Chuck Marohn Explains What’s Wrong With America’s Roads — Episode 136 of Building Local Power

Date: 30 Sep 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power, Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco and ILSR Co-Director Stacy Mitchell interview Chuck Marohn, President of Strong Towns. Chuck is also the author of the new book Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, which explores what conventional transportation planning is costing our communities.

Highlights of the conversation include:

  • How Chuck’s background in engineering and planning informed the book.
  • How conventional transportation planning values disregard the complexity of human behavior and end up negatively impacting safety, economic growth, and community.
  • How flawed transportation policy allowed big box retailers and chains to take over communities and why good street design could revive Main Street.
  • Streets, roads, and “stroads” — and the key design decisions that can help communities flourish.
  • The small steps city leaders can take to start rethinking transportation policy.


“The idea of roads and streets is really to put the focus back on what are we trying to accomplish with our transportation system. On a road we’re trying to move people quickly between two places. On a street, we’re trying to create wealth. We’re trying to create a place. We’re trying to create someplace that people want to be, a productive place where we can live, have economics, have commerce, have entertainment, have high quality of life. A street is not conducive to fast throughput and a road is not conducive to development to things that slow things down.”

“Congestion is actually our greatest ally if we want to build great places, if we want to build local economies, it will actually drive the outcomes we want to see. And so the best places in America, the places that have I think the best economics, the best local small business options, are all places where you have overwhelming levels of congestion combined with… a more flexible development framework where people can actually then respond to these local needs by building stuff, to serve their neighbors.”


Learn more about Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and check out free resources here.


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power. A podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m [Jess 00:00:18] Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Jess Del Fiacco: For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. And welcome to today’s show. I’m here with my colleague, Stacy Mitchell, who is one of ILSR co-directors. And we are joined by Chuck Mahron, who is the president of Small Towns. Small Towns is an organization that is rethinking how we build our communities. And Chuck is the author of a new book called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer:Transportation for a Strong Town. Chuck, welcome to the show. We’re very happy to have you.
Chuck Marohn: Hey, thank you. It’s really nice to be here. I love the work that you all do and it’s exciting to be able to chat.
Stacy: We’re such big fans of Strong Towns too. So it’s awesome to have you.
Chuck Marohn: Yeah. Thank you. I know we have so much in common and so much overlap and I really appreciated like everything that you guys have put out since I’ve become aware of the work you’re doing. So yeah, this might be a love Fest for a while, but that’s fine. That’s fine. We can mutually admire each other.
Jess Del Fiacco: So to get us started, I just wanted to ask, and if you got a little bit about your background, I mean, you were trained as a transportation engineer and this book is essentially your confession, you are criticizing your critique of the whole profession. What’s that all about?
Chuck Marohn: Yeah, well, it’s like a cheaper than therapy, right? No, yeah, my undergraduate degree is in civil engineering and transportation is a sub-part of that. I certainly did some transportation engineering in addition to all the other kind of municipal level engineering that I did in order to get my license. You have to work for four years as an engineer in training, and then you can take a test and get your license. And I went through that whole process. I had the opportunity to go back to graduate school after having received my license and worked for a time as a civil engineer.
Chuck Marohn: And I went back and got a planning degree, and I think it’s this strange combination. I only know a few others in the country that have an engineer and a planning degree. They seem to people on the outside there should be a lot more because they’re both building cities, but one is a very right brain activity and one’s a very left brain activity.
Chuck Marohn: And they really not only are very different pursuits, but intellectually they just confront and deal with a very different set of questions with a much different set of priors. So I think having both of those experiences and both of that background has made me a little strange and not really fit into either very well. Like I said, this book and Strong Towns really is cheaper than therapy for me, it’s a way that I’ve been able to work through a lot of conflicting thoughts and ideas, but it also has given me, I think, a perspective that has allowed me to be able to question some of the priors of the engineering profession and really reach some understandings that my colleagues don’t get an opportunity to wrestle with the way that I’ve been afforded the luxury to.
Stacy: What are some of those priors? I mean, what are some of the things that the profession holds is like bedrock assumptions and principles that you think they ought to question?
Chuck Marohn: The two that I focus on the most and the two that I think are the most impactful is just this dedication to the speed of traffic and the volume of traffic as being a key to mobility and mobility than being a key to economic growth and success and prosperity. I try to understand how we got here by looking at my own home region. I live in Brainerd, Minnesota. It’s a couple hours North of Minneapolis, St. Paul. And if I talk to my dad who’s turned 70 this year, he said that when he was young, it would have taken them six hours to drive down to Minneapolis, Saint Paul.
