ASCE Collaborate has switched to a new platform called Thrive.
We appreciate your patience during the transition. What is Thrive? View more information here. Any questions or feedback? Please contact [email protected]. View Video Tutorials here.
An ASCE membership login is required to participate in discussion forums and ASCE Mentor Match.
As a structural engineer, I appreciate that the public generally respects and trusts my discipline, and rarely plays armchair quarterback. But of course, structural engineers aren't any more credible or honest than other civil engineers. Which CE disciplines do you think stir up the most antagonistic emotion in the public?
Good question, Christian. Environmental engineering might qualify, as it works in the combat zone between environmental advocacy and conflicting private interests. I was once hired by a public agency to perform an environmental assessment because political heat was so high that they admitted wanting someone outside the agency to be the object of anger from both sides. I suspect many of us have experienced something similar when writing Environmental Impact Statements.
Good point: being trapped in the middle of a highly polarized national debate is nothing to sneeze at. In general, disciplines that mediate between local interests and broader needs are likely targets for strong opinions, like environmental, transportation, water resources, land development, and any form of construction engineering. Honestly, I feel like it's the engineers' engineers who get off the easiest. Petroleum, materials, aerospace (granted, not really a Civil discipline): engineers who only answer to other engineers and private interests. Although, you could say the same for Geotech but as @John Brew points out below, they get plenty of flak from their fellow engineers.
I have never noticed any negative reactions from the public to any CE discipline. I think the majority of the general public are not 100% sure of what we do. Within the A/E community, I think geotechs or civil site folks catch the most grief. Perhaps the public generally trusts structural engineers because it would be very stressful and scary to go about life NOT trusting structural engineers. You would be expecting a catastrophic event everywhere you go. Just a thought.
I think transportation is one that catches a lot of heat from the general public. One brief story comes to mind of a conversation among a group of friends all practicing engineering:
mechanical engineer: "So what are you working on?"
transportation engineer: "I'd rather not say so you don't blame me when it ruins your commute"
(He was working on a phasing plan for construction on a major thoroughfare through the city.)
I second your insight about traffic engineers, Heidi. I am a site/land development engineer, but I've participated in several public rezoning hearings and the polarizing topic always seems to be traffic.
I agree. Public hearings get brutal for traffic engineers. They have also become the personal favorite targets for many in the urban design community, and their ire may not be undeserved.
I did a post a few weeks ago on LinkedIn that said that it is probably the least productive thing you can do to blame transportation engineers for the failures in urban design--most of the time they're just giving people what they ask for. If you want to see change, you have to convince the policy makers to ask for better things. It was the most popular and widely shared post I've done so far. Transportation engineers do feel pretty beat up at the moment, but they may have earned some of it.
Congestion is a prime example. The pain point is in the traffic frustration. The obvious, but wrong solution is a roadway widening. We've had about 50 years to figure out that widening is throwing good money after bad--the congestion only gets worse and the projects get more expensive. The problem is that it's the equivalent of asking a junkie what they need--another shot of heroin is not the right answer, but we are pharmacists, not social workers or mental health counselors. There are solutions, but they require a different level of thinking than a roadway designer can give you because the solutions are in network and land use.
We have been a bit arrogant on that score historically. I can't tell you how many engineers I've seen laughing at landscape architects (LA's) and community designers for wanting very narrow, compact streets, when we all "know" that clear zones save lives. That's perfectly true if you're building a highway, but building a highway through the middle of town will destroy the town. To the man with a hammer, everything is a nail, and I've seen a lot of traffic engineers use their roadway design hammer to pound screws into dense urban fabric: the screw doesn't hold and it ruins the board. We're getting better at distinguishing the difference between a screw and a nail, but we don't have the hang of the power drills yet. A lot of our remaining ped/bike safety issues are due to plain old inexperience--both as a user and a designer. I heard a good friend tell me once: "We don't let people who don't bike design our bikeways." Good advice to follow.
Transportation engineers are not able to innovate as fast as the LA's and planners want them to--and that's good--but failures have to happen before we can figure out how to do it right. We're not very good at letting others pay our dumb tax. The folks in Europe and Scandinavia have gotten really good at designing multimodal systems including a host of tiny design details that would be really helpful, but we complain that our land use doesn't match theirs. It doesn't, but that doesn't mean that they can't teach us a bunch. How many roadway engineers that design bike lanes or separated paths have actually read through the CROW manual? How many would even know what that is? How many would recognize the differences between how Copenhagen and Amsterdam treat the same problems? How many of them would have the time in their billable hour budget to do so?
