first book to write Strong Towns: A Bottom Up Revolution. One of the things that became apparent really quick as I was going to have to cut most of the strong towns and stuff that I write about out of it, because I wasn’t going to have I mean, they were not going to for my first book, let me write, you know, War and Peace, like yeah, they were not gonna let me. So the first book clocked in at, like, 65,000 words, and that was the max, they were gonna give me. And so I made a decision early on that I was going to cut out any deep talk about transportation, about housing, about economic development, the first book is really like the strong town’s narrative, and how we, in our pursuit of creating economic growth, and like this new version of America, have grown ourselves into bankruptcy and what we do about it at the local level. And, yeah, I mentioned transportation a little bit. But as it supports that narrative, this book, really enabled me to write the first book knowing I would do the second one where I could delve deep into all the nuances of transportation, you know, everything from street and road design, to intersections to congestion and get deep into these things so I could skip that in the first book and sleep at night, right?

Ben Kittelson  03:45

I’m curious, like, I know, you were you did the bulk of the writing and I think you mentioned this in the book as well that you did the bulk of the writing during the pandemic. So did that impact at all kind of the framing of what you wrote or, or, or you were already kind of fleshed out, knew what you wanted to write. And this just gave you the ample opportunity to?

Charles Marohn  04:01

It’s funny, because, yeah, I was the opposite. It actually screwed up everything about my writing. So we started 2020, kind of short staffed here at Strong Towns, we had a little bit of turnover, and we were bringing on some new people. And so my writing process, I started in January, and my contract said I would have the book done, October 1st. I’m a pretty disciplined guy. So like when I sit down to write, I’m like, that’s here’s how much I need to get done every month in order to make this work. And it was very doable on January 1st. I basically didn’t do anything for two months, because I was bringing on new staff. We were going through a hiring process. We were short staffed, and so I was kind of working like two or three jobs here to keep everything going. But I had this deal with myself that like once we got to March, and once we got to April, I could catch up because I would have time because then we’d be at full strength again. And of course we got to march and like the world fell apart. Yeah. Um, and so my like March, April, May was trying to keep this organization afloat. I mean, having just hired three new people, you know, and they left jobs and came to work here and like, I don’t want to lay them off. We’re a nonprofit, like, what is this going to do to our cash flow? You know, everything kind of changed overnight. And so I wound up not digging into this book, in any real serious, substantive way until June, and by then, you know, I had a very short period of time. For those of you that have listened to the Strong Towns podcast, you know, I took like two months off from podcasting, not because I was writing the book, but because I had an accident, and suffered a really bad concussion. So by the end of the basically, like a month before this book was due, I had two of the 13 chapters done. And yeah, I contacted my publisher and I, this is not, I’m, I’m deeply ashamed, this is not going to happen. And they were really good. The reality is that it worked out better because we were shooting for a March launch. And in March, we would not have been able to do a book tour. You know, today, we got this great tour lined up through the rest of the year. The idea of transportation infrastructure is like front center and our national dialogue. So the timing worked out really well. But the writing process was extremely chaotic. Just because of COVID, because of staffing, and then because I bashed my head and, you know, couldn’t remember numbers and things like that for a couple weeks.

Ben Kittelson  06:41

Is that the same accident that you talked about in the the end of the book or is that that was a different one?

Charles Marohn  06:47

Yeah. And I would say, so I’m not a doctor. But they’re kind of related. Because I did at the end of the book, I do talk about a pretty serious car crash that I got in, in 2004. I think the thing that we’ve learned about head injuries is that they’re that they never really go away. And they’re kind of like, once you aggravate it, it’s easy to re-aggravate. So this one was in terms of like, violent force was far less, I actually fell about four feet. And then my head went forward, and bashed on the tailgate of the car. Which is, you know, it was traumatic, but I broke my foot. That was what really hurt. It was only a couple weeks later, when my wife is like, something’s wrong with you. And she would hold things up around the house, like, what is this? And I’m like, I don’t I don’t know what you call that. She’s like, it’s a spatula. start to realize, like your brains not right. You know, it’s one of those things where you if you’ve never had a concussion, it’s kind of like you’re in a fog. And your brain really doesn’t explain it to yourself well, but you can kind of feel yourself emerging from it over time. You know, once you recognize it, and to get back from the last one. I did like a two week information sabbatical. So I shut off all my social media, shut off my phone. I didn’t read anything. I didn’t watch anything. I just took long walks and like sat in a room. And it kind of reset my brain a little bit. But yeah, cumulative brain trauma. It’s not fun.

Ben Kittelson  08:25

 No, yeah. No, I’ve, I’ve also had, you know, as a former football player, I have had concussions, I understand what you’re going through.

Charles Marohn  08:36

What’s funny, because you watch like, Joe Mauer is one of my favorite baseball players of all time, and his career was derailed because of this. You know, and he switched from catcher to first base. And then there were a couple times like, I remember once he was chasing after a ball down the first base line, he dove for it. So like a standard baseball move, right? Like, you know, it’s a little bit out of my reach I dove for it. He gets back up, he exits the game, and then is gone for three months. And like, you know, what happened? Why I knocked my brain and can’t come back. So yeah, wow. Okay, that’s, that’s a spooky thing. 

Ben Kittelson  09:14

Yeah. Well, I mean, it kind of gets at the safety kind of conversation you have throughout the book, which is like a theme, I think, and it’s also an interesting tension between what the professional transportation engineers and maybe the the everyday people view safety when it comes to transportation, but maybe maybe the best way in is to this conversation is the is your kind of introduction. in the book, you you do a kind of a cumulative back and forth with a constituent that that’s along side a road project. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do it. But there’s an interesting framing around what engineers especially when it comes to road construction and traffic deal with as like what’s important and what may be folks that aren’t in cars or aren’t engineers view as important. So can you can you talk a little bit about that? And kind of how you kind of frame that in the book?

Charles Marohn  10:11

Yeah, I’m happy to that. Have you ever seen that video the conversation with an engineer? So I put I put together this video in, I don’t know, like, 2011. It’s been watched like, 350,000 times. It’s, it’s the first thing I did that really went viral viral. 

Ben Kittelson  10:28

Oh, really? We’ll have to link to it. That’s cool.