Chuck Marohn: My grandfather grew up during the great depression. He would not have driven down to Minneapolis, Saint Paul. He would have taken a train or he would have gotten on a Steamboat maybe in the summer, or what have you, and kind of down the Mississippi river, it would have been a very long trip for him.
Chuck Marohn: This would not have been very quick at all. I like to go see the Minnesota Twins. I take a lot of plane trips. It’s like two and a quarter, two and a half hours for me to get to Minneapolis. You look at that transformation and engineer’s brought us that. The whole highway building era about connecting places that were very distant from each other, shrinking our world, allowing us to trade goods and services and ideas back and forth was absolutely revolutionary.
Chuck Marohn: And I think a lot of the insights that came out of doing that are really important. There was a direct correlation between the speed and the volume that we could move traffic at. And that overall prosperity. The problem is that playbook doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at the neighborhood level. So for me to get to Minneapolis, two hours quicker is revolutionary, for me to get to the Big Box Store on the edge of town 30 seconds quicker is nothing, but it comes at this enormous cost.
Chuck Marohn: The other place that it has stopped working is that the idea that I can get from Brainerd to Minneapolis in two hours and 15 minutes, but then we go and add a third lane and a fourth lane and a fifth lane at the cost of billions of dollars so that I can get there in two hours and 12 minutes or two hours and 10 again, vastly diminishing returns. So I think what has happened is that the engineering profession learn these lessons very early. If we can move people quickly across great distance and move a lot of people, we could do a lot of good, but there’s that understanding it’s not applying anymore. And we’ve not learned that we’ve not moved on and adapted to a new reality.
Jess Del Fiacco: Something you write in the book pretty early on about pedestrians saying that the pedestrians experience is at best an afterthought and at worst a nuisance to planning and street design, which kind of really struck me. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, about the pedestrian experience, and then some of the, you say that like reducing speed limits, for example, isn’t necessarily a way to improve road safety, but what are ways that we can change?
Chuck Marohn: Yeah. So Jess, I’m going to do something and this is not to correct you in a sense, but to kind of push back a little bit, because I’m pretty sure that I did not use the word pedestrian because I’m very intentional about when I use the word pedestrian. I always talk about people as people or humans. Pedestrian is almost a term I’m not going to say a degrading term, but it’s an engineering term used to put people in their place, in the hierarchy of transportation importance. We have cars, we have transit of some type buses, train. And then we have bikers and pedestrians, which are a different version of a transportation device. And I kind of feel like it’s an antiseptic way of viewing, what is a human, what is you and me? What is a person?
Chuck Marohn: And I think I’m very intentional about divorcing and using the language to divorce this antiseptic notion to try to actually get as close to what we’re talking about. We’re talking about real people. I do think that a lot of times to get at your question, engineers are comfortable with trade-offs that treat humans as pedestrians.
Chuck Marohn: And they’ll say, “Okay, we have the priority here on this street is moving vehicles. And we will also then accommodate pedestrians in this way I use as a device in the book, this tragic crash that occurred on State Street in Springfield.” And if you take the standard engineering analysis, what happened is the mom with these two young children failed to walk, basically a football field in the rain down to a light late at night, wait for their turn to cross, then cross and then walk a football field back up in the rain in the cold December night and to get to their parked vehicle.
Chuck Marohn: Instead they chose a shorter route, a more logical route and wound up with one of them dead as a result. I think the traditional engineering analysis of this would say that the mom made a mistake. The mom should have followed the rules as a pedestrian and done what our theoretical mapping on the sheets that a pedestrian should do in this instance. But the reality is that Destiny Gonzales and her mom Sagaria were not pedestrians. They were humans and they made human choices within human habitat that are very logical, very easy to predict because we could see all kinds of other people making the same choice, given the same set of circumstances.
Chuck Marohn: I think that a big part of making things safe for people is engineers recognizing that humans are complex and they do weird things and they do strange things and they do things that are not always predictable and that’s okay, but it should change our design from being more… as if we’re dealing with automatons and kind of more respectful of the fact that humanity is messy.
Stacy: I think this in some ways goes back to what you were saying about your transportation engineers made these big improvements in terms of speed, but never really rethought that as the only goal. And there’s this part of the book that I found to be really kind of like just an aha moment for me, where you talk about this notion of the hierarchy of roads.
