Episode 56: We Are Not Passive Actors with Bill Schultheiss

TransLoc Marketing March 08, 2020 mobility, podcast, the movement, leadership, community, urban planning 0 Comments

With training as a civil engineer, Toole Design Group’s Bill Schultheiss has a particular window into the responsibility and opportunities available to the profession of civil engineering to create safe streets for all.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Schultheiss: Bill Schultheiss

Cohen: The transportation field has been dominated for years by the three E’s: engineering, education, and enforcement. On today’s episode of The Movement podcast, my guest Bill Schultheiss of the Toole Design Group will share an updated version of the three E’s that will help reorient our communities towards safer streets for all. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: You may recall, a few months back our guest Don Kostelec mentioned Bill Shultheiss and his work at the Toole Design Group. This week you get to hear from Bill directly. Bill is the director of sustainable safety at Toole, where he has a particular expertise in complete streets design. Welcome to The Movement, Bill.

Schultheiss: Thanks so much. Really exciting to be here today.

Cohen: Let’s start with an introduction to the Toole Design Group and the work you do. And then I want to tee you up for the manifesto that you put out last year about the new three E’s. So maybe give us an intro, and then kind of lead us into the new three E’s if you don’t mind.

Schultheiss: Sure. Toole Design Group was formed 17 years ago, actually in January, to fill a niche that was kind of a gap in our marketplace. There were a couple firms spread around the country that were focusing on walking and biking, but we saw a lot of opportunity to continue in that vein. It was a great decision. We started off as a five-person operation, 17 years ago. We’re 200-plus people now—

Cohen: Wow.

Schultheiss: —throughout North American, so Canada and the United States. And it’s been a real fantastic journey, and it’s been real fun to watch what was sort of a niche 17, 20 years ago at that time become sort of a much larger movement with a lot of support and a lot of demand from the public to address these long-neglected issues.

Cohen: Tell us a little bit about some of the projects that you’ve worked on at Toole Design and maybe also yourself.

Schultheiss: Well, we work on—at the beginning when I first came here our bread and butter was master planning, kind of setting a vision. It’s required, you know, in a lot of communities to set funding priorities but also just to recognize that there were these gaps. You know, we had a lot of cities that were built out after kind of post 1950s era expansions where they didn’t build sidewalks, didn’t have safe crossings, so there was a lot of evaluation that was occurring.

So early-on projects a lot of master planning, but then there was also a component when I was hired that we had a lot of ambition to not just talk about these things but to correct them, and that comes through engineering, through actually building and making these—correcting these issues that have had been longstanding. And so half of our practice is engineering and actually delivering construction documents to correct these problems, while the other half of the practice is focused on planning and kind of setting policy, like, design guidance.

So some of the projects that I think have been really rewarding here have been some of these design guide projects because they have a huge impact in the profession. And if you change a design guide you change not only how we’re approaching a project but how everyone’s approaching a project. And you’re giving the tools to the entire profession to do a better job. And you’re helping strengthen the public agencies to request from developers to do a better job, build higher-quality things.
So those are really, really critical documents to work on. And we’ve been really fortunate at Toole to work not only at local agencies but for state departments of transportations and the federal government, so changing design practices at all levels of the delivery process. So it’s been really a lot of fun to work on.

Cohen: Now Don touched on this a little bit in our conversation, and he talked about AASHTO and some of the design guides, and so I want to dig into that a little bit with you. I’m not an engineer myself, so that’s an area where I’m—you know, so maybe break this down a little bit. These design guides are created for the larger community, and really the purpose is to kind of say, like, “These are kind of the best practices”? I mean, is that kind of the whole purpose there? And who is really reading those on a regular basis?

Schultheiss: Design guides are fascinating. Within the civil engineering profession, I think, as a whole we are a profession that’s geared to small, iterative change, little baby steps.

Cohen: Hmm.

Schultheiss: And so you don’t see radical revisions to some of these documents, big leaps. So they tend to be we have a document that we’ve already had and we make small changes to it. And there’s pros and cons to that approach. You know, the defense of that approach is, “We don’t want to make mistakes, and we want to make sure what we’re putting into these guides don’t harm the public,” but the con is, “Well, what was the basis of these documents?” What year were they developed in?
And unfortunately a lot of our foundational documents were developed in the era where it was a priority to have a car culture. And so a lot of the premise of that thinking is baked into a lot of these documents, so if you’re just slowly tweaking the edges you’re not really addressing the foundation that is perpetuating an unhealthy society and an unsustainable society.

Cohen: Yeah.