Charles Marohn  10:30

Oh, yeah. No, it’s so what it is it, there used to be this company called extra normal. And they would create these, you’ve probably seen them, it’s like two digital creatures talking back and forth. So this was two like bears. And they have the very computer voice like, I am a project engineer, what do you you know, that kind of thing? When I put the video together, I was dialoguing the conversation between an engineer, a project engineer like a street, you know, going out and doing street projects, and and a person is kind of like a female voice. So a woman who had questions about the project. And so for the book, I took the whole introduction, and I put that narrative into it. And then I explained, from my perspective, what I as an engineer would have been thinking in these conversations. And I think the interesting thing, or the thing I want people to take away from is that there’s a certain embedded confidence that comes with being an engineer, we like to joke that it’s the second, It’s the world’s second oldest profession, right? So engineering has been around a long, long time, I was recently in Italy, and you can go to Rome and see aqueducts, you know, they’re still there that were built by engineers 1000s of years ago. So engineers have done a lot of great things for many, many millennia. But traffic engineering, is an is a really, really new profession. I mean, the ideas here are literally, you know, a couple lifetimes old. And and the ideas actually, that we use in this country, were developed within like a decade of themselves and have hardly changed since. So this is relatively new knowledge. Yet, internal the profession, you kind of have the same kind of cockiness and confidence that the rudimentary, the kind of base understandings of the system are sound, are logical, or don’t need to be defended or even or questioned in any way, because they just are. And when you delve into those, that they’re all based on kind of a 1940s-1950s set of understandings that the more mobility we could grant to people, the more prosperous we would be as a country. I think that that’s true. When you have, you know, pre-Great Depression kind of cities, where most people walk everywhere, where goods are transported by distance by railroad, and the automobile is not this like omnipresent thing. In 2021, those none of those conditions exist, right? Like that is not the reality we live in. But we cling to that underlying base assumption that if you living in your neighborhood can get to the Walmart 10 seconds more quickly, that that is a huge boon to our national economy. And those underlying assumptions drive everything about how we build transportation, and they’re just fundamentally not true.

Ben Kittelson  13:40

Yeah, it’s an it’s almost like the only the only option for creating mobility is adding roads. And that’s kind of the the dogma that we’re stuck with. But there’s lots of other ways to do it. Yeah.

Charles Marohn  13:51

Well, and not only that, but I think, you know, one of my board members years ago, made this statement, and I don’t think this made the book, but it, it kind of encapsulates the idea. You know, we’re so worried about how you get to places by driving, you know, we, we, we wanted to make this thing where you can drive anywhere you needed to go, that we’ve actually created a country where you have to drive everywhere you go. Yeah. And that really was not the promise, and it really is counterproductive. I watched my neighbors go to the park two blocks away, and they get in their car and drive. There’s so many things wrong with that, I mean, and I don’t want to be hard on them. But you know, in terms of like personal health, in terms of the environment, in terms of how you’re just blowing money on what to get two blocks. We’ve taken things that humans for 1000s of years have done as a matter of course with their own bodies by transporting themselves on two feet and we’ve made it so it’s in some places impossible to do it. But in a lot of places, just not like the common sense way to do it. And I think we suffer in like many dimensions from that, from that shift.

Ben Kittelson  15:12

Yeah. And in some places, it’s dangerous to do, dangerous walking. Yeah.

Charles Marohn  15:16

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, the book, I mean, the book centers on a dangerous crossing in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. And I, you know, I hope that people reading this, and I feel like from the preliminary people that have read it, this, this comes through. I didn’t write this about Springfield, so that people would visit Springfield and identify with Springfield and, and like, look down on Springfield, I, what I have found is that it’s actually easier for people to look at other cities and learn lessons there. And then you don’t have to translate for their own communities, like they can do that themselves really easily. And so by walking people through this crossing in Springfield, and and all the dimensions of it, I think people will be able to apply those same insights and those same thoughts to their city, because everybody’s city has places exactly like that.

Ben Kittelson  16:14

Yeah, yeah. No. And it’s a great like thread throughout the book that kind of keeps you keeps, It’s a good example, because as soon as I read it, I was like, Oh, yeah, I know, you know, 1000 intersections or roads that I’ve crossed, it’s very similar to the person at the center of that story. And maybe, like, I didn’t take my life in my own hands. But there’s certainly times a day or, you know, chances were you a person would, because of how dangerous the road is. 

Charles Marohn  16:44

And well, yeah, I mean, I do feel Ben like, that’s, that’s the, that’s part of it, is that you don’t feel like you’re taking your life in your own hands, because it’s become so routine, right? I mean, even even the crash that I got in that I talked about at the end, that was a very routine drive. And the idea that it would end in this, like violent collision was at one point, like completely predictable, because you can you can see how like the things would eventually come together to have that, if not, for me, somebody else. But also completely routine, right? Like, I would never have imagined that day that that’s what would have occurred. I I know that you know, Sagrario Gonzalez in in Springfield did something that literally 1000s of people have done to no consequence. So, you know, this is a very routine kind of thing that just randomly results in these horrible tragedies that are at the end of the day, not only preventable, but like we would be better off with a different system that didn’t bring that didn’t didn’t make that such a common occurrence.

Ben Kittelson  17:59

Yeah, and that’s, I liked how you talked about that. And when you talk about your accident is that it’s a it’s it’s not that they, the streets are, you know, there’s a likelihood this is going to happen. And it’s just a chance.

Charles Marohn  18:11

Yeah, statistically inevitable, is the way I phrase it, right.

Ben Kittelson  18:15

Yeah, exactly. And, but we know, but and that’s just the kind of a cost that we’re, you know, not to be like to go for that. But it’s just a cost we’re willing to put up with right now with our current values and the current development patterns. But, you know, there’s a different world where if we design it so that is not a statistical likelihood, or, you know, the accidents are much smaller and much less dangerous like that, that’s, I think, the kind of framing where the street versus road framing that you get out there, we have the ability to redesign these places to make them much safer.

Charles Marohn  18:50

It’s, I think that there’s two issues there. The one, a friend of ours who writes a blog up in Montreal, just or I’m sorry, in Winnipeg just wrote an article that the headline was, “Are Traffic Engineers Sociopaths?” And he was quoting his city engineer who is asking the question, basically, he said, We want everything to be safe. without compromising mobility. Yeah. And so you know, it’s, it’s that hierarchy that I lay out in the first chapter, you know, we, we we value speed and volume, like we have to move cars, a lot of cars quickly. And so long as we can move a lot of cars quickly, then what does it take to make it like as safe as we can? And that that trade off is really not one that society in general would make it it does make engineers a little bit sociopathic because they, they have a different value system than the rest of society, and it’s a value system that places a lower priority on human life than humans in general would place but it also creates this trade off in the name of economic growth and opportunity. And you know that again, going back to that equation of the more we increase mobility, the more the economy grows. That might have been true in 1952. That is not true today. And there’s really no evidence that it’s true. And in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that of the opposite, that the more we hollow out our neighborhoods, the more we hollow out our cities, to make it easier to drive through, the more economic damage we suffer, and the poorer we become. And so you do get this situation where, let’s, let’s be, let’s be kind to the people in the early automobile days, you know, we we are advancing the economy. And we’re going to suffer a certain amount of death because of that. But, you know, the trade off is acceptable, because we’re all going to be so much better off. I don’t know that I buy that argument, but but let’s pretend that like the actuarial scientists would buy that argument. You can’t make that argument today. Like that, not that you can’t make it, like morally make it or like you can’t speak it. But like, that argument is not true today. In the way it was in the 1950s. And so the idea that we still cling to that as like a foundational belief of the profession is just, it’s sociopathic in many ways.