Stacy: So we have highways and that with big arterials, and I forget how it works all the way down to sort of the neighborhood street level and the impression, and maybe I misunderstand how it works, but the idea is that we want to maximize the ability of people to transport through that network up through the biggest and we want to keep growing the size of each of those pieces in that hierarchy to maximize throughput, maximize cart throughput in particular and speeds and so on.
Stacy: And you say that that is a completely the wrong thing. We should not have a hierarchy of roads instead of we should have two things. We should either have a road or a street and everything should be one or the other. And I found this fascinating. Can you talk about that?
Chuck Marohn: Yeah, I think it’s the most like deeply subversive insight in the book because it really is designed to change our entire way of framing things. I kind of joke in the book, but it’s not really a joke. I kind of joke that engineers look at the system the way a parent looks at a child. We start with an infant and then we go to a toddler and then an adolescent, and you’re kind of cheering every step of the way. And an engineer’s start with a small street or a small intersection in the hopes that someday we’ll get enough traffic and enough stuff going on so we can grow it to the next level and to the next level and to the next level. And there’s some like victory achieved when you’ve been able to nurture a street all the way from mere local status all the way up to arterial so you’ve accomplished something great.
Chuck Marohn: Yeah. The reality is that the hierarchical system makes no sense from an engineering standpoint, every engineer takes Hydrology 101 and learns about how a watershed works and how when water empties into a Brook in a stream and then into a small river. And then they come together to form major tributaries that when you get all this like rain throughout the watershed, if it’s persistent enough or if it’s intense enough, you will get a flood at the tributary. And so we grasp this and we learn how to hold water back and retain water and allow water to soak in at the source so that we don’t get these huge, expensive floods in our hydrology system.
Chuck Marohn: We finished hydrology one, and then we walk up the hallway to Traffic 101, and they teach us how to design hierarchical networks, where local streets pour into collector streets, pour into arterials and then major arterials.
Chuck Marohn: And then they’re like, “Oh my Gosh, how did we get this flood?” Well, I have no idea. Let’s widen out the major arterial. Let’s widen all this stuff out as if the lessons of holding things back and helping them absorb at the source is somehow elusive to us. We call these systems efficient. And the only way they’re really efficient is they’re efficient in our ability to construct them over and over.
Chuck Marohn: And I feel like that is the deep insight here of the engineering profession is that in the 1950s and 1960s, what we asked engineers to do was to transform an entire continent very quickly and to rapidly build out an automobile system. And the prime objective of that system was to repeat itself over and over and over again. And so what you get from engineers is you get standards, you get typical approaches, you get standard plates of here’s, how you build an intersection. Here’s how you put in a traffic signal. Here’s how you build a street.
Chuck Marohn: And that worked really well for building something out. That type of approach does not work well for maturing something in place. And so if your response to the flood of traffic congestion that is created by this hierarchical road network, I mean, you literally like manufacturer a flood every day in every city. If your cure to that in the 1950s and sixties is to add more capacity, maybe you can get away with that for a while. Maybe that works for awhile, but at some point, and I would debate whether it worked ever, but at some point it very clearly stops working.
Chuck Marohn: And the feedback loops that you get don’t respond in the way that they responded when this was a young system. You wind up having to, as they did on State Street Springfield gut your downtown, make it less of a place you want to be, make it less of a productive place, make it less of a successful place in order so that can move through it very quickly to get to the downtown.
Chuck Marohn: Like it’s a nonsense way of thinking. And so the idea of roads and streets is really to put the focus back on what are we trying to accomplish with our transportation system. On a road we’re trying to move people quickly between two places. On a street, we’re trying to create wealth. We’re trying to create a place, We’re trying to create someplace that people want to be a productive place where we can live, have economics, have commerce, have entertainment, have high quality of life. A street is not conducive to fast throughput and a road is not conducive to development to things that slow things down. And so for a public official making decisions to me, it’s a very easy one to start the equation to start the conversation.
Chuck Marohn: Are we trying to build a place here or are we trying to move cars quickly? It’s not a matter of doing both. It’s really a matter of choosing one or the other. And if you choose one or the other, the direction then becomes very clear and very simple. Here’s how we do this successfully. And like I said, I think that’s the most subversive part of the whole thing, because it takes what engineers have wrapped into this big technical process of evaluating street hierarchical networks and makes it just a very simple, common sense decision that any elected official in any group of citizens getting together can answer for themselves. Are we trying to build a place or are we trying to get between two places, that should dictate exactly how we approach this transportation investment?
