Death by Design: A New Book from a CU Denver Transportation Expert Rethinks the Science Behind Our Roads
Wes Marshall.

Death by Design: A New Book from a CU Denver Transportation Expert Rethinks the Science Behind Our Roads

June 25, 2024

Can a traffic engineer kill you? That’s a complicated question, but one that CU Denver’s Wes Marshall, PhD, PE, examined in his new book: Killed by a Traffic Engineer: Shattering the Delusion that Science Underlies our Transportation System. We sat down with him to talk about transportation, human-centered engineering, and the best bike path in Denver.  

What tips do you have for adding biking to our daily routines?   

“I would try to find sort of the lowest stress routes. A lot of times, we put a bike lane on a major arterial—like Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard—and if you just move a block or two off of the street like that, it’s a much nicer, safer, lower stress bike ride” 

You recently published Killed by a Traffic Engineer, and in it, you talk about wanting to create a more people-focused approach to engineering. How can we get more people walking or biking?  

“I try to put the onus back on the engineers and the planners to build places where that is possible. … The unfortunate reality is that most people live in places where the most rational decision is to drive a car because the other options don’t make sense. They’re not competitive in terms of time, safety, and so many different factors. … I’m trying to think bigger. Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, we expect you not to use your car to do X, Y, and Z,’ we also need to build more of these places where that is possible and possible to do safely.”  

Does that mean you partner with colleagues in other areas of study?  

“In our new human-centered transportation program, we tried to widen the umbrella, so whether you’re getting a planning degree or an engineering degree, it’s a dual degree; it’s under one umbrella. … So, if you’re interested in transportation, you come to one place.”  

How does Denver compare to other cities in their efforts to make the road safer, for cyclists, in particular?  

“We’re definitely heading in the right direction. I’ve been here for 15 years, and the kind of stuff that you see happening here, especially over the last five years, has been amazing. And the kind of stuff I never would have thought was possible when I first got here. So, on that front, there’s a lot of good stuff, like the bike network. It has been pushed so much further than they ever thought possible. … At the same time, we’re still killing people on the streets. We still have a lot of big, dangerous arteries. There’s still a lot of room to grow.”  

A lot of your work focuses on rethinking things that are taken for granted. What’s an example?  

“The way I was taught to design a road is you start at the center line, and you start working your way out. How much space do we need for cars? We answer that by first using complicated models to figure out how many cars we expect 20 years into the future so that we can figure out how many lanes we need to accommodate that futuristic car traffic. Whatever is left over, we might give to buses, bikes, or pedestrians. A lot of times, unfortunately, there’s nothing left over.  

If you think about things from a more human-centered transportation standpoint, what if we started from the edges? How much space do the pedestrians need? How much space do we need for bikes? And buses? Then, at the end, we say, what’s left over for the cars? It completely transforms the way we design a street. And it could lead to a different reality on our streets.” 

Do you have a favorite path or bike route in Denver? And are you willing to share it? 

“We are lucky because there are finally starting to be some really good ones here. At the same time, I try to take a different route every day so that I can not only see the good but also the bad and the ugly. It helps me both come up with teaching and research ideas as well as better understand how transportation works for a wider variety of people. It’s hard to do that from behind a windshield.”  

What do you like about teaching? 

“There is so much to say about helping students become the best versions of themselves, but for the sake of this, I’ll focus on the impact I’m starting to see all around me. When I went to my book launch event, it became clear how many of my former students are now out in the workplace and in positions of power—where they are the ones designing these streets. It’s made me realize how fast the years are flying but also how much teaching makes a difference. Slowly but surely, we are changing the world for the better.” 

Read More: Marshall’s book is garnering press across the country, including stories in Bloomberg, Denverite, and The Conversation.