Ben Kittelson  21:32

Yeah. And you trace it back to the early days of the automobile, where like, you’re making such a huge, the marginal improvement between a dirt road and a paved road? Like for safety and for mobility is like insane. Like, obviously, like, that’s much better for everybody. 

Charles Marohn  21:49

Yes. tremendous. 

Ben Kittelson  21:50

Yeah. But the difference between a two lane road and a four lane road is not, doesn’t have the same like marginal increase of like, mobility and economic activity and safety and all that. In fact, if you’re starting to have, you know, you’re starting to have a negative impact on safety.

Charles Marohn  22:06

Well keep keep going. Because the marginal increase between a 12 Lane and a 14 Lane is nothing but it comes at a cost of, you know, billions and billions of dollars. So that that’s where, that’s where, like, I think we can, good people can argue over like the base cases. But when you see less getting to these, like far margins, where like, it just becomes like patently insane. It’s really hard. That’s where I mean, I kind of feel like, for me, I was at I was an engineer, and I bought all this stuff like I was in, this made sense to me. I could articulate it really well. But as you started to work in what were increasingly like, extreme circumstances, you’re like this, this doesn’t fit the model. This doesn’t fit the theory. And you wind up kind of backing out from there and recognizing that no, this is this is all kind of crazy. You know, it’s, let me rephrase what you said. And I think we’re on the same page here. I live in Brainerd, Minnesota, I live right now what is like two hours and 15 minutes north of Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, my favorite home team. I go to a few games a year, and it takes me two hours and 15 minutes to get home from there. If I went back in time, 20 years, it would take me about two hours and 15 minutes, maybe two hours, 20 maybe 25 to get from Target Field to home after a game. There have been a lot, like billions of dollars of improvements to the roadways between now and then. If we went back to when my dad was a kid, and he was going to drive to basically that same location in Minneapolis, it would have taken six hours. You know, and if you went back to when my grandpa was a kid, it would have taken a day like, like 24 hours, like it would have taken a full day. Because he probably would have had to ride like a boat, or, you know, multiple trains, whatever it was, it would not have been as quick. So you look and it’s like, yeah, if you take this like century long snapshot, we made huge improvements going from steamboat and train and walking path to automobile. And then we made some big improvements by going from automobile like early automobile to interstates, but everything after that has been, you know, 10x 20x 50x amount of money for what is like .1x amount of improvement. It’s, you’re really not moving the needle at all. And, you know, the fact that we’re about to pass trillions more in infrastructure spending to literally build more of this stuff under the theory that it will create all these advantages is is just ridiculous. I mean, there’s there really is like no economic evidence that supports it.

Ben Kittelson  24:58

Yeah. No, I want to get to Your your opinion about the the infrastructure package, because I think it’ll be interesting for our listeners to hear. But so I do think one of the things I want to underline before we move on, though is that you talk a lot about the difference between a road and a street. And I think that kind of example you just gave is a really good example of you need, you need high volume, like high speed roads to like connect different places, because that does create that that, you know, that connection, that opportunity. And then, you know, I think I would want every street in my city to be the street that you described, that’s walkable, and like as a platform for community. It’s, it’s kind of in between where we run into problems where we’re trying to do both. I guess for you, can you talk a little about that stroad concept, and anything you would add to the other ends of the spectrum?

Charles Marohn  25:47

Yeah, I feel like this is actually the there’s a number of things in this book that are deeply subversive. And by that, I mean, it takes normal language that normal people would use, and gives it to them as a way to describe what engineers tend to, you know, use their own vernacular to describe in ways that are kind of opaque and distant. So so I’m trying to give people a language to describe something that will basically push everybody else into that understanding. Roads are high speed connections between places. And if we’re trying to get from, you know, my house to Target Field, I’m going to drive some local streets, and then I’m going to get on a road, I’m going to go very fast. And the value that that road provides is its capacity to get me somewhere really quick. Everything that degrades that, whether it’s an interchange, or a Walmart, or you know, a stop sign, or a stop traffic signal, or whatever it is, diminishes the value of the road to get you someplace really quickly. And so, you know, we should build great roads, because great roads Connect places over long distances, they shrink markets, they all that stuff we were trying to do in the 50s. That’s what our roads actually do when we build them like roads. A street then is a platform for building wealth, if if a road gets you between places, the street is what actually builds the place. And when we’re looking at building a place, it’s actually like this very slow, deeply nuanced, incremental kind of thing. That high speed traffic flowing through it diminishes. There’s this, there’s this realm in between these that we call a stroad. We call this the futon of transportation, it’s the street road hybrid, where you you are moving cars at speeds that are not very fast, so you’re not really getting any place quickly. Everyone knows these, you’re sending that traffic signal stuck in traffic. And then when you get a green light, you get to go 35 or 40 miles an hour, and then you hit another red light, and you sit and stop. There’s all the stuff along it, you know, the big box stores and the strip malls and the fast food franchises and all that. When you look at the actual return on that investment, or the the ability to create a place, those places are very high cost and very low returning. They’re actually, in every place where we’ve modeled their negative returning financially kind of environments. And so the stroad is like the, is like the hybrid of the two. And it’s the worst possible thing, because it’s really dangerous to not go very far. And to spend a lot of money and not produce any wealth. And if we just could eliminate stroads in this country, or have that be like our transportation approach. We could spend money really effectively and build some amazing places supported by, connected by, great roads.

Ben Kittelson  28:53

Yeah, this is a another one of your classic like, I think you’re doing a really good job of this and strong towns does of like, as soon as you said it was like, Oh, I can think of 1000 places like that.

Charles Marohn  29:02

Yeah, yeah. Can I tell you a funny story about the stroad? So when I first, you know, when I first came up with this, I think what’s funny now is that people use the term stroad a lot, and they don’t credit me, which I don’t care. Like, that’s great. I want it to be like a ubiquitous term. But it’s become so ubiquitous, they don’t know where it came from. Which that is like hashtag winning is what we call around here. But early on, when I came up with the term, I capitalize the whole thing. So S-T-R-O-A-D, and my hope was that engineers would look at it as an acronym that they didn’t know. Like, this is an acronym I don’t know, you know, because engineering, all kinds of acronym and they would look it up and then they would find out what it was and have to learn about like what is a stroad? It offended deeply the people who are like really sensitive about English grammar and so we wound up not capitalizing it at a certain point. But if you go back to my site and read stuff I wrote in like, 2011-2012, it’s always capitalized. And that is why.