Stacy: So you say we have a lot of doing in between this notion of [stroads 00:16:33]?
Chuck Marohn: Yeah.
Stacy: Yeah. So, I guess, I want to get at the implications of the road street framework. So if we did that, if there was a brand new state that suddenly appeared on the horizon and was being created from the ground up and people building that state either did roads, or they did streets and not the, in between, how would that place be different from what we all experience right now?
Chuck Marohn: Well, in a myriad of ways. And it’s hard to imagine that because I spent a lot of my time thinking about how we retrofit our current system, but let’s go down that route for a second, because I think the first thing is that you want people to be able to travel great distances at speed. The idea that I can get from my house to Minneapolis, St. Paul in two hours and 15 minutes is a huge benefit, to me it’s a huge benefit to everyone here. It’s a huge benefit to Minneapolis. That exchange across great distances really important.
Chuck Marohn: And so I think in an ideal sense, you would have the system that was envisioned by Eisenhower originally by the planners developing the early interstates, which is that the interstates would go around cities and cities would be a place of commerce, a place of economy, a place for people.
Chuck Marohn: And that would be a framework of streets that would create that place. It could mature over time and become more and more intense, what have you, but it would be a discreet place, but the highways themselves, or the major transportation routes themselves would go between places. It would not eliminate the idea of a suburb, but it would eliminate the idea of an auto suburb or a commuter suburb, commuter patterns. And I think that’s kind of the worst manifestation of what we’ve done. There’s a sense that suburbs are bad. And I really don’t think suburbs are bad. Cities have always had suburbs. They’ve always had suburban development, but suburban development was like the new place out on the edge. It was the kind of incremental place that when it fully matured would be a real neighborhood, just like the stuff further up the street.
Chuck Marohn: You were essentially copying the urban pattern out incrementally and allowing it to mature. What we did in the 1950s and this whole Strode idea, the idea that we can have streets and roads kind of in the same framework, I have our cake and eat it too, was based on this premise that people should live on the edge of cities in places that were purely residential or purely like one format and have this hierarchical road network deliver them in then to the center core of the city, as part of these large federal transportation investments.
Chuck Marohn: That is an approach that bankrupts our cities. It creates enormous liabilities for infrastructure, for transportation. It forces upon families and businesses, a huge anti in terms of financial costs, not just to enter into that system, but then to sustain that system over time, suburban auto oriented, suburban development commuter lifestyle patterns are financially really high burn ways to live. So this is a huge ongoing burden. And then it accelerates, I think this is the part that really intersects with the work that you guys do.
Chuck Marohn: It accelerates a winner take all style of economy. So instead of having kind of an advantage for neighborhood level businesses in neighborhoods that are connected and part of a larger region, what you do is you create massive advantages for the one regional entity that can get everyone to drive to them. And you made it a huge competitive disadvantage for the neighborhood. If we started out with just roads and streets as two alternatives, I don’t think we would have any of that.
Chuck Marohn: We would not have commuter suburbs and we would not have the whole kind of auto oriented lifestyle that would go with it. We would still have cars, and we would use cars, I think within a street road framework to get far distances very quickly, or to make modest local trips. But we’d also locally, lots of trips we could do walking, lots of trips we could do biking, lots of options and alternatives for deploying transit really well. And we’d have much different cities.
Stacy: Maybe Sam Walton’s errors would be running a small five and dime and [Bento Arkansas 00:21:05] instead of a behemoth that has reordered our whole economy to its own ends.
Chuck Marohn: Well, it’s funny because I think that you would still, I mean, I point out, and I know you, and I’ve talked about this. We always had like the Sears catalog and the Montgomery Ward’s catalog. I lived in a small town and I remember as a kid, I would order all my school clothes. And all my friends did too, from the JC Penny’s Catalog, because you had to drive a long ways to go to a shopping mall.
Chuck Marohn: So there were many Clothiers here, but not a lot in the kids niche. And so we’d all show up to school with the same clothes on the first day because we all ordered from the same catalog.
Chuck Marohn: You would have had globalization and you would have had like efficiencies of scale and you would have had all the things that we kind of point to in a theoretical economic a Ricardo kind of framework of this is a way of doing trade internationally.
Chuck Marohn: But what you wouldn’t have is the neighborhood destruction of it. You could still have neighborhood stores and neighborhood restaurants and neighborhood retailers, and they would be competitive with this other system. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot. And one of the fascinating things that you find is that the larger and more urbanized a city gets, I think the assumption of a lot of people is that the more corporate it becomes and the reality is it’s the opposite.
