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‘Recovering engineer’ Charles Marohn has a few ideas for St. Louis

Chuck Marohn went from designing roads to critiquing how bad design impacts communities.
Andrea L. Baumann
Chuck Marohn went from designing roads to critiquing how bad design impacts communities.

Charles L. “Chuck” Marohn Jr. has gained national recognition as the founder and president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization that advocates for a new approach to land use and warns about the burdens of suburban sprawl. But before Marohn kick-started a movement, he was a licensed professional engineer. And he has some guilt about that.

As Marohn explains in his new book, “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town,” he came to his work with good intentions. But over time, he came to believe he was doing more harm than good — and that the values of his chosen profession were actually destroying neighborhoods even as they made people less safe.

The problem, he writes, is that engineering codes prioritize speed and traffic flow over safety. That has resulted in overbuilt roads that subtly encourage drivers to go faster and faster — and make it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy the streets motorists dominate.

Those roads are more expensive and more dangerous than narrower alternatives. They’re also not what most people would tell you they prefer, if they were consulted.

“If you actually get down to the neighborhood level, you get down the streets where people live, and you start to talk to people and you start to ask what their values are and what they would prioritize, humans actually start with safety,” Marohn explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And only after they've done safety do they then look at things like how much will it cost? And how do we make things cost-effective? And how do we handle the cars we're expected to handle? And then how fast can they go? And speed is always the lowest-prioritized value in a human-based system.”

See also: St. Louisans search for solutions as drivers keep killing pedestrians

Marohn is known for coining the term “stroad” — a hybrid street/road that features both fast speeds (and people passing through on their way to somewhere else) and a number of curb cuts, intersections and other distractions. Stroads try to be all things to all people and generally end up failing on all levels as a result.

“You might for short periods of time be able to drive 50 miles an hour, 55. But for the most part, you're driving around 35 or 45, you’ve got to stop at traffic signals, your travel time is really high to go very short distances, and it creates a lot of congestion,” he said. “So we make these massive investments in moving people, but no one moves quickly.”

Marohn wants to encourage cities to convert some stroads to streets, to narrow them and slow the traffic. Noting he’d visited in October, Marohn said St. Louis would be a perfect place to indulge in the type of design changes he’s talking about.

“St. Louis is a tragedy in that way,” Marohn said. “One of the things you're struck with as an engineer, as an urban designer, is that you have vastly too much space given over to very little demand for vehicles. And I know people listening to this are probably saying, ‘What do you mean? When I drive, it's congested.’ Yeah. For like tiny periods of time, our system creates congestion at pinch points. But the reality is that this space is hardly used, and the amount of space you've devoted to moving vehicles is completely disproportionate to the demand and also completely disproportionate to the return that you're getting.

“It would be delightful, it would be wonderful, and I think that St. Louis would benefit financially in large ways, not to mention quality of life and public health and a whole bunch of other things … recapturing a lot of the space you've dedicated now to moving vehicles quickly, and giving that over to other uses that would be more beneficial.”

'St. Louis is a tragedy in that way'
Listen to Charles Marohn Jr. on St. Louis on the Air

In the interview, Marohn also talked about why some oft-discussed strategies won’t make St. Louis’ streets safer, including lowering speed limits and increased traffic enforcement. He shared further observations from his recent trip to the city.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.