Schultheiss: So that’s something we recognized early on as a challenge, and that’s something we work with our partners to recognize. And I think what’s been really fascinating to me over the years is how little our profession understands how guides evolve and what the foundational basis of a lot of them are. And I think that’s something that we’ve really prided ourselves on, on paying attention to that as a core question and working to educate our partners on why it matters to recognize that foundation if we’re going to make changes to address some of the problems we have.

Cohen: That’s a fascinating way to frame it. I mean, it almost sounds—you know, what I heard you just saying there is that, you know, if it was based from this car culture in the, say, ’50s and the tradition is just do these incremental changes, if you’re staring from such a—I don’t want to label it bad, but just a harmful place maybe, you can only make so much progress if you’re going incrementally.
It’s almost like a negotiation. Right? If you started a negotiation at a very low amount or a very high amount, it’s kind of, like, anchored up to that area. So that’s really interesting. Do you feel like your kind of organizational and your government partners are starting to get the challenge associated with that, like, incremental approach to those changes?

Schultheiss: Starting to, yes, some. I think where you see the biggest change is at the city level where they recognize some of these documents are not working for them and were actually created to harm them in a lot of ways. You know, this idea that mobility is defined as high speed travel over long distances, that’s a foundational principle that’s baked into our roadway design practices. It’s not that safety is the priority; it’s not that a community is the priority; the priority is high-speed travel over a long distance.

Cohen: Right.

Schultheiss: And that’s really to support the sprawl, suburban development pattern. If that’s the foundational principle, that affects all decisions at micro level and macro levels. So a lot of cities have been looking to create their own design guidance. That’s kind of created the rise of NACTO, has been very popular—

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Schultheiss: —recognizing that they need a different framework. You know, they need to have a values-based framework that focuses on the whole health of the community. You know, mobility is a very important aspect of it, but it can’t dominate all decisions. And I think that’s a powerful framework. So that’s recognized at the city level.

It’s increasingly being recognized at the state level. And I think the challenge at the state level is a state department of transportation has a very diverse audience they’re serving. You know, their customer is everybody, and their mission is really regional travel; it’s not local travel. And I think that that hamstrings a lot of the approaches they feel they can take or they’re allowed to take to address sort of the needs of cities that are unique, especially when you start to have to make tradeoff decisions of mobility versus safety. They always tend to skew towards mobility because that’s really their overarching mission.

At the federal level they recognize change needs to occur. We have a traumatic safety problem in this country with a high rate of deaths that I think is shocking. It really bothers me at a personal level. You know, and how do we change that culture where that’s acceptable to have 30,000, 40,000 people a year die as just the cost of doing business? The federal government is recognizing that, you know, we need to change sort of the way we do our business if we’re going to lower that number in any significant manner.

Cohen: I think that’s really interesting to kind of think about because, you know, one of the questions I was thinking about in advance of this conversation was—the way you just described it it’s hard to argue against. Right? It’s like it seems so obvious. Right? And yet—I mean, I kind of feel like—obviously you started this by saying there’s been progress, and I guess my question for you is really around what are the barriers here. Right? I mean, like, is it education? Is it a lack of public outcry? Is it a lack of, like, kind of reference points to understand what it could be like? Is it something systemic, like, you know, that you talked about with the design guidelines and their incremental approach?

What is it actually going to take to get us over that hump? That, to me, is this foundational question I still—you know, when I have a conversation with someone like you who, you know, this is obviously going through your mind at all times, I’m just like, “What is it going to take to get that kind of mindset through everybody else?”

Schultheiss: That’s a powerful question. And it is something I am constantly thinking about because it’s the fundamental challenge we face to change this, and we’re really talking about a culture change. And so what I’ve come to realize in my 20-plus years of doing this is, “Well, what is a culture? How did this happen?” This is recent. It’s only the last 100 years that this has been, transportation itself has been a killer of human beings at the scale it has. So what’s different in this last 100 years versus the prior two million years of human history?

And I think the challenge’s face is that it’s very systemic and has to be changed at all levels. So you raise a lot of different points. Design guidance is one tool that’s a way to try to drive systemic change. Well, that’s helpful for all the new things we do. The problem is we’ve spent trillions of dollars and built an environment that requires driving. And I think the thing that I like to say a lot, a phrase I use, is we’ve engineered a car culture. We created this; it was a choice.

Cohen: Yeah.

Schultheiss: And what I tell my profession is they need to recognize it was a choice, that they were part of it. They weren’t passive actors. And a lot of my colleagues, not at Toole but people I work with, other consultants, other agencies, have been really struck by the fact that there’s a feeling that we’re just passive actors in this play, that all we’re doing is reacting to what the public wants. “That’s our only job. We’re just facilitating what they want, what society wants,” and that’s a really naive approach, I think, and understanding of how this came to be.