Chuck Marohn: I sit here in my little hometown and we have Applebee’s, we have Taco Bell, we have McDonald’s, we have Arby’s. We have every Big Box Store. I go to Minneapolis and I can go to any neighborhood and find neighborhood groceries, neighborhood restaurants, all that kind of fine grain that doesn’t exist here. And the reason it exists there and not here is not because of scale it’s because of friction. It takes a lot more effort to get in your car and drive around and get to those places than it does here. I live eight miles from the Applebee’s. It will take me eight minutes to get there. If I lived eight miles from an Applebee’s in the heart of Minneapolis, it would take me 45 minutes to get there half an hour to get there. And that friction is the opposite of what engineers are trying to create.
Chuck Marohn: I mean, the theory of their system is that mobility creates economic good. That’s true over great distance, but over short distance, it’s the opposite. It creates consolidation. It doesn’t create thick, wealthy, prosperous neighbors.
Jess Del Fiacco: We’re going to continue with this conversation after a short break. Thanks for listening to our show. If you’re enjoying my conversation with Chuck and Stacy, I hope you consider heading over to to help support our work. Your donation directly supports this podcast, as well as all of work we do here at ILSR. You can visit to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. Thanks for listening. Now, back to the show.
Jess Del Fiacco: Just talk a little bit more about that and maybe if you could share some specific examples of places you’ve seen, who are either currently grappling with these challenges or have successfully reimagined transportation whether it’s on small scale neighborhood or citywide successfully?
Chuck Marohn: It’s a good question. It’s hard to answer in any comprehensive way. I was in Manhattan like five or six years ago, and this is the first time I saw this and I maybe will out myself as a real small town hick, but I grew up on a farm. We had cows, we had pigs, we had chickens, I ate farm fresh vegetables all year round. We had stuff from the farm in fact, I’ll say this, and this will maybe make some of your listeners roll their eyes, but it was a big treat for us to go to McDonald’s because it was like, we never did anything like that. It was like a big, oh my Gosh, we’re going to go eat at McDonald’s. Wow, good. We don’t have to have steak and pork chops again because that was like literally our food. Since I’ve been an adult I’ve not lived on the farm and I’ve adopted the American lifestyle, particularly American lifestyle in a small town, which is very different.
Chuck Marohn: So I’m in Manhattan with some friends and we go to a restaurant just like there’s dozens of these in every neighborhood we just went to one. And all the food on the menu was locally grown. I never would’ve dreamed this. And I started to look at the menu, went through and I started to talk and I did some research on this and they were truly getting all of their stuff from within 60 miles of Manhattan, they had contracted with farmers and stuff and all this, it was bizarre to me because I literally lived two miles from the farm I grew up on. My parents still live there. I know lots of farmers. I know lots of people. I don’t eat any locally grown food and it’s not that there’s not tons of locally grown food here, there’s tons of locally grown food.
Chuck Marohn: It’s just all corporate done and it’s all shipped out and it’s all processed somewhere else and it all gets shipped around the globe. It doesn’t actually like end up here except in this very roundabout way. I look at that in New York and I look at what it took to make that come about. And I think some of us might say, well, it’s more affluent people and it’s market preferences and it’s, those things. But the reality is that we have shaped my city to make it really easy for McDonald’s and by extension all these other franchises and what have you to drive a big, huge semi right in front of my house, down the neighborhood street, back up an alley dock to the McDonald’s store, unload their pallet of things and then drive on 20 miles to the next McDonald’s and do that over and over and over again.
Chuck Marohn: And we’ve made it like so hyper efficient for them to do that, that they can sell an egg McMuffin for cheaper than the local diner can create a similar locally produced thing for us. When I look at that transaction, what I see is that we, my city has spent an inordinate sum of money, a vast sum of money widening out our streets, making them friendly for semi-truck tractors to drive through, making it very easy for the traffic to move quickly through. And we’ve done this in a way that makes it difficult for me to walk to the local diner. That’s four blocks away, that makes it really, really easy for McDonald’s to have a top down corporate strategy where they can bring the efficient semis in all over, get to the farm, pick up the eggs from 20 different farmers, bring them to a central place, have them process then and shipped out on a pallet so like can get your egg McMuffin free made, and just got it heated up at the store. We’ve wired our system that way.
