It would be easy to dismiss Charles Marohn as a crank. At a time when half of Washington is batting around numbers that purport to reveal how much money Congress should spend to save the nation’s troubled transportation system, Marohn is suggesting the simplest number of all: zero. What the system needs, Marohn says, isn’t a big infusion of cash, but a thorough examination of what it ought to be doing in the first place. Barring such an examination, he wouldn’t give the transportation system a dime.
Marohn is an unrepentant iconoclast, but he is no crank. He is a soft-spoken civil engineer from small-town Minnesota who spent most of two decades giving local governments conventional advice on how to build and repair roads, sidewalks and bridges. His solutions came straight out of the Green Book, published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the bible that engineers all over the country use in dealing with transportation issues. But eventually he decided that his advice wasn’t worth much. He was telling communities to build high-speed streets and highways that were neither attractive nor safe. What the local residents really needed, Marohn came to believe, was less-intrusive, lower-speed infrastructure that fostered human-scale street life and a safe pedestrian presence.