Ben Kittelson  30:12

That’s great. Yeah. So it’s this this Frankenstein that kind of does neither thing. Well, and I think I think that I underlined that I was reading well, virtually on the PDF version was that like, there’s a inherent conflict between, like mobility and volume and speed, and creating, like good places and economic like activity. And  when we try to do both we do kind of neither well, and so you’re gonna have to, you want to pick one and do that, to the best of that places ability. Does that, is that a fair kind of like characterization?

Charles Marohn  30:48

Yeah. And the amazing thing about that is, if you do that, okay, so so you pick, I want to build either a road and move people quickly, or I want to build a street and create like, a lot of wealth and a great place. Here’s the crazy thing. If engineers are worried about mobility, a system of roads and streets actually gets you where you want to go more quickly. Yeah. then then then the stroad system.

Ben Kittelson  31:13

Yeah, yeah, I like that. There was a, I think a commuting example you gave where it’s like you timed it, it’s like this would have been as fast as if I biked.

Charles Marohn  31:21

Right. Or, if I went, you know, it, if you slow traffic down to 10 miles an hour, you actually would get there quicker, if you could, there’s a whole, there’s a whole chapter on intersections, and I call traffic signals, like the stupidest thing humans have ever created. 

Ben Kittelson  31:38

This is my favorite hot take from the book. 

Charles Marohn  31:40

Thank you. It’s one of those things where you’re going to read that chapter, and you’re either gonna go, this man is insane, or this guy is really onto something. Because it’s, it’s such a, we have grown so accepting of traffic signals. And the reality is, is in almost every circumstance, they, they, they do not get you to your destination more quickly. They actually delay you and we accept it as a compromise, because we’re like, Well, you know, I’ve got to be able to turn, you know crossing traffic needs to be managed, therefore, I will sit. But because I sit, I get the privilege of driving really fast afterwards. And that compensates for the fact that I have to sit and go zero. And the reality is, is if you just drove slow through the entire thing, you would never have to sit anywhere, we could design, the junctions, the intersections to where you could just flow right through at low speeds. And you would get to where you’re going more quickly. And it’s so it’s so hard for people to get their minds wrapped around. Because it feels like your going very quickly when you’re going 30-40 miles an hour, and you are, but you also have to remember that you sit for long stretches and go zero. Yeah. And that costs you a lot of time. If you just drove slowly, 10 miles an hour, 15 miles an hour all the time, you would actually get to where you’re going a lot quicker, like, you know, as if you were on a bike, I can beat people across town on a bike all the time.

Ben Kittelson  33:10

Yeah, I think when I read that, I thought of a there’s a restaurant in our neighborhood that my wife and I like that we love to like sit outside. And there’s not a huge patio, but but it’s a sidewalk little little place. And it’s right at this intersection of two roads that aren’t very busy. But there’s a like a, like a streetlight there. And you, and so inevitably, you either have people trying to time the green lights going down the road and they’re going as fast as they can to make sure they hit it, or you have a backup of cars. And it’s like kind of the worst, no matter what you know time of day it is, it is, it’s kind of the worst. But if I was thinking like if there was you know, everybody was kind of going very slowly, like it would be much more pleasant experiences like someone eating outside at that intersection. 

Charles Marohn  33:52

Well, that’s the other side of this, is that if we actually slowed people down on the streets, you could have the volume of throughput that you would need. You would actually have reduced travel time, so people would get to where they’re going more quickly, aka greater mobility. But you’d also have pleasant places to live. I mean, we’d have more productive cities, we’d have places of greater prosperity. I’m actually, it’s kind of funny, because I think there are very few people who can legitimately say, like, you can have it all. But a lot of parts of this book is to say, like, Look, we can have it all. Like it’s, it’s actually there for us if we just change our a few of our core understandings here of what we’re trying to accomplish with our transportation system. 

Ben Kittelson  34:40

So you spend a fair amount talking about kind of speed and, and how engineers come to their conclusions about speed and what kind of they leave out of the equation. So how does the speed limit get like, get set, like, just kind of like for maybe people that haven’t worked in public works or in transportation department? Like how does that, Where does that number come from?

Charles Marohn  35:02

I think people are shocked when they hear this. When I was a undergrad, I spent a couple summers and part of what I would, do an internship at the DOT, and part of what I did was speed studies. And so the the way engineers set a speed is they actually, you know, you go out and build the street, you go out and build the road, you build whatever transportation infrastructure you’ve got, you might have a preliminary speed limit set there, but what you think it’s going to be, but what you do is you actually go out and you do a speed study and write down the speed that people are driving, you send out an intern like me, who sits on the side of the road with a speed gun, and just writes down how fast everyone’s driving. And the speed limit is set at it’s called the 85th percentile speed, that’s a technical way of just saying, whatever speed, the vast majority of traffic is driving, that’s what you want the speed limit at. And the insight there, and I, I believe this makes sense. Like, I know a lot of advocates hate the 85th percentile speed, the actual human psychology behind it makes a lot of sense. Driving is a, from a psychological standpoint, a system two activity, I’m sorry, it’s a system one activity, it’s a, it’s a very passive, you don’t have to think about it, you know, kind of mental activity, if you had to think about driving all the time, it would be exhausting. You know, like, that’s what racecar drivers do. That’s why race car driving looks simple, you’re just driving around a track, but it’s really complex, because you’re focused in massive Attention all the time. Driving is not like that. And so what happens when you’re in system one activity is that people just drive the speed they feel comfortable driving, regardless of what the speed limit is, regardless of any other factor, they will tend to drive the speed, they feel comfortable. Now, if you put a cop out there, or you put like, you know, a sign out there that is like new, people will notice that and they’ll react, they’ll switch to system two and slow down. But in the absence of those things, and certainly over time, as people drive a street over and over and over again and get very comfortable with its nuances, you’ll tend to drive the speed that is most comfortable. If you have a speed limit that’s artificial, in other words, if you set a speed limit way below that level of comfort him, what will happen is that you’ll get speed differential in the roadway. So you’ll get rear ending, you’ll get people getting, you know, knocked into other lanes, you’ll get people who misjudge the the the turns and the crossing traffic. And it becomes more dangerous to have this differential in speed. The safest thing for a street or a road is to have people driving similar speeds, you know, through that court. And so the 85th percentile speed is basically an acknowledgment that people are going to drive what they’re going to drive. And let’s make the speed limit what that is. So that anyone who’s really crazy, and like really just driving like a maniac is going to be violating the speed limit. And everybody else who’s just like a normal human being driving their car will be legal.

Ben Kittelson  38:17

Yeah, I think after reading that, I realized like, you talked about this, there’s like the other variable is like their driving where they go what they are, feel comfortable doing on the street that you designed. So if you’re leaving out, like, Is this correct speed is the correct design for this space and for the goals of the transportation system?

