Engineering and Experience: Professionals and Us

I spend a lot of time during the winter in a small town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. It makes more sense to a jubilado who grew up around California beaches than staying where Skiing is popular. The snow-covered Sangre de Cristo Mountains overlooking Santa Fe, are not a draw for this old surfer. Having grown up in a town that was once part of Mexico, two blocks from the old San Gabriel Mission, I’ve always felt quite at home in Mexico. I have returned more times than I can count.

Coast of Nayarit,MxOf course, there are various cultural differences, one of which I discovered when I first traveled from LA to Guadalajara, then on to Mexico City before heading north to the Texas border in 1964. When I crossed back, the U.S. Customs officers made me completely unload my VW van and take everything out of each suitcase, box, and bag—these bearded hippies! They even carefully examined the nice guitar I had bought for only fifteen dollars—about 280 pesos at today’s exchange rate—no marijuana.

Engineering Hubris

What I discovered was that people drive their vehicles in different ways in Mexico than in the US; in my later travels, I also discovered some significant differences within the US too. So, I wrote a paper in graduate school on “The Social Organization of Traffic Intersections.” But, I digress. What triggered writing this post was reading a document on the StrongTowns.org website called “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” by Charles Marohn.

Mr. Marohn lamented the engineering hubris of his careful study and compliance with the “standards” for highways he had studied to become licensed. He had not listened to residents who objected to widening their residential street for ostensible safety reasons based on standards developed mostly for highways. He later realized that wider streets meant faster traffic and more danger to residents and their children who could no longer play safely in their front yards.

That brought back my memory of playing in the front yard of my childhood home in quiet San Gabriel. Our street was actually a fairly fast feeder near a commercial thoroughfare, unlike most of the streets in my neighborhood. We rode our bikes all over the neighborhood, but not so much on my wider street where traffic was often intense.

Self-organized Village Life

Mr. Marohn’s essay also made me think of this small Mexican town, which has many crowded narrow streets, some one-way and others two-way, almost all about the same width. It did not take me very long to figure out the cultural protocol ‘mientros manejaba’ [when driving] on streets too narrow for two-way traffic when cars are parked on both sides.

The village streets are quite busy in the ‘centro.’ Commerce and social life bustle in the central districts of many small Mexican towns. Lots of traffic, both people and vehicles, make it both crowded and lively. I soon realized that like many things in Mexico, curtesy and coordination go hand in hand.

In the US, the urge is always to find some complex technical way to solve problems, like traffic safety and flow. Mexicans make interpersonal agreements in the moment. When two cars approach from opposite directions, one always pulls to the side where no car has parked, letting the other car pass by.

Often the drivers wave or nod a greeting, acknowledging the other’s courtesy. I have never seen an incident of road rage in Mexico, although some drivers pass with reckless abandon on a narrow two-lane ‘carretera.’ Drivers are just as predictable here as in LA, but they are far more civil. In small towns, human relations are usually more important than technology.


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