Chuck Marohn: And so Manhattan becomes like an example just because of the size and the friction of transportation there. I mean, I’ve been on buses in Manhattan where you just get off and walk, you get out of your Uber and walk because it’s way faster to walk than to sit in traffic there. And what that’s done is it’s changed what economically is possible and what economically makes sense in a way where in most of the rest of the country, you just don’t have. I read a whole chapter in there about traffic congestion. And again, I think this is a subversive take, but to me it’s the most radical and it’s the most impactful. And if people grasp it, it changes everything.
Chuck Marohn: The idea that congestion is not our greatest enemy. Congestion is actually our greatest ally if we want to build great places, if we want to build local economies, it will actually drive the outcomes we want to see. And so the best places in America, the places that have I think the best economics, the best local small business options are all places where you have overwhelming levels of congestion combined with in a sense like a flexible, or a more flexible development framework where people can actually then respond to these local needs by building stuff, to serve their neighbors. That you see in places like San Francisco and neighborhoods in Chicago. You see it in some very poor places some of the neighborhoods of Memphis, Tennessee, where I’m going to be in Treeport next week, you can see some of this in places like that in small bits of the community. But as a broad experience, we don’t have this in throughout most of North America and we could very easily.
Stacy: Well on that note, if you were, as you often do talking to community leaders if you had a set of city officials who were one over by the book, what would be the things that they should start doing? What should they, I love this idea by the way of congestion and friction being things that we should want, I think that’s a really great framework. So how should cities think about implementing that and other kinds of principles?
Chuck Marohn: I feel like there’s two things philosophically that local leaders specifically can do. I think the first one is to force a discipline on yourself that rejects framing all of your local problems as transportation problems. There’s the old saying, why did you Rob the bank? Because that’s where the money is. Why do we frame every problem we have in terms of transportation? Because that’s where the money is.
Chuck Marohn: That’s where you can get federal money. That’s where you can get state money. That’s where these huge pots of capital flow down to local governments. And so what tends to happen is regardless of what the problem is, I mean, there was a story last week about governor who got COVID relief funds and they’re going to use it to widen lanes because that will help people get to the hospital easier. Some stupid thing that made no sense, but it made sense to them.
Chuck Marohn: In the framework, I’ve seen so many places where they’re like we have a public health epidemic here. We have an obesity epidemic. Well, what do we need to do? Well let’s find a transportation problem that will solve this. Let’s go build some recreational trails because why? Because there’s money for recreational trail. We want to get small businesses. What should we do for small businesses? Well, let’s do a street scape project because we can get federal money to put in decorative lights and wider sidewalks.
Chuck Marohn: I’m not suggesting that recreational trails and decorative lights are bad things, but it’s not the right to your problem. We tend to look at every problem as a transportation problem because we have money for transportation. And I think if we broadened our pallet and we said, let’s look at this problem more holistically, we would come up with a lot better solutions than just transportation. Along those lines, the second thing that I would recommend to any local official is this four step approach that we’ve developed to making public investments as kind of the way to approach what is a priority project for our community.
Chuck Marohn: And that four step approach is very simple. I mean the first step is to go out and observe with humility, where people in the community struggle to make use of what has already been built. Where are people having a difficult time crossing the street? Where are people having a difficult time getting to where they want to go? Where are people primarily outside of an automobile, having a hard time using the city as we’ve built it today? If you start with that humble observing, the second step then is to ask a question, what is the smallest thing we can do right now with the stuff we have on hand to make that struggle a little bit easier for people?
Chuck Marohn: And what’s the thing we can do with paint and straw bales and cones to make whatever this problem we’re seeing, we are observing to make that a little bit easier. The third step then is to waste no time, just go out and do it, like don’t form committees and study it for years. Just go do it. And then the fourth step is to repeat that process over and over. And it’s this, I think as public officials, we can get stuck sometimes because if you look at State Street in Springfield, the city council like all knows, this is a problem. Everybody in the community knows this crossing is a problem.
Chuck Marohn: There have been multiple people hit, killed injured at this spot. Everybody knows it’s a problem. But when you get to talking about what to do about it, all of a sudden the solution becomes a big transportation one. It’s got years of bureaucracy, years of like grinding standards and you enter the whole paradigm of engineering and reality and in the process, more people die. If you went out there with cones and straw pills and paint and said, let’s try some stuff to make this a little bit easier. We know this is an urgent problem let’s try to figure out what could work. You could very rapidly come up with a series of interventions and solutions that over time you could improve upon and make better. That would actually deal with that.