Charles Marohn  38:37

Right? Well, that’s the that’s the kicker here, right, is that the engineers don’t ponder any of those things like this, they set the speed limit afterward. So there’s, there’s no, there’s no, at no point in the design process, do they say, Hey, this is a neighborhood, we want cars to drive, we want people to drive really slow here, we want cars going really slow. And so we’re going to design this street in order to get, in order to engineer the outcome of slow speeds. Nobody ever does that. They start with like, here’s what the codebook says we should build with this with this volume and this design speed. And, and then, you know, we get what we get, you know, at the other end, it’s it’s, it’s almost like you have no control when the reality is is engineers know how to design things for very slow speeds, they can actually do that, they can get that outcome if they want. Yeah, they just it’s not it’s, it’s the reverse of the process they use. And, you know, that’s, that’s the subversive thing is I, you know, part of the book is just pointing out like if you want a different outcome, just like direct the question differently. You know, instead of saying, here’s the 85th percentile speed, and so here’s the speed limit. You say here’s the 85th percentile speed. Oh, we designed this street wrong, because the speeds are higher than what we know is safe. We need to go out and redesign the st to make it you know, so that traffic at the end of the day is compatible with the neighborhood and what we’re trying to accomplish here.

Ben Kittelson  40:08

Yeah, and I think it was maybe the most recent episode of your, your podcast as we’re talking today. But it reminded me of a conversation I had with the former Public Works director who, we were on site, or it was someone I worked with at Raftelis, we were on site for a project and the community was talking about, they were going to reduce the speed across the whole city to from, can’t remember if the standard default speed was 30 to 20, or something like that. And I was like, Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Like cars, like, collisions are a lot safer if you know, they’re at 20 miles per hour than 30. And he was just like, well, no one’s gonna drive that. And I was like, well, but the next step is if they’re, no one’s gonna drive that design the streets so that they will drive that safe speed.

Charles Marohn  40:47

Yeah. Because the the, the the standard answer, and this is where I try to, I try to make a case that engineers are really smart people, and they really know a lot. They’re just in a bad system with bad values. And a lot of them feel trapped. A lot of them would like to do things differently, but like the standard industry approaches is is what it is. I think this is one of those places where engineers do have special expert knowledge that other people don’t, that other people get really mad about. Because that public works director is right, no one’s going to drive the if you just artificially change the speed to 30, from 30 to 20. And people are normally driving 40 already, you know, and you’re like, well, we’ll slow will lower the speeds and that will slow things down. No, it won’t. It just won’t, it doesn’t. And you wind up with more crashes you wind up with with, you know, greater levels of industry of injury, and you wind up with, you know, a not a good system. You wind up with a worse neighborhood, then if you had just, you know, gone about it a different way.

Ben Kittelson  41:57

Yeah, one of my takeaways, as I was reading the book is, it’s almost part of it is we need to get traffic engineers get maybe out of their silo and transportation department folks out of their silo and talking to, you know, planning and economic development and, you know, people that engage with communities and more than just on a project by project basis, but on, hey, what are the goals? What are the needs of this community? And how does transportation fit into that? And if these are the goals, and this is what the current system is doing, you know, what do we need to change to meet those goals?

Charles Marohn  42:28

I want to, I want to put it a different way because I don’t, I’m less getting them out of their silo. And I’m more, and I’m gonna say this in a very pejorative way. And then maybe I’ll back it down from here. But I’m almost like putting, you know, we need to put them in their place, right? Right now, engineers in cities have a disproportionate amount of power and influence. And I think you might, you might think, Well, that’s because they have technical degrees. That’s because they have this like expert knowledge. That’s because they have these code books and design books that nobody else can understand. And I don’t think any of that is true. I think the reason why engineers have a disproportionate level of influence and credibility within the city is because the money flows through them. You know, it, one of the cases I make in the book is that we’ve tended to define all of our urban problems in terms of transportation. And the reason is, because that’s where the money is, right? We rob the bank, because that’s where the money is, we design the solutions to all of our problems to be transportation projects. Because, you know, that’s where we can get federal money. That’s where we can get state money. That’s, that’s where the money flows. And what that does is that by by defining the projects in that way, or by defining our problems and our solution set in that way, what we wind up doing is turning to the engineer and saying, we’re going to empower you to solve our problems. We’re going to empower you to be the person who spends the money and who decides how the money should be spent and what the priorities are. And so I’m not messing, there’s a part of me that messes with that. Like, I mean, if you look at a public health crisis in America today, you can say, well, we need to build more recreational trails. Like that’s kind of how we’ve responded to this. And I’m like, No, we just need to build less auto lanes, because people should walk more. And if people walk more, we’d just b a lot healthier across the board. Engineers don’t want to do that, they want to build the more lanes, right? So we define the crisis differently. What I want to do is actually get that decision making process and make them be part of a team where they are not the dominant player, where their insights are like one person at the table and not even the most important person at the table. And I think that’s the right place for them. I think engineers are better as support people. Then as you know, visionaries for the community.

Ben Kittelson  45:06

Well, I think it also gets at, you know, the, the transportation engineering kind of standards are not value free, right? They’re not, they’re not like neutral, they have their own, they have a value, and then it can be a, you know, a negative value. And then, because it has an impact on a value, you need to have someone that makes it’s a policy decision at that point. So you can’t have your engineer making a policy decision by themself, it needs to be someone that’s, you know, accountable to the community or, you know, empowered to look across the whole organization. And I think that was another takeaway was like, recognizing that these are not neutral things like you need to have some you need to have, you know, a policymaker make the policy decision when it comes to these transportation projects, and not just, you know, 12 foot lanes versus, you know, 14 foot lanes, like what you want to get out of it.

Charles Marohn  45:57

That’s a great, that’s a great example. Because a lot of times, you know, those, the difference between a 12 foot lane, and an 11 foot lane, or a 14 foot lane and 11 foot lane, is a huge value. You know, that decision might seem very technical, but it’s an actually an application of what you value most. And right now, those decisions are all made by engineers. They’re not made by, you know, the the elected officials, we, we never as a profession, we never go to duly elected people and say, Hey, we’re redoing the street here. You know, we don’t even say redoing, we’re improving the street, air quotes around improving, we’re improving the street here, how do you want to improve it? We don’t ever say like, What are you trying to accomplish in terms of speed? That’s the engineer’s decision. That’s the engineer’s realm. And that really should be a something that duly elected officials representing people in a community make a decision on. There’s a number of things like that, where they’re just imbedded in the design process. And they run counter to, I think, what most elected officials would want to see. But it almost feels like they’re not, they’re not allowed to weigh in. But it almost feels like this is like a deeply technical thing that is beyond them to understand. And the reality is, it’s not, it’s absolutely not, it’s something they can easily grasp, and that they should be making that decision.

Ben Kittelson  47:35

Yeah, it’s doing that kind of next step of if, if you choose 14 foot, this is what that would mean, in terms of speed, and the type of like, driving environment it would be and therefore the type of like, local place, that would be.

