The urban experience is helped or hindered by elements that are ulitmately the responsibility of Civil Engineers. Despite this somewhat obvious statement; many of the urban-form frustrations we experience day-to-day in our travels about our neighbourhoods or cities are the result of decisions made by engineers or those in municipal or utility organizations that act under the authority of engineers; decisions made sometimes by error, sometimes by omission and occassionally on purpose. From a personal perspective, some examples that stand out:

  • Fire hydrants and telephone poles in the middle of sidewalks,
  • un-syncronized traffic signals,
  • parking stalls that are too narrow,
  • four-way stops at busy intersections,
  • useless stop signs, and
  • road designs that don't reflect the speed limit.
I'm sure there are many more examples of designs that frustrate in the built environment, (including in some people's minds the design of roundabouts!) My point is that engineers must take some time to focus on the details of how the design will be used, not just the geometric design on paper or an assumption that someone else will review the details – the placement of a hydrant, sign post, streetlight or powerpole may have a huge impact on the usability of the designed works. This isn't just about wheelchairs or strollers, it is about walking with children beside you, or even with an umbrella in the rain.

One tool that has been particularly useful in design and construction projects that I've been involved in has been the practice of incorporating an audit into the workflow, mainly used for safety purposes, but also on general usability for pedestrians and drivers alike. This is usually done at several stages during design and construction, but should always include a pre-commissioning site visit/audit. The greatest pushback I've seen from this process is that developers and contractors believe that it offers the client or approving authority an unfair opportunity to “change the design” after the works are constructed. My comment has usually been that, “if it was design right in the first place, there won't be a problem”, and that, “the design sign-off by the municipality does not infer that the design as presented will meet all requirements”. These may seem like pat answers to serious questions, but considering that the design cost usually accounts for about 1% of the lifecycle costs, (and construction for about 10-15%), with approximately 85-90% of the total lifecycle cost being for maintenance. Also, for average municipal civil works, the design and construction phases as a portion of the lifecycle is often less than 1%; mistakes made in these stages have a long lifespan, every effort should be made to improve the user experience at this stage, as the cost to remedy is less during design (or even construction) than after the work is complete.

Is it unreasonable to have high standards on these issues of usability as an engineer approving designs? Should we really care where the pedestrian signal button is placed? Engineers have an obligation to be “design stewards” of these elements to enhance the user experience, not detract from it.

Does this mean that we should be designing roads to accommodate as high speeds as drivers desire? Not at all! In fact, this principle must be met in conjunction with other urban design principles for integrated design.

Here's a takeaway:

The design of every obstruction, interaction, hazard or access for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike should be considered at a detailed engineering design level to ensure that for the majority of reasonable uses, access is not unnecessarily obstructed, slowed, deviated or stopped (outside of parameters designed to achieve these goals).

What are your thoughts? What frustrates you most in the built environment?


Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

5 replies on “Engineers Driving us Crazy”

  1. Did you the telephone scandal a few months ago–I think it was in Quebec? The pole was right in the middle of the road.

    I have been thinking fondly of that pole recently as we walk our daughter to school. There are two driving lanes and two parking lanes and four feet of sidewalk. Naturally, it is from the sidewalk that all the poles are subtracted. As you say, umbrellas are difficult, on The Wet Coast. I can’t imagine how an elder on a scooter could make it.

  2. My biggest beef, as a pedestrian, is the lack of drainage at pedestrian crossings.
    When the snow melts, there is often several inches if standing water and one needs to wear wellie boots to keep ones feet dry. Then of course that standing water freezes and there is the risk of slipping and falling.
    This is in Castlegar where some years ago we spent ten million dollars to revitalize the town centre. It would have been so simple to put a drain at every crossing at the time the revite was done.
    Another beef are the pretty clay square slabs intermixed with concrete for the sidewalks. Hard to walk safely at times as the slabs rise or sink next to the concrete. Sometimes they are lifted and relaid, only for them to shift again.

  3. Hi! Your contact form appears to be broken. I work with engineering website and would love to do an exchange of website links and feature you as a site of the day on EEWeb. Let me know if this is of interest to you!

      1. Hi Mike, thanks for the quick response. We’re pretty flexible with our site of the day – frequently feature robotics sites and hobbyists, for instance – but if you don’t feel comfortable I certainly understand. Best wishes!

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