Friday, 20 September 2013

Why Do I Bother?

the interesting ideas come from discussion with others and in this post, I will try and answer the following question;

"how do you square your conscience with working for people who are committed to a car-centric status quo?"

The question arose through a debate with Dr. Robert Davis, the Chair of the Road Danger Reduction Forum. The debate was in response to my post about the multiple-vehicle crash on the A249 Sheppey Crossing in Kent and you can read the full exchange at the end of the post. Dr. Davis raised some interesting points which I could go off on a tangent with (and maybe one day will), but for now, let's keep it relevant;

We (engineers) must strive to be objective and give advice independently, without that, how can we be professionals?

Dr. Davis
That might mean telling the powers that be that they are wrong: e.g. supporting cycling may be a lot more likely to ruffle feathers than they think.

More important, how do you square your conscience with working for people who are committed to a car-centric status quo?

A very interesting question and before I respond, a little bit of background and a lot of rambling. Years ago, I was interested in cars and quite fancied myself as a car designer! Not perhaps the clever mechanical stuff, more the product design end of the process (how they look and so on). Looking at the state of the car market today, I am glad that I was a rubbish at A-levels and ended up on a civil engineering HND from which I have never looked back.

I have been lucky to see a few sides to the civil engineering game including contracting, private practice and local authority work (both maintenance and design). I have not always been in highways and there are a couple of my non-highways projects visible on Google Earth (which is very cool for me as an engineer!). I like to think that having the rounded (and often practical) experience helps me in my current job and has helped me improve my ability to pass on technical views to others (part of the point of this blog perhaps?). With any luck, it will get me my next job (one day).

Isambard Kingdom Brunel - the greatest engineer ever and in my
view, the greatest Briton ever. He had principles and didn't put up
with crap!
I have worked for some old school engineers. By that I mean those who saw engineering as a way of solving society's problems for the long term and were happy to call it as they saw it. Sadly, engineers are not normally ones to put themselves forward. In local authorities, they have more often than not fallen by the wayside as advice givers and leaders. The ones that ran entire directorates have gradually been replaced by "professional" managers alongside the rise of the cabinet style approach to local politics, although there are still a few of us in the higher echelons.

One former boss sticks in my mind as he was the one who got me through my professional review to become a chartered engineer. He could often be found leaning back on his chair, fingers arched in front of him like his own personal temple, with his eyes closed - he was a great thinker and he always seemed to have a sensible answer. Most importantly, he was always of the opinion that when all is stacked against you, then the only thing you have left is your professional independence.

I have carried this with me over the years and found it the best way to deal with non-technical managers, other colleagues (internal or external) and politicians - the people who sometimes want you to do something that you know is not right. It hasn't often come up in my career, but the few times I have dug in for principles (and I mean real, professional engineer's principles - not a trivial argument), the other party has backed down.

Another boss (non-technical this time) told me that my job in local government was to do the bidding of the politicians up until the point where it was illegal (a very broad brush of course). This covers everything from not putting up a traffic sign which is against some regulation or other, to aiding and abetting corruption. You need to play a very straight bat, but this does not extend to giving political advice and I impress this on my own staff. I witness people getting too close with politicians and apart from the principles of being a professional, when the next mob get elected, those people often get to spend more time with their families!

Now that is my kind of parking scheme!
I may be asked to work on a scheme to install on-street parking bays. As a cycle user, I think that the space should be used for a cycle track and indeed the act of designing those bays may mean that cycle users would need to go round the bays that were not there before. What do I do? I cannot present a report to committee for new parking bays that actually proposes a design for a cycle track, that would be daft. 

What I should do is somewhere in the report make reference to the impact that the scheme has on other users. I admit, this is something I have not done enough of in the past and I do need to try harder to give that additional balance, but not to the point where personal views cloud balanced advice. It is not my job to make up policy on the spot and despite much policy being written by staff, it is agreed by the politicians and it is they who need to be targeted to effect change. I would love to be in a position where I am asked to design on-street parking bays, but not to impact on cycle users, subtly, this does allow some me an awful lot more scope for being ingenious. 