Charles Marohn  47:48

Right. I look forward to the day, when, you know, an elected official, having read this book feels confident to say, hey, on this street, we want a 20 mile an hour design speed. And the engineer will say, Well, you know, the the we can’t go less than 30 miles an hour without getting a waiver from the state DOT. And it’s like, No, no, no, no, I’m not talking about the enforced speed limit. I’m talking about the design speed, the speed at 85% of people are going to drive, I want that to be 20. And the reality is, is that you can do that, as an elected official at any city, you can design a street to, to have the flow of traffic be slower than what the legal speed limit would be. You can do that. Like that’s not a big deal. And I’m relishing the day that that happens. And then I want to see the engineers say, that can’t be done. Because I think that’s when the profession changes, because there’s a lot of people in the engineering profession that will stand up and say, I can do that. And that’s the person I want to hire. And the person who says it can’t be done is the person whose thought process is so limiting, that I either want to fire them, or I want to put them like out, you know, holding a flag on the construction project as opposed to like designing my city for me.

Ben Kittelson  49:05

Yeah, yeah. So another thing I was thinking about was, there’s a bit of a chicken and an egg problem with some of the stuff you talked about in the transportation book in that like, if you redesign a stroad to be, you know, a local street, there’s not really the economic value there yet to create a great place that people want to walk and travel on. And, you know, vice versa, if you want to, you know, create a road like and there’s a bunch of stuff along it. You’d have to get me to kind of figure out what to do with that in order to like truly make it a road and not not a stroad. So I guess maybe the way I want to ask this is if you were the Public Works director at a city tomorrow or a transportation director. Like how would you go about kind of making these changes and actually like, like implementing this? Because I think these like, you’ve pointed out really good problems, but I can see how like someone might get there and be like, this problem is almost too big to solve because there’s kind of These two things that you need them to happen at once almost to make it make it the place you want it to be.

Charles Marohn  50:05

Yeah, I’m going to, I’m going to reference the first book, strong towns a bottom up revolution, because in chapter six of that book, and give some harsh medicine, in terms of what I see coming, and so a lot of these stroad environments are financially, one lifecycle kind of places. They’re places that we build. And you can kind of think of this as almost like slash and burn agriculture, you know, that we build them. There’s an immediate, like cash benefits, there’s a long term liability, when that long term liability comes due, the amount of cash we brought in from from this development is not nearly enough to pay for that. And so I think a lot of those places as money continues to get tighter and tighter and tighter, resources get stretched. And, you know, our commitments just vastly exceed our potential for doing for meeting them. I think we’re going to walk away from a lot of these places. So your your question is, how do we take these bad stroads and actually make them into good places, this seems like a huge reach, just physically on the ground, what I’m going to say in responses, the neighborhoods that are close to being good streets are actually like really easily to turn, we can do those like really easily. The places that are close to being good roads, we can do those really easily too. And if we just started with the easy stuff, and built momentum around that, we would make massive amounts of progress, like massive amounts of progress. I think the really hard ones solve themselves. And I think they solve themselves by having the the Walmart building abandoned, the strip mall go away. You know, like, like, some of this stuff just ceases to be a problem, because there’s nobody there who cares about it.

Ben Kittelson  52:01

Yeah, the lifecycle of it will.

Charles Marohn  52:04

Yeah, yeah. Because I mean, I’m not, you know, I’m not going out to like the exit of a major metropolitan area and saying, How do I, how do I fix this nasty stroad? I think, how do I not build anymore? I mean, that should definitely be the conversation. Like, let’s not build any more of this junk. But if I’m very serious about making great streets and great roads, the low hanging fruit is not going to be in the areas where all of our suburban exurban kind of building energy is right now, today, it’s going to be in those historic neighborhoods. It’s going to be in our core downtowns and kind of the stuff that surrounds them, that ecosystem, it’s going to be in the places where people are like, ready to thicken up their neighborhoods. And it’s going to be, you know, on the, on the transitions of our highways, if we can just, you know, make those transitions better. We can start to get the road part of it back too.

Ben Kittelson  53:01

Yeah, I think um, I know that the stroads that came most easily to mind for me are ones that, you know, I experienced in like, downtown areas where there’s, Why is this a four lane road with like, 45 mile an hour speed limit? And, and you’re saying like, that’s a great place to start.

Charles Marohn  53:17

That’s a great place to start. Yeah. Because the reality is, is that you can, I mean, I say this in the transit chapter, the goal of transit on a street like that is to actually replace auto trips with transit trips. And so there’s a process there by you go, which is essentially like squeezing out the automobile. And you’re squeezing out the automobile over time, and replacing it with things that have way more value. So walking trips, and transit trips, and then more and more and more building. Right? I mean, though, the whole thing about making a great street is not, not that you lock something in amber and say, oh, Isn’t it pretty? It’s the idea that you would, you know, go build more stuff, and the stuff that you build will be better than what’s there now. And you would continue to enhance and make that place like a better and better, better place that people want to be. That’s, that’s what success looks like in an environment like that. And, you know, you the geometry of a street, if we just look at like fluid dynamics, you know, to get an engineering degree, you have to take dynamics. So you just look at the fluid dynamics of a street. There’s only geometrically like so many cars, you can fit onto a street in any one period of time. So that creates a limit for you like that’s an upper limit. So here’s the amount of people we can bring here at any one time. And if you think about what that means, in terms of the development pattern, it means a pretty sad, pathetic level of development. Lots of parking lots, lots of wasted space, you know, not much energy and momentum, as soon as you can start replacing those auto trips with people walking people biking, and people in buses and people in higher levels of transit well now and that same geometry, you can fit way more people. And way more people means a way better place, like a place that’s going to have more stuff. More amenities, it’s going to be nicer buildings, it’s gonna be, you know, we can do so much more with it. And so, you know, really that’s what you’re trying to do in a stroad environment like that is really, how do you start squeezing? How do you, how do you get more out of that existing investment? And you do that by, basically squeezing out the automobile and adding things that create more value and greater return.

Ben Kittelson  55:45

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a great point.

Charles Marohn  55:48

Think, think about it like Disney. You know, I’m, I’m a big fan of Disney World, and like Disney’s theme parks and like the, it’s the best urban design in North America. And if you don’t like that statement, I’m sorry. But it’s actually the one place where they really give a damn about what it looks and feels like for people, right? No, no, Disney park allows you to drive right up to the ride and park and get off and get on the ride. Right? That would like ruin the place. They have you park way out on the edge, they bring you in, and then you enjoy this amazing place and this great environment. If you try to accommodate cars within that, you could I mean, geometrically there’s enough room for cars to drive down Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom. But no, I mean, it, you would have to displace so many people in order to do that that it would make the you know, the economics of that place not work anymore. And you know that that sounds like well, Chuck, you’re talking about theme parks, and I’m talking about a city. The dynamics of it is the same right? When you when you put four lanes in a center turn lane in the middle of the heart of your downtown. And then you have sidewalks that are six foot and eight foot wide on the edge. What you said is that it is more important to move traffic through here quickly than it is to actually build wealth along the edge of this. And you’re just condemning your city to financial insolvency, that that’s not a business model that actually works.

