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Health, Safety, Welfare: Is the Transportation Profession Providing for the Public?

Presented to the Southern District Institute of Transportation Engineers Annual Conference and to the National Strong Towns Summit.

“Does your day-to-day work as a transportation engineer match the expectations and training you received in college?” That was the question posed by Institute of Transportation Engineers President Shawn Leight during the opening of the 2017 Southern District ITE Annual Meeting in Columbia, South Carolina. The resounding answer was, “no.” We are trained in equations, standards and codes.

We are also trained to plan, design and implement transportation improvements in our communities through a narrow context of inputs and outputs, but we are called to more.

Our work is ultimately about connecting people to provide social and economic opportunities. Transportation is more than moving cars or adhering to standards and codes, it is about supporting human flourishing in our communities. We see this truth inform our ethics as professionals. As engineers, we are called to, “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public” (National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics).

For planners, we are called to, “Seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all” (American Planning Association Code of Ethics). We are given this ethical mission. Our work is driven by a moral imperative; it is not simply objective. As we strive to provide the best in our communities, the problem surfaces when you see the juxtaposition of these intentions to the results of our work.

Tracking the specific impacts on the safety, health and welfare of the public by our transportation decisions, one can see the failure of our system to meet the expectations of our ethical mission. National data and publications identify that the current built environment is a barrier in each of these areas. The realization of these shortcomings in our field is the first step to correcting them. If the current approach to transportation is not bringing the desired results, then we must be able to question and refocus our approach. By approaching these deficiencies in our cities from a comprehensive holistic sense, cities across the globe have provided examples on how to reorient our thinking to hold human flourishing – safety, health and welfare – paramount. Removing the silo of transportation from areas like parks, economic development and urban planning, success can be redefined to make sure each of these parts comes together to create the whole vision for the community.

As transportation engineers and planners, we have the tools to do better – to prioritize safety, health and welfare. We must reflect on the results of our decisions and ask whether it reveals the ethical mission to which we are called. If it does not, we must challenge the assumptions we have held and change our approach to think comprehensively about our city’s needs and be a leader bringing about the full vision of the community.

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