What if there is a scheme which is looking to help elderly pedestrians cross a busy road, but actual pedestrian flow numbers will be low. A pelican or zebra crossing are options which are cycle-friendly, but if local motorists get used to them not being used much, they either end up driving through a red signal when it is being used or plough through the pedestrian unexpectedly on the crossing. It should be reasonable that drivers stop in this situation, but some don't and a pedestrian might be hit. 

A usual treatment for a site like this would be for a pedestrian refuge which means the pedestrian has to make an active decision to cross (rather relying on a red light or stepping on a stripe) and can often be just enough to help people cross the road. The problem is that the refuge has now caused a situation where cycle users now have to get past a pinch point.

Of course, the ideal world scenario for those two situations is that there are protected cycling facilities so that the parking or refuge serves the users they are aimed at without affecting others such as those using cycles. Why don't I just go for the cycling and walking friendly option every time - hold that thought until I get to the point at the end of this post!

Grove Avenue, Bristol. A simple closure civilized this street and kept
the heavy traffic on the main road. Engineers do this kind of thing!
The job of an engineer is to devise solutions to problems. In the car industry, there were problems a few decades ago with people crashing into each other and getting thrown through the windscreen. There was the inevitable wringing of hands that something had to be done. The engineers came up with seatbelts which helped to protect people in cars in the event of a crash. But, people did not wear them. It took legislation to make the use of seatbelts mandatory. The engineers came up with the solution, but the politicians had to carry it through to make the difference.

It is no different where walking and cycling are concerned. We have been good in this country at reducing death and injury on our roads. There are facts to support this and we can draw graphs to prove it. I can show you lots of set pieces which will reduce casualties and show the money was well spent. But, for a mini-roundabout which has stopped right turning vehicle crashes, there may well now be a pedestrian who now finds it difficult to cross what was the old side road. 

For a set of speed humps I can show you that speeds that have dropped, but now we have people moaning about vibration in their homes and a cycle user who has to go over the humps. Heck, I can point at any urban motorway in London and show you a fast convenient route for long-distance traffic, but horrific junction layouts which mean pedestrians have to cross multiple traffic movements. Henly's Corner anyone?

I digress. A lot. As usual. My point is that there will often be more than one solution to a problem and a lot of it starts with a good brief. For good briefs (in local government anyway), we need to have an enlightened client who wants to see all sides and that responsibility sits firmly with the politicians and their policies. I work for a pretty car-centric local authority. For example, the design of parking management schemes is not dealt with by the engineering team in a holistic way, it is dealt with by the parking department. A whole department devoted to all things parking, just imagine (except cycle parking of course); actually pretty standard these days in a austere financial climate and revenue to raise...

20mph speed limits? More of them please. Even better, why don't the
politicians in power make it the default speed in residential and
shopping areas?
Of course, the cue to the politicians and their policies is given by the public who seem to worry most about potholes and congestion on the roads and the impact on their wish to drive everywhere. I wouldn't go so far as calling my employer institutionally motorist as, there are individuals, teams and indeed councillors who are very much pro-walking and cycling. It is just there is not enough of these good people (yet) to create proper change. This is why we need campaigns such as Space for Cycling where an alternative future can be laid out for decision makers.

So, back to the question posed by Dr. Davis;

"More important, how do you square your conscience with working for people who are committed to a car-centric status quo?"

The short answer is "with difficulty". The long answer is that if I valued my principles as highly as I have set out above, then surely I need to tell my boss to stick it (in a nice way as he is a nice guy). Where would that get me? Looking for a new job, struggling to pay the bills and even worse; having to watch daytime TV! 

As the constant restructures over the last 3 years have shown me (as with most highways departments around the UK), even the most dedicated staff are shat on from a great height in the name of "savings"; and being just a cost on a balance sheet, I am expendable. If I quit, the whole oil-tanker continues on its merry way and I am so much data on the server's X-drive until I am deleted. But still I turn up and do more hours than I should. I still take crap from uninformed fools who cannot be bothered to construct a coherent argument. I have to answer letters for lazy politicians who won't tell their constituents the truth - they just want to blame us for the answer we give in the name of trying to be seen to be helpful to their constituent.