We the engineers created this culture in partnership with politicians, but we were the leading thinkers of the time saying this was a good idea, “This is what you should do.” We wanted this outcome. We taught people why this is important. We created funding structures to facilitate this. We go to Congress every year and testify in the transportation infrastructure week, “We need more money. We need to do this.” There is no conversation happening that we need system change. The vast majority of our civil engineering colleagues, they’re happy with the status quo. You know, it generates enormous profits and income for them, and it’s hard to change what you’re doing.

The other thing I’ve come to recognize is that change in itself is hard, but imagine yourself spending 20, 30, 40 years of your career doing something and believing in it and thinking it was right, and then you’re reaching a stage where you recognize that your career was a series of decisions that harmed society. How do you face that and recognize those choices had negative impacts, accept that responsibility and then change? It’s very hard for human beings to accept that what they were doing, their life’s work, did a lot of damage. And so that’s a powerful disincentive to turn a blind eye to the outcomes and deflect blame and say, “It wasn’t me. It’s user error. It’s that the drivers are distracted, you know, pedestrians are on their cell phones in crosswalks. You know, if people just behaved and followed the rules, no one would die in these crashes.” And it’s really—it’s unfortunate, but it’s a natural human reaction.

And what we keep saying is, “We need to turn the focus inwards.” We’ve been blaming these system users for 100 years. It’s not their fault. Sure, people make mistakes. They screw up, sure. Bad decisions are made. People drink and drive, all these things, but at a foundational level there’s a lot more we should be doing to make sure when people make bad decisions they don’t die as a consequence because that has enormous costs to society that we don’t factor into our cost-benefit analysis of our decisions. Again, that’s another uncomfortable proposition for my profession to accept. And when you look at the Europeans who adopted Vision Zero practices, they too struggled with this. Their engineering profession at first rejected it. They did not want to take on personal responsibility for their decision-making. And it, frankly, took active legislatures in a couple countries to make them take responsibility.

And I think at this point we’re not there in this country, but what we want to do is be part of a conversation to start this because that’s the only way we’re going to get a different outcome. We have far too many people that are hoping that driverless cars and technology are going to solve all these problems, but those won’t solve basic, human challenges. And they’re not going to solve the challenges we have in cities and climate change by themselves. We have to take on a bigger role in this mission.

Cohen: I think you said it really well there. It almost sounds like you need a mea culpa for the engineering profession. And perhaps that’s part of what your kind of trying to lead there, to kind of lead that conversation of kind of, “Hey, you know, we made a mistake collectively. Let’s own that, and let’s move forward proactively.” I mean, we can’t change those decisions, but we can change our current decisions and future decision.

Schultheiss: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a big reason we put out our—we’re proposing some new E’s. Our profession loves what was called, you know, the three E’s of engineering, education, enforcement. When you think about that, that kind of gives a framework that all these different actors are equally responsible. Like, “Yeah, we engineer. We provide the roads. We just have to make sure they’re safe enough, but really we need to educate the public to use them properly. And then we need to really enforce them because human beings are ________________________________________________________ [17:00]. We need to have a heavy dose of law enforcement to make people behave.” It’s a failed framework. And that’s why we see that. And it really is absence some—it’s not an absence in values, but the values are really these car culture values, is our perspective. It just perpetuates the status quo, and it’s very silo driven.

And so we propose that we need to change that framework to ethics, empathy, and equity because that’s a true values framework. That requires we understand our history. What did we do to create this society? What was our role? What were the ethical decisions that we were part of when we bulldozed black neighborhoods and put highways through them on purpose? Yeah, we were just technically following the engineering manuals, but we were impacting a society and perpetuating harm. That’s never been rectified.

You know, and then we would come back into communities today. And black communities, and poor communities, and communities of color have disproportionately higher injury rates because of the infrastructure in their communities. We need to have some empathy for them. Why are we not correcting them6? We need to have a perception of equity. Why are they not getting money spent in those communities to address those issues that are legacy, not of decisions necessarily that I made or people I’m working with made but our forefathers made? We need to correct those sins. But before we can even correct them we need to acknowledge what happened.

And what I—there’s just a lot of ignorance, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner, but people don’t know our history of what we did. Until we’re operating on a same framework of understanding of what happened, we’re not going to be able to move forward and correct it.