Chuck Marohn: And you could do that, not just on State Street, but throughout every neighborhood in the community on a very low budget, start to make things better. And the fascinating thing is once you do that, this miracle happens, which is people start to react. So that marginal person, I don’t mean marginal as like unworthy, but the person who would normally walk, but has been marginalized has been put to the side and they don’t walk because they feel it’s too dangerous. When you make that little improvement, maybe that’s the person who now starts to walk and then you discover more issues in the system and you start to build on it and what you do is you slide over that threshold and so more and more people start to bike walk.
Chuck Marohn: And the thing about safety is that if you want to build a safe biking and walking system, what you need is more people, you need a culture of biking and walking. You need more people out doing it. So this whole thing creates feedback loops that build on themselves. If we can just discipline ourselves to take those modest steps based on where people struggle and allow those to direct us and guide us as opposed to with the big transportation project, we think we can go out and get a grant for, or a developer money or Wall Street money to do.
Stacy: You also say we should get rid of the routine traffic stop that that’s not the solution to safety and as we’ve all seen is actually a tool of racial oppression and often leads to violence. Talk about that. I mean, I think a lot of cities would find that hard advice to follow.
Chuck Marohn: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve written that has gotten me more angry feedback than the series of articles I’ve written on that and I’m going to be interested to see how people react to it within the context of the book. In and of itself, the idea seems crazy and the routine traffic stop. Why would we do that? And every time that it comes up, I get a list of people who send me news articles that in a routine traffic stop, they found this drug king pen from whatever or they discovered this person who was molesting children.
Chuck Marohn: There’s always some story that people say, well, if we didn’t do the routine traffic stop, we would not have found Timothy McVey or something like that as if there was no other mechanism we would ever have caught the Oklahoma City bomber. Where I start from this is not with a lens on racial injustice per se. I get there and I think I’ve grown to really understand and appreciate the impact, even though as a 40 year old white guy, it’s not the thing that I directly feel, but I start with a recognition that traffic laws are arbitrarily enforced and not really have any relation to actual traffic safety. When you get on a highway and I’m going to admit something, you two don’t have to admit this, but when I get on a highway on most highways in this country, particularly where I live, where there’s no traffic. I mean, when I get driving in the Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I don’t run into any cars for the first 45 minutes of my trip.
Chuck Marohn: I mean, literally if, if I leave the house at 5:00 in the morning to get to an airplane in the morning, there’s nobody. You could literally go as fast as you wanted to. There is no, the highways are wide, they’re straight, the curves are very gentle and sloping. I could go 100 miles an hour and have no danger at all in terms of myself, what prevents me from doing that is the speed limit. And so when I get on the highway, if the speed limit is 65, I will set my cruise control to 73 so slightly over the speed limit. But at a degree, I know I’m not going to get pulled over for and then I will drive and I tend to drive the speed of everybody else because everybody else pretty much does this.
Chuck Marohn: If you actually study yourself and your own behavior, you will find that as a driver, you routinely violate technical rules of driving. Whether it is accelerating through a yellow light, not coming to a complete, absolute stop arresting all forward progress at a stop sign, whether it is like accelerating too quickly or encroaching too closely on the edge, you will have many, many technical violations of the law that you experience every single day. You can do these in your brain because you and I know that going 73 on a interstate highway, when there’s nobody else around is a pretty like victimless crime, right? Like I don’t even think I’m harming myself, let alone everybody else.
Chuck Marohn: There’s nobody else around me. The same thing with most infractions that people would do on a normal basis. We rationalize these to ourselves because we implicitly know that’s not, if you’re driving and you don’t have a current license tabs, you’re not taking anybody’s life into danger, you’re maybe violating something of the state, but you’re not doing anything that is going to harm anybody physically. If you go through the list of things that Philando Castile was pulled over for, and he’s the one who was shot in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, my home state back in 2015, 2016, somewhere in that timeframe. He had been pulled over something like 42 times.
Chuck Marohn: And if you go through the list of things that he’s pulled over for, they’re things that all of us like routinely do all the time, but he was targeted and pulled over. Some people would say he was targeted because of his race. And I think that there’s likely a very strong correlation there, but it’s also very likely that he was just polar because he was in neighborhoods that were poor with the police targeting these poor neighborhoods. What we tend to see is that police spend inordinate amount of time in poorer neighborhoods than they do pulling over the soccer mom who doesn’t fully stop at the stop sign or the affluent doctor driving in who accelerates through the yellow light.
