To Clem, in Saudi Arabia

Note to reader: After a recent meeting with City staff and consultants, I found this piece of paper on the floor. I wasn’t being nosy, I was being tidy. But I couldn’t help noticing the text. It appears to be most of a letter being drafted to email to someone named “Clem” working in Saudi Arabia. To protect the not so innocent, I’ll report that the author’s name is conveniently missing. –  Ed.


How is work going on your contract in Saudi Arabia? How I do envy you. To work in an autocratic kingdom must we marvellous. The grand wizir or whatever he is simply decides he wants a road, pours money on an international engineering firm, and presto, the road appears. Smooth as oil on water. No noisy rabble or objectors to complain whether the road is needed, or if it is too wide, or in the wrong place, or displaces and kills too many people. If they complain, “Off With Their Heads!”  That’s the stuff, eh.

 Here in Ottawa we have it much more difficult. You will recall, dear Clem, that your brother Elmer is working on the reconstruction of a major north south arterial.  The silly people in the area decided that was a chance to redesign the whole road, to make it quieter, safer for pedestrians, more pleasant for businesses and residents, etc. while still handling all the commuters. They wanted a road diet, some craz-z-z-y scheme to shrink the four lanes down to three. Ha ha!

Well, the final engineering report has been issued, and put a kibosh to the left wing pinko stuff. We recommend widening the road by two or three feet in a whole buncha places, keeping four lanes, keeping the maddening stop-go jack rabbit driving caused by the fact that the four lane configuration has no through lanes, just continuous right and left turn lanes. With any luck we should be able to keep the appalling accident rate up really high. All those accidents keeps [sic] the GDP up!

It took some cotortioning to get their there though. Damn if the simulations and literature didn’t show that it might work. Every damn time we came up with a problem and said “there, see, it won’t work” those pinkos insisted on reviewing what we did and damn if they didn’t show it would work time after time. We had to resort to some pretty fancy moves to shut them up. One I am particularly proud of goes like this:

– the pinkos want a road diet from Gladstone to Laurier, or maybe just Somerset to Laurier, which is the lowest traffic volume section of street. The results shows that this just maybe possibly mighta work, and within the norms set out by the OP. We fixed them though, by sticking other very busy areas outside our immediate study area, into the results tables. So we were able to show that a three lane road a kilometer south on Bronson would have two minute delays at the intersections! Never mind that they never asked for a diet there, or got a chance to dispute our interpretation of “the data” for that intersection, the huge delays (which we highlighted in bright red on the tables) stood out like a beacon and we know that every councillor will panic at the sight! Then, to really stuff their bunny, we showed how the traffic would back up at rush hour right up the Queensway off ramps onto the freeway! What a safety hazard!

Unfortunately, they did point out that is exactly what happens now, and will continue to happen under our preferred engineering solution, but hey, we futzed that bit in the report and make sure to repeat in every briefing to the mucky mucks that their crazy diet will cause a Queensway safety disaster. Brilliant, eh?

The pinkos also had a bunch of traffic literature reports that showed why a diet might work. It took a lot of reading dull road reports to find enough select quotes to highlight the possible downsides. We managed to find the one report that said there was a 5% traffic diversion onto an adjacent street when measured immediately after the construction, so we highlighted that unique case big time. That will cause neighbours on Cambridge and Percy to abandon that commy ship right some quick!

The fools also wanted to improve cycling conditions, and we said yes, we could do that by widening the street!  Even when widened, the street will make mincemeat out of those cyclists foolish enough to try it, but we refused to look at parallel routes, as they were outside our terms of reference. Then, when we needed extra data to make the road diet look bad, we expanded our terms of reference to include other parts of the city. We’ve got to be flexible, eh? Thus far, I don’t think they noticed!

We also made nice to the pinkos, although I had to grit my teeth to do so. But I think I convinced them our hands are tied, we simply couldn’t do most of the things they wanted because the rules don’t let us. Aww, poor us. It took me hours after that meeting to unclench my teeth and wipe that grin off my face. I didn’t point out that the rules were written by engineers to maximize the movement of cars at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, businesses and residents, but they may already suspect that. Geeze, I hope they never get to the point of actually saying that out loud or the whole traffic consulting gig might be up.

Then we rolled out a huge long map of the street and wrote all over it pointing out the marvellous pedestrian benefits we were delivering. Never mind that it was mostly the same para promising brick crosswalks at the side streets, cut and pasted repeatedly, the point is it looks GREEN and should convince any council member that we are delivering lots of good green stuff. Of course, our list of benefits being delivered didn’t mention the unimproved crossings of Bronson, didn’t highlight the motorist benefits of a wider road, didn’t identify the additional sterilized zone of private property that cannot be developed in the future because the electric wires are being moved back, didn’t point out the rude cut through the centre of the Chinatown main street, didn’t highlight all the trees we are going to cut down, or the front gardens we are going to convert to pavement, didn’t point out the safer pedestrians crossings we ruled out, didn’t point out … well, you get the idea Clem, we just had to be a tad selective in order to get all that nice green ink washed onto the plan.

Now I list all the ordeals we are going through here, because it is instructive to you, so that you appreciate what its like to work in a good engineering environment like the good ole’Sheik what’shisname provides you. We can’t just go out and chop of their heads. No sireee, we gotta go through months of expensive process to slice  away at our irrational opponents who somehow think a road is for more than just moving cars. I like to think of it as sort of death by a thousand paper cuts. (Fortunately, I know someone who can give us an endless supply of opened envelopes, as those have the sharpest edges). Each one stings just a little, but the result is they loose their head just the same.

Engineering a road is just so much easier when you don’t have to consider the people or the city around it. How I envy you.

In other news …”

At this point the letter veers off onto more personal stuff, so we will stop looking over the shoulder of our anonymous writer at this point.

And for those literalists out there, the above letter is entirely nonfactual, fictional, and soley intended for amusement and satire, although I would appreciate if you don’t report me to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Road Engineers.

7 thoughts on “To Clem, in Saudi Arabia

  1. Eric, I don’t know how you perservere (your tolerance for BS is much higher than mine!), but I’m really glad you do. Dalhousie and Centretown (and indeed, the whole city) are much better off because of the work you do. Just want to say thanks and please don’t give up – every little hard-fought improvement is something we wouldn’t have at all otherwise.

  2. This fiction is luscious. Yet I wonder if the author is familiar with “fictional-realism”? It’s a term in literature for explaining socio-politico-econo relevant pieces of fiction (think of how Salman Rushdie’s novels are filled with metaphor of real-life India). Just a few weeks ago, I met with an urban designer, working on one of those weirdo oil-rig-platform-turned new-sovereign-city funded by a multi-billionaire as a personal project. The designer admitted to me that it’s much easier to work for a sheik-like super-rich client, than having to deal with the real world, in a real city, with real governments and real people. In a twisted kind of way, there is absolutely nothing fictional about this piece.

  3. “Action must be taken so that the motor car adds to the amenity of life …without assuming such proportion that the city is a place for the motor car to move rather than for people to live” -Dick Hamer (Premier of Victoria, 1972 to 1981)

    I guess people have felt the same way for a while now. Keep up the good fight and the good work!

  4. I’d have thought the author might also have told Clem something like:

    Another thing we’re doing is making sure that we out-resource the community (commies, really) guys by using all the professionals we have at our disposal. The pinkos need to do everything on their own, and their drawings SUCK! It’s like they have jobs or other occupations or something. We have all the experts at our disposal, and when we pay them, they’ll happily tell us what we want to hear.

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