Our communities are in the middle of a drastic change in our transportation systems and we are often seen as the "Great and Venerable Keepers of the Ancient Way" (AKA turd polishers). If we're getting heat for being stuck in the mud, we may have earned it, but the concepts percolate slowly and thoughtful answers are more expensive than dumb looks.
We'll catch up eventually.
Great thoughts all around. Personally, I have powerful memories of a professor admonishing a senior design group for proposing transit-oriented development near a major subway and commuter rail hub. He told them it was ethically irresponsible as an engineer to not provide a parking spot for every unit. I also, as an avid cyclist, interned with a municipal transportation engineering department and found my coworkers less than friendly to much of the bike infrastructure being proposed and implemented at that time.
As you imply, it's not necessarily a bad thing that engineering is rooted in depth of knowledge rather than current trends. The concern would be that we cling to past trends that never really made sense. At risk of totally diverging from the topic at hand, I want to share this delightful testimony from a Portland, Oregon City Council Meeting:
As a topic mod, I should also point out that this would make a great (and potentially lively!) separate thread.
It would be interesting to see what the data shows as to the trustworthiness of civil engineers and if this varies by discipline. I don't think the general public gives civil engineers a second thought unless something breaks, and even then, I'm not sure they understand where to voice their anger.
Field engineering, Municipal Engineering and Forensic Engineering. Field engineers and municipal engineers are usually associated with messing up peoples routines with road construction or utility construction. Forensic engineers are usually called in to make sense of a bad situation and someone is always on the "losing" end of a forensic engineering report.
Interesting notion. Most engineers are sheltered behind their clients project, so the client takes most of the heat for what they want to do with their land/building/etc. whether it's a new/altered roadway, or new development where there was a vacant lot left by a trailer park from the 80s. I think largely the public are unaware of engineers presence in their day to day lives. Which is a shame especially considering the recent masking and gas stove debacles in which industrial hygienists should have been relied upon more than epidemiologists.
I would counter this with it is the projects that go against the ideal the public have in their mind that stir up their most antagonistic emotions. Engineers are bound by regulations and sound engineering principles and judgement to design projects. This is why (if you haven't seen the documentary) Wal-Mart conduct all of their new store locations scouting and permitting in as near secrecy as possible. All of which is amplified and exacerbated by news media.
thats a good question Chris. I think it can be further expanded into Structural Resiliency as well. I find it interesting: SEI Vision on the Future of Structural Engineering in the end of this seminar, where SEI President Glenn Bell has given us the following thought : "it really comes down to the collaboration and communication piece and we have to reach out to organizations that represent the public and communicate with the public, and that goes beyond the engineering organizations so, thats a part of our objective as well, so we need to communicate out to the public for some of the reason, but we also have to get feedback back again. And I'll point in this example the community resiliency planning project were I worked, where I talked about rather where we're bringing economist and sociologists into the picture and they are all reaching out as well and we need a lot of this multidisciplinary research. I've being involved with that project for 5 years now and it really has been a incredible experience to watch engineers, and economists and sociologist try to work together and we were 2 years into the program and I think before we even had a common language where we knew how to speak to each other, because resilency, the simple word re·sil·ien·cy meant very different things to all three. The interesting part to me and sort of an observer and this is really an aside is I think the engineers had more in common with the economists than the economist had with the sociologists because they are both quantitative right? there is a lot of rational thinking in all of that and it's is really been fun to work with the sociologists who were out there looking at the social impact of a disaster some of it is just heartbreaking you know what goes on, but what happens to a community when is a disaster and the real awakening for me in this project was... I would always thinking about resilience or a resilient type of community in terms of physical infrastructure and what I came to realize and this has impacted my view our role here it that the health of a community is really about the people, it's is not about the infrastructure, the infrastructure serves the society and it's caused me to think about the problem and our role in completely different way. so we need to do more in that type of stuff.. it's a great question, thank you"
------------------------------William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCEBuffalo, N.Y."It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880------------------------------
I believe you need to look at witch segment of the public we are talking about. I suspect the segment of the public that has the most negative opinion of engineers are from the construction community who have to deal with engineers on site. This is where the greatest disconnect in what is acceptable behavior has occurred.in my career.
Until I was asked to present last AUG23 at the Univ of Ks. Construction Site Safety Conference,
I had no factual knowledge about the state of it.
Attached slide deck presents what I learned.