Strong Towns Founder Won't Be Silenced By Engineering Profession

This is a story that plays itself out in every profession and should be stopped.

Chuck Marohn
Chuck Marohn, Founder of Strong Towns.

Strong Towns

Charles Marohn calls himself "a recovering engineer." He founded the Strong Towns organization to promote changes in the way we build our cities, and in particular, how professional engineering standards for roads are ruining communities. He has had some pretty harsh words for his profession, noting that "engineers are often grossly negligent in their street designs when it comes to their treatment of people walking and biking"—something that we have been saying on Treehugger for years, and much of which we learned from Marohn.

He invented the word "stroad" to describe those wide suburban streets that are too wide for pedestrians to cross safely:

"A STROAD is a street/road hybrid. I have often called it the "futon of transportation alternatives". Where a futon is an uncomfortable couch that also serves as an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD is an auto corridor that does not move cars efficiently while simultaneously providing little in the way of value capture." 

Stroads are engineering marvels, with their giant curves at corners that cars flow around so quickly, with pedestrian crossings and lights miles apart so that traffic isn't slowed down too much, with speed limits set by measuring how fast everyone drives. No wonder bike and pedestrian activists complain. But activists are usually not professional engineers.

Marohn is. And he has criticized the work of others in his profession. This is something that one should not do in any profession because there are often rules such as the Minnesota engineers have, which says:

“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.”

Marohn asks: "Does questioning the process used for building streets diminish public confidence in the engineering profession? Does challenging how speed limits are set? Does pointing out the flaws in traffic projection models? Does disagreeing with transportation lobbyists who want more money for engineers and their projects? Does identifying the values that underly the standards of the profession undermine the reputation and integrity of those who apply them?"

Evidently, yes. Marohn was charged with this in 2015 and the Licencing Board found "no violation" but didn't just file it away. They told Marohn the “complaint will be held in the Board’s archives and is available should additional evidence warrant that the file be reopened.” So now Marohn had this regulatory sword hanging over his head that could fall at any time.

This happens too often, in every profession. It happened to me.

Now if this all sounds outrageous and wrong—that someone could be disciplined or charged because they spoke about a design—know that it happens all the time in many professional associations, which supposedly exist to protect the public but more often seem to be protecting their own members. I used to practice architecture and it happened to me and people I knew.

Many years ago I watched the president of a volunteer organization promoting better architecture in Toronto get hauled up in front of the licensing body for criticizing the work of another architect. They destroyed him, he never got another good job, and he died young. They destroyed the volunteer org too: A few years later, I was a young architect elected president of this now tiny and impotent organization and got hauled up in front of the regulator too. I got off, but I remember the fear I had about losing my livelihood. 

Marohn's livelihood is no longer practicing engineering, as mine is no longer practicing architecture. For years, I was not allowed to call myself an architect after giving up my license. Then they changed the rules, and now I can as long as I pay them a few bucks every year and say I am retired.

Marohn missed a payment—easy to do when you are not actually using your license, I have done that too. You say sorry, pay a penalty, and that's usually the end of it. But not with Marohn: In his case, they pounced.

A complaint was filed by an engineer in Sioux Falls who said Marohn had described himself as a professional engineer when his license lapsed. The complaint claims the use of the term “professional engineer” is illegal in this instance and urged the Board of Licensure to “send a clear message that frauds of this sort will not be tolerated.”

It's all so completely silly. The board wants Marohn to sign a statement that he had engaged in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation” which nobody could do, and then show up at a public meeting.

As Marohn notes:

"The threatened action by the Board of Licensure is about one thing: using the power of the state to discredit a reform movement. To silence speech. To retaliate against an individual who challenges the power and financial advantages enjoyed by a certain class of licensed professionals...The Strong Towns movement is about reforming the practice of engineering, planning, and city-building."

Now Strong Towns has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that "the Board of Licensure, and these individual members, have violated Marohn’s First Amendment right to free speech and that their enforcement action is an unlawful retaliation against Marohn and Strong Towns for their protected speech."

And unfortunately, the board and the people who want Marohn silenced win either way. When I was president of a volunteer organization fighting to preserve important historic buildings, the developers of a project we opposed hired lawyers to challenge our tax-exempt charity status, saying we were doing political action. All of our money, time, and resources went to accountants and lawyers instead of advocacy. We won, but it sapped the life out of the organization for three years.

Strong Towns does important work. It is not a bunch of bike-riding pinko treehuggers; Marohn has been described as a conservative Republican. Their positions and actions are hardly radical.

Watch the video from May 28, where Marohn and his team explain their position. I have seen this movie before, where the actions "which may diminish public confidence in the profession" are those taken by the professional associations or licensing boards, not the person they are going after.

You can contribute to the campaign here, where once again supporters' money is going to pay for lawyers instead of advocacy because that's the way the system works.