Cohen: Yeah. Well, it sounds like the new three E’s are a great way to kind of frame that, that mea culpa I just talked about. So I think that’s a really, really compelling way to frame it. What has been the response from the larger engineering community from these new three E’s? I mean, obviously I’m sure your close friends and folks are on board, but what about at the larger—maybe folks that are a little bit farther afield from the work you’re doing on a direct basis, what kind of response are you hearing from them about the new three E’s?

Schultheiss: Right. The people that are involved in this day to day, they’ve been super excited. They feel this is really a great way to reframe this. I mean, it’s not that we invented equity or empathy or ethics. Like, these have been terms around, but the framing that we brought to it has been powerful. I think it’s helping them think of a way to also frame this to try to improve this conversation and widen it.

It is challenging. I think that for some that are kind of not thinking about this day to day and in particular those who are not really attuned to the history of some of these issues or to those that really believe we are in fact just passive actors and this is what society wants, that we have no role in affecting the way our society looks, for them this is a little esoteric to them. You know, it’s going to take a little time to sink in. I mean, there’s not—and some of that comes in. There’s not a lot of baked-in empathy. And I think a problem in our profession—it’s largely white; it’s largely male; it’s upper-middle income, and there’s not a recognition of other points of experience.

Cohen: Sure.

Schultheiss: And I think that in any business in any walk of life, that clouds your perception on what solutions should be. You know, my own grandfather, I remember having a conversation with him. He’s a wonderful man, very practical, but he’d been living in Shelburne, Vermont for 80 years. And the state DOT came in and said, “We want to build a sidewalk on this road.” There hadn’t been one. And he’d been walking a mile to church for 50 years from his house where he lived in basically the ditch. And he was opposed to it, and I was sort of shocked.

“Why are you opposed to this sidewalk?” “It’s a waste of money. Why do we need it?” And it came from this sort of reality that, again, when I say we’ve engineering this culture, you just get used to your environment. And to him it’s like, “Well, I’ve been walking to church in that ditch for 50 years. I don’t really think about it. It’s never been a problem. Like, why do we need to fix it? Like, it’s not a problem.”

Cohen: Sure.

Schultheiss: And I think our profession suffers from the same problem. I see it a lot in traffic engineering where, again, if we’re a passive actor, then what has always happened is going to keep happening. And the place that is foremost is this whole issue of traffic forecasting.

Cohen: Hmm.

Schultheiss: I’ve had so many projects where we’ve been told we need to assume traffic is going to grow forever.

Cohen: [LAUGHS]

Schultheiss: And I remember sitting a decade ago in this meeting, and the project was downtown D.C., and we’re talking about a traffic forecast of 20 years. And I remember having this comment and saying, “Well, we’re spending a lot of time talking about 20 years from now, the future, and all this conversation is that traffic is going to keep expanding.” And I said, “Today in this very moment these roads are at capacity, so what are we doing here? Are we going to talk about tearing down buildings? Are we going to turn all these two-way streets to one way? Like, if this is a given that all this traffic is going to increase, what’s the necessary next outcome? Why are we having this conversation? And why are we spending a lot of money on this traffic modeling if it’s sort of preordained that we can’t change this? What are we doing here?”

Cohen: Yeah.

Schultheiss: And I think at that time people, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it because it was just not the conventional way of thinking about the problem. And so we marched onwards and projected the increased traffic volume, and it showed that it would be failing traffic everywhere. But at the end of the day what were the recommendations we could make? We weren’t going to tear down buildings; we weren’t going to widen the streets, so it was kind of a pointless exercise, at the end of the day. And that energy should have been spent on what are the mass transit things we should be doing.

Cohen: Yeah.

Schultheiss: What are the sort of policy changes we should make to make sure that this is a functional community 20 years from now? And so it’s very, very hard to break habits sometimes.

Cohen: And that’s where the values based on the new three E’s really comes into play there. It’s like, “How can we build a community in 20 years that is based on equity and ethics and empathy?” So I like that as a framework. Let’s end on a high note here. I want you to think through the folks that you’ve interacted with and the communities that you’ve interacted with who are doing this right, who really are thinking about this in the right way. And what I want to challenge you to think about is, what are one or two replicatable things our audience could take away from those communities or those leaders that they could then apply in their own communities?

Schultheiss: Well, I’d say the places that are most successful, they have a lot of things happening. They have strong advocacy, but the advocacies orient around being quite knowledgeable and approaching the public agency assuming that they have good intentions and that they just maybe need to be informed about different approaches. I think that those advocates that are the most successful bring this real strong lens of the equity to it.

They make sure their advocacy community is diverse; they show up to meetings, and they have children and older people and people of color, people differently abled so that they’re bringing a lot of different points of view to the table. Because what happens in public settings, as you probably have heard and seen, is public meetings can often be dominated by sort of one point of view of engrained interests that don’t want change. And they need to be shown all the other voices that their decisions are impacting. So strong advocacy is essential to get change.

