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Highway Man

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The idiot who designed this should be fired!

This page last updated February 15, 2024

Snippet of San Antonio Major Thoroughfare Plan showing existing and planned arterials in North Central Bexar County

A frequent remark I see on social media and in the comments section of news stories about road projects is something along the lines of this:

"The idiot/moron/genius who designed this should be fired!"

Yes, major changes to roads can be sometimes seem bewildering and ill-conceived — I get that. But there usually is a method to the madness, so before throwing around the idiot cliché, you should take a beat and consider the following.


It's never just one idiot
First of all, it's pretty much never just one engineer who designs a road project. It's usually a team of planners, engineers, and specialists that design and review plans. Those plans are vetted and approved by senior engineers. This process ensures that designs are sound, address the need, are based on valid assumptions, and adhere to relevant standards. Plans for major projects are then usually presented to the public for their review and comments — this is your chance to chime in if you don't like what you see and/or think you have a better idea. If you don't participate in the process, you don't have much right to complain later.

You might not know everything
Sometimes, it doesn't occur to people that maybe something was designed the way it was due to constraints or considerations that are not obvious to them. Before passing judgment on someone or their work, one should consider that they just might not know all the reasons for the decisions that were made in that project. There likely is a good reason for the seemingly stupid design if one just took the time to find out. I realize in this day and age that many people think they're an expert on everything and/or are too busy to take the time to learn the facts about something before releasing their inner Karen, and that's a major cause for discord in our society IMO. I'm sure you make decisions in your job or life that others would initially think to be stupid but that you had a legitimate reason for doing the way you did. Perhaps this can best be summed-up in the words of author H. L. Mencken: "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong."

Nobody likes change
If the changes that have a burr under your saddle are recent, then give it some time before drawing a conclusion. Whenever a road is modified, it's often troubling to folks who drive it regularly simply because it's new and different, and for many people, any change is going to be stressful. But after some time when things settle down and people get familiar with the new layout, the intended benefits of the change are usually realized, even by those who initially decried it. There's a whole psychology to how people react to change, and changing something fundamental to someone (such as a road they frequently use) often evokes a visceral negative reaction that the person (if they're rational) later realizes was unwarranted. Changing something familiar can be disorienting and puts people outside their comfort zone, which requires them to have to expend some energy (even unconsciously) to learn and adapt to the change, a process that can manifest itself negatively.

Hindsight is always 20/20
On the other hand, if the road in question is older, then realize that when it was designed, it was designed for the traffic conditions and projections at that time using the standards that were current then. Since then, things have likely changed and now the design is obsolete. You can't fairly judge something designed decades ago based on the situation today.

Engineering fail meme

Popular engineering fail meme

Engineers are human, too
That said, yes, despite the controls in place, sometimes engineers do make mistakes (they are human beings after all), and sometimes things work better on paper than they do in practice. Large projects are complex and have many details and moving parts that can sometimes get overlooked. All of us have projects every once in a while that don't work out as planned. Traffic engineering is a lot of science, but also part art, and both require some degree of trial-and-error on occasion. Expecting engineers to get it perfect the first time every time is unrealistic and unfair.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good
It would be nice if the world were a perfect place. But many times, "good enough" really is good enough. Engineers often have to make compromises to satisfy various constituencies, solve complex problems, and/or stay within budget and schedule.

Engineers are empirical
Many times, folks will think they see a potential problem in the making, the proverbial "death trap". And in blatantly obvious cases, you can often get quick action to remedy the problem. But most cases are more nuanced, and engineers usually have to wait for more objective data, such as crash rates, before determining that there is an issue. It may seem negligent or even criminal for officials to wait "until someone is killed" to act on what you might consider an obvious hazard, but spending scarce resources on an anecdotal problem is hard to justify. Many times, perceived problems are not subsequently backed up by the data. In short, there isn't a problem until there is.

Let's fire everyone
I'm always flabbergasted that many people's first reaction is that someone should be fired for making a mistake. Really?? Very few mistakes warrant being fired. If an engineer designed a bridge that collapsed due to an error on their part, then that's probably termination-worthy (and likely litigation-worthy.) Otherwise, it's better in the long run to keep people who have made mistakes because they gain experience from them. If every employee who ever made a mistake on the job was fired, then everyone would be getting fired all the time, including you (yeah, I said it), and we'd always be dealing with a whole bunch of amateurs making the same mistakes. People these days seem exceptionally quick to judge and alarmingly bloodthirsty — what ever happened to tolerance and giving people the benefit of the doubt? It's amazing how worked-up people can get about roads sometimes... on rare occasion is it justified; mostly, it's just a First World Problem.

Still have a complaint?
If you still have a legitimate complaint about a roadway and are calm, rational, and reasonable, then certainly contact the agency that's responsible for the roadway in question and express your concern. Be specific, receptive, and respectful and you'll likely get results. Sometimes, they may take your advice and make a change, but sometimes you may just get an explanation for why things are the way they are. Accept that that's okay, even if you don't necessarily agree with it. If the issue really is as bad as you believe it to be, problems will manifest at some point and the engineers will then take note and have something to work with, and you can say, "I told you so!"

Finally, everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, and I don't really expect everyone to have an epiphany after reading this page (but let me know if you do!) But if you find yourself muttering the title of this page to yourself often, I hope the explanations on this page will filter into your consciousness and maybe help you to see whatever is irking you at the moment in a different light.

A little humor to close on...

Traffic signal cartoon

(Source:, used under Creative Commons license)