Researcher Wes Marshall and the future of road safety

September 4, 2019

Wes Marshall started asking questions at his first engineering job following college. He worked at an international interdisciplinary planning and design firm in the Boston area. Yet he believed what he was creating wasn’t nearly as good the existing — and much older — neighborhoods surrounding him.

The most inviting, walkable neighborhoods in the Boston area could not be built today because of requirements for things like streets widths and a defined amount of parking.

“We know what empirically works, and it is right here in front of us, but more often than not, we aren’t allowed to build it,” said Marshall. “Why?”

Why have we banned our favorite places?

Asking this question launched Marshall on the path to becoming one of the most influential academic researchers examining transportation engineering and urban planning issues. Marshall, PhD, is a professional engineer and a civil engineering professor in the College of Engineering, Design and Computing

City planners are increasingly focused on human-scale development that promotes liveability, enjoyment and equity. In combination with these factors, safety is perhaps the most important issue for transportation engineers.

Denver’s road safety inflection point

Marshall’s most recent research is a national study showing how protected bike facilities, or bike lanes with physical barriers, reduce fatal crashes for all road users, whether cyclists, motorists or pedestrians.

Marshall’s research was top-of-mind at the Critical Mass bike ride held August 2 to draw attention to recent cyclists fatalities in a year where the city counts 55 fatal crashes on Denver roads through August 31.

Scott Christopher with his bicycle on August 2.
Scott Christopher, executive director of youth cycling program Front Rangers Cycling Club, rode on August 2 in solidarity with the Denver’s cycling community.

“We have a real need in our community for safe infrastructure for riding bikes, whether you are eight years old or 80 years old. The key solutions, which are separated bike facilities, are extremely limited in our city,” said Scott Christopher at the Critical Mass ride, referencing Marshall’s research and the hard evidence it offers for street designs proven to save lives. Christopher is executive director of Front Rangers Cycling Club, a youth road cycling organization.

Tactical Urbanism

Jonathan Fertig organized the Critical Mass ride with Rob Toftness and John Riecke. They used social media to ask city officials to move quickly to implement safety improvements. Fertig is an architect, cycling advocate and legendary Tactical Urbanist.

These days Fertig is also a guest speaker in Marshall’s Sustainable Transportation course for civil engineering and urban planning graduate students.

“Wes is at the forefront of a new generation of civil engineers who understand that moving automobiles is not the primary concern of city streets. Times have changed. Roads are not just a conduit for moving vehicles anymore,” said Fertig. “The work Wes does is so important because he is training the next generation of engineers and showing them that they can be more creative in how they do their work.”

Image shows Fertig talking to cyclists at the August 2 Critical Mass ride he organized
Architect and safe cycling activist Jonathan Fertig, center, urges cyclists to “Take out your phones. Tell City Council and Mayor Hancock that we want safer streets” on August 2 at the Critical Mass ride he helped organize. Credit: Meme Moore

The city is our classroom

Jenny Godwin, who graduated from CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning in May 2019 with a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning, was a student in Marshall’s class. As a class project, she followed Fertig’s model for drawing awareness and attention to road safety issues on the streets and online.

Godwin and classmate Lily Lizarraga studied pedestrian safety for students at George Washington High School, where traffic blazes down Leetsdale Drive. The duo’s social media video, calling for safety improvments to the corridor of fatal crashes, got noticed.

The project was a finalist for a $50,000 Fund My Streets school zone safety grant from the company Zendrive. News stories about the project aired on ABC Denver7 and Denver CBS4.

“What I appreciate about Wes is that he questions what engineering manuals tell cities to do, especially recognizing when a design does not account for safety,” said Godwin, now employed as transportation planner by the City of Boulder.

All modes of transportation converge at Denver’s Union Station. Credit: Meme Moore

“Slow the Funk Down!”

“Slow the Funk Down” is a Tactical Urbanism initiative sponsored by pedestrian advocacy organization WalkDenver in partnership with the City of Denver’s Vision Zero Program, which was established to eliminate traffic fatalities.

Molly North embraced the Slow the Funk Down! campaign — and turned it into an extra-groovy research study — as an assignment for Marshall’s class. North’s hypothesis: drivers on 44th Avenue would be more likely to notice a speed limit message — and slow down — if the information is delivered by a 12-foot-tall wooden cutout of bass superstar Bootsy Collins.

Westbound traffic saw the Bootsy sign, and eastbound traffic saw a plain white sign with speed information in black text. Sadly, the 2-D Bootsy was stolen before North completed data collection. (Proof that the tactic . Read North’s article chronicling the experience in Marshall’s class and Fertig’s influence.

A scientist, not an activist

Community and government groups reference Marshall’s studies and data to inform activism, advocacy, policies and street design. While Marshall is pleased that his research is being used for good, Marshall’s only cause is science. Science mixed with a bit of common sense.

“I am not an activist. I advocate for what my research tells me,” said Marshall, stressing that it is common sense to strive for an urban transportation network that enables people to get where they need to go, gives them multiple options for doing so, and makes sure they get there safely.”

Saving lives, one street at a time

Highlights of road safety research published by Marshall:

  • A study showing that compact, gridded street networks are actually safer than cul-de-sacs style designs and also associated with better health outcomes.
  • A study showing that street trees improve road safety outcomes (which counters conventional thinking that they are fixed object hazards and should be removed for the sake of safety).
  • A study on children pedestrian safety in four cities, including Denver, that found safety around parks to be more of an issue than around schools.
  • A study on impacts of bicyclist sharrows (which were invented in Denver) and found that, with respect to safety outcomes, they are worse than doing nothing
  • An equity study that examined 24 years of national data and found that lower income neighborhoods suffer from vehicle occupant fatality rates 3.5 times higher than wealthier neighborhoods. Also, residents of our most rural areas endure fatality rates approximately six times higher than our most urban areas.

Enlightened engineers

Marshall is on a mission to unite the disciplines of transportation engineering and urban planning. He builds a bridge by applying fundamentals of engineering to examine urban planning questions and vice versa. This includes helping establish a new dual degree program where students can get both a Master’s of Engineering and a Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning.

Marshall encourages engineers to become “enlightened” by thinking more about the outcomes of engineering projects. How will people engage with the infrastructure? What does the design mean for their daily lives?

“For the urban planners, I want them to come away from my class with enough knowledge to argue with an engineer,” said Marshall. “I show urban planners behind the curtain to reveal the inner workings of engineering.”

Marshall says that engineers often use official-sounding terminology and reference rules and codes to shut down valid concerns and conversations about safe streets. Urban planners learn how to challenge legacy engineering principals, many of which are backed less by science than one would assume, to steer the conversation toward new ideas. These new ideas hold potential to improve how we design our cities.

“Wes is an asset to the city,” said Fertig. “He is among a small group of American academics who are really pushing this conversation in the United States. In the next 10 or 15 years, we’ll really see this work blossom as Wes’s students go on to become the head engineers, city managers and professors of the next generation.”