An exciting new coalition of America’s largest cities has joined together to push for more innovative bikeway design guidelines. Cities for Cycling, which will formally launch in Washington D.C. on December 8th, will look to break the shackles of rigid federal roadway design guidelines that have long had a stifling impact on bikeway innovation in the United States.
The new coalition was the brainchild of two Portlanders — former city bike coordinator and now planning consultant Mia Birk and current City of Portland Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield. The impetus comes from a realization that current federal design guidelines for bikeway development are outdated and incomplete.
The goal of Cities for Cycling is to provide support for urban transportation planners looking for guidance in building the next generation of bikeway networks — guidance that the highway-oriented federal government is not willing to provide. The coalition will also create a new manual of bikeway designs that includes technical information and best practices gleaned from what has proven to work in the world’s most bike friendly cities.
Currently in America, street design guidelines are largely the domain of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). AASHTO (and others) partner with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to publish the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) — a set of guidelines considered to be the bible for traffic engineers. The MUTCD offers persuasive guidance on what types of facilities can and can’t be installed.
Unfortunately, the FHWA and the MUTCD are painfully slow to innovate and their lack of official recognition of new bikeway designs is a significant barrier to a more bike-friendly America.
The problem boils down to this: If a bikeway design treatment — like bike boxes, bike-only signals, cycle tracks, bike boulevards, and so on — is not listed as an approved design in the MUTCD, many engineers are unlikely to use them. Engineers can still install these innovative facilities, but they must apply for a “Request to Experiment” and be subject to FHWA oversight. But the majority of city traffic engineers don’t take that step, either because bikeways aren’t a high enough priority, or they don’t have the time to go through the process, or they’re simply intimidated by the FHWA and have concerns about legal liability for doing anything not wholly approved by the MUTCD.
The result of not being able to develop state-of-the-art bikeway networks has made it difficult for America to make significant gains in bike use. Currently, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 0.55 percent of Americans use a bicycle as their primary means of getting to work.
Portland’s City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield knows the perils of this problem all too well. After two people were killed by right-turning trucks within 11 days of each other in 2007, he worked with Mayor Sam Adams to install green-colored bike boxes throughout the city. Bike boxes were not approved by the MUTCD, but Burchfield had studied them at length and had seen them first-hand in world-class bike cities in Europe.
However, the bike boxes put Burchfield on the hot seat. A national magazine columnist went so far as blaming PBOT for the two deaths and the Portland Tribune followed suit. Burchfield — who had filed a request to experiment with the FHWA — was forced to defend the designs. The FHWA eventually stepped in and made PBOT test out the bike box design without the highly-visible green coloring.
In a recent interview, Burchfield acknowledged the difficulty this issue poses for the FHWA. “The feds are in a tough position, they’re almost in a regulatory role instead of being in a leadership role. They’re saying, ‘We have these rules. You have to do this… and if don’t you we’ll sanction you’.”
Burchfield realizes that it’s not realistic for the FHWA or AASHTO to be leaders in setting bikeway design standards. “Their agenda is highways, but this is an urban issue, a city issue. We want them to get out of the way.”
The bike box fiasco, says Birk, who worked with Burchfield in the 1990s, was the last straw. “The criticism we got from the bike boxes made it clear to us that we felt there was a need for cities that wanted to push forward to band together.”
Birk, who now develops bike plans for cities throughout the country, says she gets calls everyday from cities wanting to install innovative bike facilities. “Unfortunately, there’s not one place I can point them to with the information they need.” In the meantime, she says, “many cities are proceeding in absence of that guidance.”
“We came up with this idea, recognizing there are a handful of cities really leading the charge… and that if we put our heads together we are going to be greater as a coalition than as individual cities working alone. We asked ourselves, how can we capitalize on Portland’s leadership, ban together, and move the agenda forward?”
Back in October, Burchfield and Birk hosted bicycle transportation planners and traffic engineers from several major U.S. cities including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, and New York. The group (which at that time was tentatively named the Progressive Bicycling Cities Coalition) heard from a panel of European experts. One of them, Hans Voerknecht from Dutch cycling organization Fietsberaad, singled out the AASHTO/MUTCD guidelines for sharp criticism, saying they are “completely counterproductive”:
“Were these guidelines a means or an end? I think your consider them an end to the conversation but they should be a means to get more people cycling. Saying, ‘well those are the guidelines’ is like a detective looking for a murder weapon and saying well, ‘I can’t look in the bedroom because the guidelines say I can’t trespass on the privacy of the people.”
When asked if she feels Cities for Cycling is headed for a power struggle with the committee behind the MUTCD, Birk said she hopes not, but that it’s a “possibility”. “Maybe we influence them, maybe we converge into one big happy family.”
In the end, Birk says this effort is about making cities more bike friendly. To do that, she says, “It’s negligent for us to not look at the best practices out there.”
Cycling for Cities has been adopted as an official project of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. On December 8th, NACTO and the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings will host an event and panel discussion in Washington D.C. to officially launch the project. U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, New York City Department of Transportation Commission Janette Sadik-Khan, and artist/musician David Byrne will hold a panel discussion moderated by Bruce Katz from Brookings.