The US Department of Transportation Has Recognized the Protected Bike Lane, Here's Why That Matters
Earlier this week, Streetsblog reported that the US Department of Transporation (DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will be making major updates to their guidance and standards regarding cycling infrastructure. Specifically, the US DOT will be updating the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), the national standard that traffic engineers use to build new and to modify existing roadways to meet common safety criteria. The MUTCD is a lengthy and detailed document that ensures roads in the United States follow common standards for signage, spacing of lanes and the balancing of different users of the street. Though roads and streets do vary in the United States in regards to their scale and design (think jughandles in New Jersey), for the most part roads follow common signage and design standards.
This is not currently the case with cycling infrastructure. States like California have taken it upon themselves to pass legislation for more progressive bike infrastructure per guidelines from organizations like NACTO. Idaho created a different set of laws for cyclists, recognizing that a non-motorized bike should follow a slightly different rule set than a 2,000 lb machine. Cities like New York have led the way creating protected bike lanes by carving out lanes of their wide north-south avenues and dedicating it to cyclists. New York is protecting these lanes by placing pedestrian refuge islands to shorten the distance to cross these avenues. They've also taken the vital step of placing a row of parked cars between cyclists and vehicular lanes. As a result, accidents have decreased even as cycling increases. New York has not recorded one death since the launch of thier bike share program, despite the system already hosting hundreds of thousands of trips.
The federal government has been largely absent from these developments. Local interventions are pushing the envelope but national standards will ensure progressive bike infrastructure becomes the norm, rather than the exception. These developments can be quite wonky but here's why they matter. If we want safer streets that place pedestrians, cyclists and cars on more equal footing, we need federal standards. Traffic engineers, for all their good intentions, have been almost exclusively guided by one criteria in the last 50 years: peak demand of vehicles. Put simply, this means that roads are often engineered not to handle typical demand over the course of day, but spikes in demand during rush hour. We are creating streets less safe for pedestrians and cyclists for 22 hours of the day because of the rush hour needs of cars for 2 hours out of the day. Federal standards play a significant role in this as state-specific organizations like PennDOT often base engineering criteria off of US DOT criteria.
Peak demand has seeped its way into the minds of our elected officials as well. We have a local example of this with Councilman Bill Greenlee's involvement in the 22nd Street bike lane that we've written about before. Jon Geeting also interviewed Greenlee, who in the course of their conversation, admitted that he's more concerned about peak demand from cars during rush hour, than he is about the safety of cyclists and pedestrians using this wide stretch of 22nd street. Inga Saffron weighed in as well. Instead of continuing the only dedicated bike lane west of Broad northward to connect the two important east-west biking arterials of Spring Garden and Fairmount avenues, Greenlee favors maintaining a 22 foot wide lane that's technically not supposed to support two lanes of traffic. Instead of narrowing the width pedestrians need to cross with new interventions advocated for by NACTO like pedestrian refuge islands, 22nd will remain stripeless after repaving, at least for now.
Another local example of how a lack of standards creates impediments for cycling is the Walnut Street Bridge. PennDOT has few standards for protected bike lanes. During the redesign of the Walnut Street Bridge new protections were given to the cyclist in the form of a painted buffered bike lane. It's a welcomed improvement over the old Walnut Street Bridge. However, The Bicycyle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia sought MORE protection, advocating for a protected bike lane using a row of parked cars. PennDOT did not favor this approach and had no national or state design standards to point to. They soon will, at least on the national front.
The Federal Highway Administration will also be creating a new guide specifically on bike lanes. We have written about installing protected bike lanes along Spruce and Pine using planters as a low cost protection for cyclists. Some commenting on that article recommended post dividers (similar to what Pittsburgh just installed on Penn Ave and what DC has implemented in sections around the District). There's one big problem with plastic posts. Posts aren't protection. They can be run over easily by cars. The FHWA is refusing to call these plastic post protected bike lanes by that name. They are calling them buffered bike lanes, for a plastic post offers little more than paint in the way of protection. This alone is a good early sign of the FHWA's commitment to safe cycling. The FHWA will be working with the most progressive street design organizations in the country to fashion new standards to reflect changing politics and a public increasingly keen on cycling.
These forthcoming standards will transform the way citizens and elected officials view the street. Equally important will be the tying of funding to these standards. The FHWA set standards for American highways for things like exit ramps, signage, vehicular shoulders and steepness of incline/decline. Highways receiving federal money need to meet these standards. The same will be true for cycling infrastruture. This will force changes quickly.
New leadership at the US DOT is ensuring a change of tone that should be welcomed by progressive urbanists across America. Good ideas are spreading and our federal government has a constructive role to play, even on the streets that take us to work, to play and back home again.