Ben Kittelson  57:21

Yeah. Well, again, shows the relationship between that that place and the transportation like they’re they’re so tied up, I can see why you would have maybe written these as one enormous book, but-

Charles Marohn  57:32

Well, that, we’re working on the third book. So when I-

Ben Kittelson  57:35

Oh, there’s a third one?

Charles Marohn  57:35

Yes, oh, yeah man, no, when I when I pitched this to Wiley, originally, because I talked to lots of different publishers over the years. And I could never, like make the outline of the book work, and the way I did, like I said in the very beginning is I separated out the transportation from the main original strong towns book. The next book is on housing. And then after that we plan on doing one on economic development and then after that one on urban design. And so hopefully there’s like a, not a trilogy, but like a five part strong town series. And then I’m just going to retire and maybe, I don’t know, move to the, move somewhere.

Ben Kittelson  58:16

live off your book royalty. 

Charles Marohn  58:18

Oh, yeah. live off the, live off of the massive wealth you make when you sell books. Yeah. For those of you interested in writing a book know that, like today, particularly 2021, you can’t live off of being an author, even if you sell a lot of copies. They told me this right off the bat, they said that, you know, the only reason you write a book is because you’ve got something else you’re trying to promote. And for us, we’re trying to promote the Strong Towns movement, the Strong Towns message. And so having a book gets me on a show with you talking about this to your audience. Yeah, you know, it gets me I’m doing, you know, National Public Radio here in the next couple days. MSNBC I chatted with yesterday. You know, I write for CNN now. All of a sudden, you’re starting to have these vehicles for sharing a message, just because we were able to get a publishing contract. And, you know, that’s, that’s the weird part of books today. But, you know, it’s, it’s a trade off. We’ll make. 

Ben Kittelson  59:20

Yeah. So one thing that I know, has frustrated places that I work is that the there’s kind of a, there’s not a unified ownership of streets in a lot of cities. Like I know, you know, I lived in the Chapel Hill Cargo area for a long, long, several years. And one of the main drives there, Franklin Street is a state owned road. And so It’s maintained by the DOT, and that means it’s got four lanes of traffic and a pretty decent speed. So, and maybe this can be a ventral on-ramp into the infrastructure bill, but what do you think cities should do with with that, like it makes it so much harder to Make it a good place and to do some of these concepts that you’re talking about. But but at the same time, like, you know, they’re kind of stuck, like how do you manage these, sometimes key roads in your community that are set up because they’re set up to be roads, because they are maintained by a place that really or by an organization that’s really focused on that volume and that speed?

Charles Marohn  1:00:19

I think, the question, there are ways to deal with it. And there’s a group called Project for public spaces that actually put out a really good book about how to talk to your DOT that I think has like step by step things that are very practical, I would get a little bit bigger picture on it and say, I think this is where we need to have state DOT reform. And I’m not a big fan of I’m really not a fan of the Federal Way of funding, transportation and the way we funnel stuff through these legacy programs and really empower DOT’s to be quite tyrannical when it comes to stuff like this. That being said, I think that we need to see some fundamental reform at state DOT’s and some of that is going to mean cities giving up the cheap and easy, immediate cash, the sugar high of cash that they get from DOT projects. So if you can get the DOT to come in, and extend the frontage roads on the edge of town and put in a new interchange and, you know, basically waste a bunch of transportation dollars on like the next iteration of the suburban development pattern, you as a city can enjoy a generation of positive cash flow, and kind of easy prosperity in exchange for these enormous long term liabilities that will that will eventually like make you insolvent and make you suffer financially. But that’s a generation or more into the future, so what the heck. I think cities are going to have to give that up. They’re going to have to say, you know, okay, or the DOT’s are gonna have to say we won’t do that anymore. Like you don’t get an interchange with a Walmart. You don’t get a frontage road with all this crap along. It’s like, we’re not going to do that. In exchange, I think the DOT’s have to give back or give to cities, their their downtowns back, they have to give them their neighborhoods back. And I think that means you know, a couple things. It’s going to mean where they go through major cities, you’re either gonna have to reroute around the major city and like give that land back and like actually restore it as part of neighborhoods, or you’re going to have to do things like they’re trying to do right now in in Austin, where I was earlier this week, which is take the highway and instead of adding 10 more lanes, bury it and make a Boulevard on top of it and have it be a nice city grid at the city level and then have your through traffic go down below. Those, that’s the option that needs, you know, DOTs need to kind of negotiate on or give back to cities. The other option then is to just abandon it, to just go around. And there’s a lot of places now where they’re tearing down the elevated highways. They’re, they’re turning it back. And I think if part of the strong town’s prism of looking through this, I think will help DOTs because dDOTs are really really good at building roads. And they’re really horrible and they actually don’t like building streets, because they wind up fighting with like the guy that owns the donut shop and the woman that owns the beautician’s parlor and the goofy stormwater drainage thing that doesn’t work, right, because of the way the neighborhood was built in 1928. You know, these things suck up so much money and time and effort and energy, they would just rather go lay asphalt across 100 miles between El Paso and Fort Worth. Let them do that. Let them let them do what they do well, but get out of that city building game. And I think if we could do that they they’d, everyone would be better off and we’d spend a lot less money and get a lot better places.

Ben Kittelson  1:04:15

So what do you think of these efforts to like, like, what do you do with these, you know, big highways that are in downtowns? Like, we’re kind of, ideally you would have never done it right? But you’re kind of stuck with them now. And I know, you’ve written a little bit about the infrastructure bill. And I think I saw some reaction to Secretary Pete’s plan to tear down some of these highway like urban elevated highways, like what do you think cities should be doing? Or what do you think the role of the federal government is in this? Like, you know, they did build it like, should they have? Should they be trying to dismantle some of that or what’s kind of your take?