Hey kid, ditch the day-glo. The road has been narrowed to give you a
cycle track over this bridge!
Apart from needing to earn a few quid to stay in the rat race, (rat run?) I think the way I square it is when I get that letter from someone thanking us for the new crossing. I square it when I see kids cycling along a cycle track I helped get built. I square it when I see someone able to get on and off a bus using their wheelchair. I square it when those 20mph signs go up. I square it when the new cycle hoops get filled up and people ask for more. I square it when I meet people who want to make positive changes to the local highway network who have a view beyond the length of a bonnet.

I asked you earlier to hold a thought;

"Why don't I just go for the cycling and walking friendly option every time"

We are all involved in civil war on transport in this country. Government forces want us to stay wedded to the private car, accept massive road building schemes and make it easy to drive into town centres. The opposition want the money spent on local active travel, dense protected cycle networks, livable cities and travel options. The engineers are at the vanguard of this war in a lot of ways and those of us wanting positive change simple have to pick our battles and this does mean compromising on schemes.

So, thanks to Robert Davis for the inspiration which has given me pause for thought this week and to you for reading this - it is all helping with the therapy. Until I set up on my own, win the lottery or convince someone to employ me in a position where I am really in charge, I will be back on my bike on Monday, whatever the weather, doing my best to make things a little bit better for people. That is what being an engineer is all about.


  1. Yeah, not sure the whole war analogy is sensible, but that is how I felt when I wrote the post, so I will leave it up for better or worse!

  2. No you're right on the war analogy - people do die and we accept it as part of our transport strategy when we could prevent it (with other resulting costs).

    The cognitive dissonance at work in ordinary members of the public and elected officials sometimes staggers me...
    They want safe cycling
    But they want to drive 1 mile to the shops and park/ have a quick journey
    And other people should leave their cars at home/ not speed
    I am in the same position and background as you (civils, Local Authority, highways and traffic). You summed it up really well but I am going to be bolder.
    What is really needed are *MORE* clear thinking engineers but *LESS* professional managers, project managers, communications and PR people, accountants, lawyers - leading on schemes and strategy!

  3. My goodness, you as well. Too many people ticking too many things off too many lists for too many stupid deadlines!

  4. To Robert Davis I say, think of Ranty as our Fifth Column. Also, the conscience question is a bit off IMO - so let me counter by saying: to me it's a bit like a teetotaller vilifying a pub landlord for selling alcoholic beverages because lives are blighted by alcoholism. Sure the landlord doesn't like it, but he's having to deal with a spectrum of opinions where teetotalism is an extreme end member, and make a living. Is that offensive enough in the other direction?

    However, my question for the Ranty Highwayman is - I still don't see how we can get monstrosities as shown on "Cycle Facility of the Month". With tedious frequency, what was often bad on the drawing board is made worse by what must surely be major errors in the implementation. How does that happen? Don't you engineers have any responsibility for that?

    1. I agree that there are shades to the argument which are not helped by extreme views at each end of the spectrum. Dr. Davis is not being anti-car, he is suggesting we look at root causes of crashes and a great deal of this will be at source as in how people drive and how they are able to drive.

      The latter of course is about highway engineering. For example, on a motorway, the width, layout, slips roads and so on allow and indeed encourage people to drive at high speeds, but when similar design principles permeate urban streets, it should be no surprise that we get some of these behaviours.

      Of course, it is much more complex than that, but it does lend a good argument that cyclists and pedestrians need protected infrastructure (and I don't mean guardrail and alleyways).

      With "cycle facility of the month", I would admit that many of the howlers are the fault of the engineers, but many problems come later when things are added by others, such as parking bays in a cycle lane by the parking department who have no engineers and are focussed on income or by the non-engineer departmental boss who gets staggered barriers put in to keep a councillor quiet and so on.

      I do take issue with one recent photo

      Take a look and tell me how you would get cyclists to flip sides where a one-way street turns into a two-way; this one seems to work!

  5. Your civil war metaphor fits nicely with one of my own. The vast army of 'motorists' that politicians and the media constantly invoke does, in fact, contain rather a large number of conscripts...

  6. Fine, I give in. I am happy with a "metaphoric civil war" and if it offends anyone, well tough! Conscripts - heh! I wonder who the collaborators are then???