Those advocates then in turn need political support. So I’ve seen really strong councilmembers can be really powerful who really start to learn how to speak about these issues. I think politicians have a lot on their plate; they need to be experts on a lot of things, which is impossible, but just finding the simple words or values that they’re looking to get in partnership with their advocacy community so that they can hold the public agencies accountable. They know things that they can ask for, and they don’t just automatically assume if the engineers said, “This is not possible,” that’s the end of this discussion, that they can continue that discussion and really try to make sure that they’re getting creative thinking to solve some of these problems.

I think, you know, a strong mayor is always helpful, person at the top, because they appoint agency heads. I’ve seen cities kind of yin and yang based on a mayor and who they put in positions of authority. So they could be making a lot of progress, a new mayor comes in, it’s not a priority, and things can lag. That can cause challenges. So, again, the key is being really informed on what these mayors believe.
I see a lot of challenges in urban areas where it’s kind of one-party politics. Primaries are really important. I think advocates have to do a better job of making sure these mayors have very clear and distinct policies and programs when it comes to these issues, that it’s not vague, vague, vague stuff that can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people because frankly in the cities of the future you’re going to have to have a lot more hard conversations about parking, congestion pricing, on-street management. And that takes some courage, and it takes strong leadership to explain why that matters.

And I think increasingly with climate change as front and central as a challenge in our society we need people to understand the real choices they need to make and push for them. On the engineering agency side, I think the things that are working well—we’re seeing a lot more staff, younger staff as kind of generational change happening. There’s a lot of energy coming into these agencies with a lot of ideas.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Schultheiss: And I think what’s really important is that these people don’t feel deflated and discouraged, have some victories, and they feel empowered to take some chances from their leadership to make some change and see some change happen so that they stay engaged because we don’t want them to leave the profession. And something that I’m concerned about is a lot of people have left the civil engineering profession to get into computer science or other things, and that’s a problem.

We have a lot of needs to fix what’s been done. There’s a worker shortage in the civil engineering profession that’s impacting agencies’ abilities to deliver, consultants’ ability to hire. We need to replace the people that have retired, and we need to expand our ranks to deliver the changes. And with the impacts coming with climate change and the increasing focus on transforming our cities, it’s a lot of work that has to get done. And I’m seeing that some of the workforce is getting overtaxed and overworked, so these are things that I worry about a little bit.

Cohen: Sure. Yeah, and I think the public transit industry is in the same place, where you’ve got a lot of gray-haired folks who are going to be retiring in the next 10 years, and, you know, some have done a really good job of kind of setting up that next generations, and overall as an industry I think that’s still a critical issue. So I could certainly see that in the engineering profession as well.

Yeah, I really liked how you kind of framed that as lots of different elements are kind of necessary. It recalls to mind Jan Gehl, “Something happens, something happens, something happens.” You know, you can’t just have one of these things, but, like, they kind of can help start that flywheel going with advocacy and then with the political courage and then with the appointees and diversity in the state DOTs and in the profession and so forth, I think, can be a really good flywheel. And hopefully that’ll be enough to kind of get us over this hump to create the safer streets for all.

Schultheiss: Well, I’ve already seen it. At the AASHTO, state-DOT level you see a lot of state directors talking about climate change now, the need to be sustainable, to be multimodal. They’re changing their mission. They’re changing their titles. They’re changing their design guidance. And that gives me a lot of hope that things are moving in that direction, and I think it’s exciting. This is an exciting time to be in this business.

Cohen: Excellent. Where can folks learn more about Toole Design Group and your podcast that the Toole Design Group has as well?

Schultheiss: Well, our website is TooleDesign.com, and that’s Toole with an E, so T-O-O-L-E, Design.com. We have links to our podcast. We started podcasting ourselves to kind of share these new E’s, these values, really foster this conversation more. It’s a chance to hear from our owner and founder Jennifer Toole. She is not part of social media in other ways, so this is a way to kind of understand her, where she’s coming from.

But the thing that’s great about our firm is we have 200 people that believe in this mission. And behind us are many thousands more working in this business, so it’s exciting. There is a hunger for change. I think that the next 20 years are going to be really challenging as climate change impacts continue to hit us, but they’re also going to be transformative of how our society rapidly changes to address this.

Cohen: Well, I am optimistic for the future, and I appreciate your leadership in helping us get there. Thank you, Bill.

Schultheiss: Thanks for inviting me today on your podcast, and continue the great work yourself.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


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