Charles Marohn  1:04:50

I think that’s the only responsible thing. You look, to me the federal government does a few things really well and then a lot of things horribly when it comes to Transportation, let’s go back to the 1950s. What the federal government was trying to do was, basically build a brand new transportation system across entire country, like create a brand new vision, a brand new version of America. And we poured all this money into the interstates. And in less than 20 years, we had built an interstate system across the entire United States. By the end of the 1960s. This was done, by the mid 1970s, like all of it was done, except for a few like pesky segments that never should have been part of the original plan. If we had just stopped there and said, we’re done, like the federal government did what they set out to do, we’re done. And now it’s just up to the states to maintain what it is. And if you need a little bit of expansion here and there, like states can do that. But but we’re good. I think we would have been in like a great place right now. A really great place right now. But the problem is that once you create these legacy programs, they just never end. And so we kept pumping money into them and like adding, you know, the 13th and 14th lane to this highway at billions of dollars. Right now, federal politicians are dying to spend money on transportation. And it’s really the only thing they agree on is that there should be a lot more money for roads. I mean, they can’t even agree on like what to have for lunch when they meet. You know, but they can agree that we should spend hundreds of billions trillions of dollars on on, you know, more roads and stuff. I think that if you’re going to have that consensus, the only responsible thing right now for the federal government to be funding from auto based transportation standpoint is a repair of the damage that they did in the highway building era. So go in, stitch these neighborhoods back apart, or back together, tear down these elevated highways, if you need the capacity, build alternate routes that go around places. But basically, let’s start stitching our communities back together big and small. I mean, this is something we can do in my city of 14,000. And we can do in, you know, Austin, with a million, millions of people. If we, if we did that, again, I would have the program end at some point, right, like, let’s do that for two decades and see where we’re at. But, you know, if we did that we could, I think really supercharge things, and then, you know, give maintenance back to the states and just say, hey, you’re gonna, we’re gonna give you money every year to maintain your highways, maintain your highways, maintain your interstates, and then, you know, go forth and prosper. That would be a that would be a really positive role for the federal government right now – being like that catalyst for something new. As opposed to like the Guardian, you know, the guardian of these legacy programs? 

Ben Kittelson  1:07:48

Yeah, right that wrong. And then let the city kind of figure out what that community now looks like. Yeah.

Charles Marohn  1:07:54

Right. Right. Right. There was I did a, I did a podcast with two representatives. a democrat named Jake Auchincloss from, from Massachusetts and a republican named Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin. And, you know, in many ways, these guys are antithesis of each other politically. But they both bought, they both buy into strong town’s approach, they both see the issues. And they both, I think, have a good awareness that the federal government can be a force for good. But the way it’s a force for good is by actually funding different change, like a macro shift in the trajectory. But it’s going to do deep damage by locking in the status quo legacy programs and basically funding them for another decade. And, you know, that’s the debate we’re having right now at the federal level. And sadly, the, you know, massive funding of legacy programs is what’s winning right now. 

Ben Kittelson  1:09:00

Yeah. Yeah. Do you think there’s, you know, possibility, even if it is funded, like legacy programs that I mean, those legacy programs can be used for, like, you know, creating Complete Streets versus like, encouraging stroads or something like that?

Charles Marohn  1:09:18

Yeah, yeah. Not in North Carolina. And I’ll say that with confidence, because what would happen then, is that all the battles over how this money would be spent would shift to the state, and the states would have to do something different. And the reality is, is like, if you go to a state like North Carolina, there is zero credible conversation about reform right now. Right? And so the idea that you would go from zero to 100, and really kind of shift the debate and the conversation about reform, that seems like a really tall effort. If you go to Minnesota, and I’m not you know, gonna congratulate us too much, because if you guys are at zero to 100, we’re at maybe like 10 to 100. Right? So we’ve got a little bit more momentum than you do. I still think that we will largely fund bad legacy programs, but that some of it will come out the other end in a better way. And maybe that would be a catalyst for some change eventually. I don’t like that trade off. I don’t think that’s a good trade off. But, you know, I don’t think it has to be all bad. But yeah, it would be in a state by state basis. And North Carolina is one of the more retrograde DOTs in terms of, you know, the way they’re structured and how they approach this stuff. 

Ben Kittelson  1:10:45

Yeah. And they’re not alone.

Charles Marohn  1:10:46

No, no, no, they’re one of the more retrograde but they’re not. Yeah, I mean, they’re all like, you know, they’re all living in the 1950s in many ways.

Ben Kittelson  1:10:59

Awesome. Um, so the book is Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. It’s out September 8th. So be sure to to get an order and I think anybody interested in local government, interested in cities like this is well worth the read. And I think there’s lots of good lessons for folks, you know, that work at places that on how you can start making change and thinking about transportation in a new way. Chuck, anything else you want to discuss? I realized we were a little, we’ve got over our allotted hour time. But anything else you wanted to share?

Charles Marohn  1:11:31

Hey, man, we’re doing, we’re doing great, I just think, Thank you. I mean, it’s, it’s fun, because it’s clear you’ve read the book, which is kind of cool. And I love the fact that, you know, this is one of those books where I, I want people in government to read it, right? Like, I want the Public Works director to read it. And I want the, the mayor to read it, and the city council members and the city administrator, and that’s all like really important. But I wrote it for people who are not part of that system, you know, I really want them to read it. And I really want them to be kind of that vital center that shifts and says, you know, for for the person in city government that wants to do things differently, we’re going to be the public that has your back. And we’re going to push for that. And we’re going to be there. And we’re going to demand it. And we’re going to see that done. So yeah, thank you so much for having me on. And, you know, chatting it up.

Ben Kittelson  1:11:37

Of course, of course. It is written in a very accessible way for your very good writer for an engineer.

Charles Marohn  1:12:24

Thank you. Well, my my mom would call, she’s got an advanced copy like you did. And she would call me after every chapter. And you know, she did that with the first book too. And she liked that book, but this one she loved. And she’s would recite back to me, like, here’s what I learned. And I’m like, Okay, good. Like you got that, that came through then. So my mom was a elementary school teacher, so I felt like if she could access it and like it, it works. 

Ben Kittelson  1:13:04

Yeah, definitely. So we do have one one last traditional question on Gov Love, which I don’t know if you even remember doing this last time. But if you could be the Gov Love DJ and you got to pick a song as our exit music for this episode, what what song would you pick?

Charles Marohn  1:13:17

Oh, wow. Right now. My kids have joined, I love the Beatles, and my kids were like, Dad don’t play the Beatles. And now they’re teenagers and they’re like, we love the Beatles. So I think for this for this for this episode, and for this book. I think I would play Drive my Car by The Beatles. 

Ben Kittelson  1:13:36

Nice. That’s perfect. Awesome. Well, Chuck, again, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me and sharing your expertise. And we’ll be sure to link to the book and to the podcast, and the video that you mentioned in the show notes so folks can check that out. I really, really appreciate you taking the time. 

Charles Marohn  1:13:54

Hey, thanks, friend. So nice to talk. 

Ben Kittelson  1:13:56

Yeah. For our listeners Gov Love is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter at the handle @GovLovePodcast. ELGL’s annual conference is coming up. Join us September 23rd and 24th for two days of virtual learning and networking. Learn more and register at ELGL21.com. Subscribe to Gov Love on your favorite podcast app. If you’re already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. help us spread the word that Gov Love is the go to place for local government stories. And with that, thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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