Chuck Mahron: My insight or my premise, or I think the thing that I’ve come to grips with is that if we evenly distributed policing and equally distributed police tactics, we would pull over people all the time. I used to do speed studies for the DOT and you would just sit there and every person going by was speeding, every single one. If the police wanted to, they can pull anybody they want over at any time because traffic laws do not directly correlate with driver behavior. What I suggest and I think this would be like the healthiest thing we can do is to treat most, almost all infractions.
Chuck Marohn: Everything that would be a non-urgent, non-life threatening type of infraction, the same way we treat parking tickets. I would automate it. I would snap a picture of their license plate. I would take a little video of them doing the infraction or whatever. If you’re driving without tabs, I would take a picture of your license and you would get a ticket in the mail. That’s the way that I would treat it because it’s the interaction with the police officer that is dangerous for the person in the car.
Chuck Marohn: It’s also really, really dangerous for the police officer and it doesn’t do anything to improve traffic safety. What I would do instead is I would look at these infractions and say, where are people driving through red lights? Where are people taking illegal turns on red? Where are they not coming to a complete stop? Where are they operating in excess of the speed limit? And I would send my street design department out there and say, I want you to design the street so these kind of things aren’t happening. Because on almost every instance, it’s not an enforcement issue, it’s a design issue. And so if we can start to address these systematic problems through design, what we can end up with is actually a safer system.
Chuck Marohn: It’s interesting because quite a few people in the last couple weeks, since the book has come out, have sent me stuff about wearing a tie because I note in the book that when I did consulting work in the early 2000s, in the late 1990s, I would be in a lot of these small towns that would have speed traps out on the edge. And if I was driving home from a meeting and I had a tie on, I would not get a speeding ticket. It didn’t matter like they would not give me a ticket.
Chuck Marohn: And it’s because they were fishing for drunk drivers and they were fishing for irresponsible people or what, however you want to categorize. I was not their target fish, right? Like they were fishing for people by pulling people over, I was not what they were looking for. I didn’t write this in the book, but I played in bands. I played drums and up until my kids were born, I played music like for two or three weekends a month. And you’d be driving home from those gigs at 1:30 in the morning and I don’t drink so I was never drunk like I never had a problem, but I would get tickets all the time, I mean, I would get tickets then. Same exact thing, same exact circumstance, but I’m wearing like a musician’s clothes as opposed to a professional tie and collared shirt.
Chuck Marohn: I recognize that that is not necessarily like police behavior as much as it is human behavior. Like we are wired, our brains are messed up and that we’re looking for something and when we find it, we reel it in and when we don’t, we let it go. And I think that if we want to overcome that, we can pretend that what we should do is like indoctrinate cops to think differently about things and maybe in some world that will work. I actually think we just need to redesign our system so that we don’t have these high stakes interactions.
Jess Del Fiacco: I feel like that’s what, I mean, this whole conversation has been about, essentially that humans are going to behave in the way that they’re going to behave and we should build systems that work with that instead of fighting against it, right?
Chuck Marohn: Yeah. And engineers know that too. I mean, I have a whole chapter on forgiving design. Engineers recognize that humans do certain things and that we can design systems, we can design our highways to forgive of the mistakes that they make. For some reason that knowledge was lost when we got into cities. And we can clearly see that when you widen out streets and put in clear zones and remove the trees, people drive fast. Why you would do that in a neighborhood street where you don’t want people to drive fast. To me is just professional malpractice. It’s exclusively utilizing the knowledge and insights you have in a way that is intellectually dishonest.
Jess Del Fiacco: Well, thank you so much for this conversation. It has been fantastic. Encourage all of our listeners to check out your book, which again is called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. We will have it linked in the show notes for this episode on our website. Stacy, thanks for being here and Chuck, thank you so much for joining us.
Chuck Marohn: Thank you. If people go to the website,, not only we have the book there, but we put a bunch of supplemental material. So there’s intersections we reference and videos we reference in the book and they’re all there. So you can go and get all of that stuff even if you don’t buy the book, it will probably be helpful for you.
Jess Del Fiacco: Great.
Stacy: That’s great. Thanks so much, Chuck. It’s always a pleasure to have you on the show and really appreciate all the good work that Strong Towns does.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you. Likewise, I’m a deep fan and admirer, so it’s wonderful to get to chat with you guys. Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode, the Building Local power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find links to everything discussed today by going to and click on the show page for this episode, that’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our newsletters connect with on social media. You can also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website.
Jess Del Fiacco: Finally, we’d ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review and Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude] by Dysfunction_Al. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco. And I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: iStock 

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