Engineering tyranny: a revolt brews BY Neal R. Peirce

November 11, 1997

FOR 50 YEARS, ever since mass production and regimented military power carried us to victory in World War II, we Americans have routinely applied standardization techniques to our highways and bridges, our schools, commercial strips and housing tracts.

Small wonder so many look so similar -- and boring. And in fact, the standardization has its enforcers. They're the ''professionals'' -- the engineers, planners, fire marshals, public work directors -- who tell the rest of us what's best, safe, allowable to build, from street widths to setbacks to minimum parking.

A growing chorus of criticism is saying, though, that tunnel-visioned professionals, while ''going by the book'' have pushed us toward sterile city and suburban environments.

A one-size-fits-all approach, goes this indictment, has been destroying our birthright -- a variegated, attractive American cityscape and townscape. Now, say the critics, it's time to blow the whistle.

Take the critique of Robert Engstrom, a Minneapolis residential developer and chair of the Urban Land Institute's Cities Task Forum. Disinvestment in cities follows almost automatically, he notes, when engineers stifle proposals for narrower, more personal streets, fail to insist on sidewalks because they don't speed traffic, or brush off street trees as unneeded luxuries.

Fire officials are as unthinking, says Mr. Engstrom; they want streets broad enough to turn a firetruck around in, failing to ask manufacturers for trucks with narrower turning radiuses instead.

Zoning often gets the entire blame for sterile cityscapes when the bigger problem is in fact with the engineers, says Seattle planner-critic Mark Hinshaw. ''They lay all this stuff out -- dictating wide streets, prohibiting alleys, big cul-de-sac turnarounds, minimal sidewalks -- as fiat. Often their decisions can't even be appealed.''

But an ''Asphalt Rebellion'' is bubbling up across the country, reports Governing magazine executive editor Alan Ehrenhalt -- a guerrilla movement of neighborhood and local government leaders opposing the mega-roads and mega-bridges being forced on them by the traffic engineers and highway departments.

In Redding, Conn., for example, the state offered $350,000 to fix a 17-foot wide stone arch bridge in a bucolic setting on a rural road. But to get the money, said the state engineers, Redding would have to tear down the colorful old bridge and substitute a 28-foot wide steel and concrete structure.

An ''Asphalt Rebellion'' is bubbling up across the country.

The town told the state it wasn't willing to destroy the old bridge to save it. ''It's a sad commentary on our system,'' First Selectman Henry Bielawa wrote in an open letter, ''when historic preservation, neighborhood aesthetics and common sense are displaced by cookie-cutter design requirements.''

The highway engineers, Governing notes, remain heavily dependent on the so-called ''Green Book'' of road standards published and revised for the last 34 years by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

The Green Book works on three straightforward ideas:

1. Safety always comes first. History, aesthetics, community values have to take a back seat.

2. To be safe, a road or bridge has to be designed for drivers traveling at high speeds, even speeds well above the legal limit.

3. High speed mandates width, so that average street widths went from 18 to 24 feet early in the century to 32 to 34 feet by the suburban building boom of the 1960s.

But more and more communities are questioning the Green Book's preference for any road that's broader, faster, flatter. A new Vermont statute all but repeals it. Phoenix is relaxing minimum street width from 34 feet to 28 feet. Even AASHTO itself is talking modifications.

Not that reform will come easily. Generations of highway engineers, raised one way, are not likely to change their habits easily. And then there's the reality that any move to slow down the paving of America runs straight up against the highway lobby -- asphalt and concrete suppliers, trucking firms, construction labor, the American Automobile Association.

Maybe the weight of the engineers and the well-heeled highway lobby will cow local officials -- not to mention their horror of a trip to the state capital to be grilled by skeptical state officials about any road or bridge that breaks the norms.

But the times are changing. We no longer have seemingly unlimited public funds for roads and bridges: economy and smart planning will be necessary.


Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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