February 4, 2015

Engineering and Reform: Challenges

Strong Towns founder, engineering critic (and engineer) Charles Marohn asks:



Last week I received a notice from the board of licensing that a complaint has been filed against my professional engineering license. The complaint indicated that I had engaged in “misconduct on the website/blog Strong Towns” for things I have written critical of the engineering profession. While this development is disappointing, it is far from surprising.

The complaint was filed by a former American Society of Civil Engineers fellow who is currently an outspoken member of the Move MN coalition, the organization advocating for more transportation funding here in my home state. The complaint was filed on the day I wrote No New Roads, a blog post that called out both organizations for their self-serving support of endless transportation spending. Again, an effort to take away my professional license for speaking out is appalling, but it isn’t surprising.

I’ve long opposed the American Society of Civil Engineers. They don’t represent me and they should not be allowed to speak for this profession unchallenged. Their stands on how our country should be developed are frequently cited, despite how stunningly radical they are. American prosperity is not simply a function of how many roads, pipes and hunks of metal we can construct. Our infrastructure investments must work to support the American people, not the other way around.

I’ve also been an outspoken critic of the Move MN coalition and their version of success. I’ve had professional colleagues suggest to me that I’m on the wrong side here, that a more lucrative path for me and this organization would be to get on board and advocate for more taxpayer money for expanding the current system. I’ve been told privately that I’m not a “real engineer” if I don’t support more funding. That’s just wrong.

Most importantly, I’ve been critical of how the engineering profession approaches safety within our cities. I coined the word “stroad” to describe the industry’s standard approach of over-engineering America’s urban and suburban streets as if they were high speed, high-capacity roads. The current variant of the engineering profession gained prominence in the era of highway building, but that knowledge set does not apply to complex places where people exist outside of automobiles. It is malpractice to suggest otherwise, a term I will not back down from using.

Our urban streets need to be safe for everyone, whether in a car, on a bike, in a wheelchair or simply walking. Today they are not and that is unacceptable.

Should I be allowed to be an engineer? Can a licensed engineer oppose new road construction and still retain his license? Can a licensed engineer question the appalling safety record resulting from standard industry practices and be allowed to remain in the industry?

State Statutes raise some doubt. Here’s what Minnesota Rules 1805.0200 require for the personal conduct of licensed engineers:

A licensee shall avoid any act which may diminish public confidence in the profession and shall, at all times, conduct himself or herself, in all relations with clients and the public, so as to maintain its reputation for professional integrity.

Now who is such language designed to protect? Does it protect society at large or does it protect the engineering firms who have thrown their weight behind efforts to secure more funding at the State Capitol? Does it protect the vulnerable or does it protect the engineer who simply signs the plans confident that the standards will shield them from liability, regardless of the outcome?

I’m not going to let this intimidation change what I do. It has strengthened my resolve to stand up, be heard and lead this movement in building a nation of strong towns. .

More here.


The answer, as far as the qualifying Minnesota board is concerned  seems to be yes: The complaint committee “determined there was no violation and no further was required.”  But the complainer certainly gave Marohn an opening.

In the comments section, local engineer (in training) Matt Taylor added this interesting comparison:

As a Canadian engineer (in training) I can tell you that line 1 of our code of ethics states:

“Professional engineers shall uphold the values of truth, honesty and trustworthiness and safeguard human life and welfare and the environment. In keeping with these basic tenets, professional engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the protection of the environment and promote health and safety within the workplace…The meaning of “paramount” in this basic tenet is that all other requirements of the Code are subordinate if protection of public safety, the environment or other substantive public interests are involved”

Chuck, you speak out on things that you see impinging on the safety and welfare of the public. It is your duty as an engineer to do so.

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  1. Sounds more like an accusation of heresy than ‘misconduct’. It’s an interesting conflict between separate elements of the professional code. Very few engineers would admit that upholding the ‘integrity of the profession’ and ‘public safety’ (let alone ‘trustworthiness’) could potentially conflict.

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