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Federal Action Needed to Streamline and Expedite New Bicycle Facilities

The United States prides itself on local innovation and a decentralized system of government that allows experimentation and the best ideas to rise from many laboratories of democracy. Throughout the United States, cities have embarked on new street designs to make people who bike and walk safer, but these designs have not yet reached wide acceptance. Standing in the way of wide acceptance is the federal government’s role in street design and traffic controls. Unfortunately, innovative bikeway treatments that are becoming more common in large cities have faced difficulty getting proper treatment at the federal level.

The rules for traffic control devices (traffic signs, pavement markings, traffic signals) are highly regulated. In practice, traffic controls must appear and be discussed in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) to be used by most communities. This system was set up to help insure that traffic signs’ appearance and meaning is the same everywhere in the U.S., but it makes it hard to get innovative treatments into widespread use.

Progress has been made, with support from the League of American Bicyclists

A volunteer organization, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (National Committee), is responsible for generating changes to the MUTCD book of approved devices. It has a focused bicycle technical committee specifically assigned to traffic control for bicycle facilities. For years, the League has been a member of the National Committee to ensure that better bicycle facilities can become approved and widespread. The League has a vote on all proposed additions and changes, and it assists in preparing materials for potential new signs or treatments. Two League members are appointed to the Committee, and additional League members serve on the Bicycle Technical Committee.

Pedestrians do not have the same level of representation on the National Committee as bicyclists. They don’t have their own committee, but many members of the bicycle committee are also greatly interested in pedestrian issues. In an era where Vision Zero for fatalities has generated much interest, pedestrian design issues will likely become more important and the League is proud to support the work of its representatives on those issues.

Through the efforts of the League and allied organizations, the National Committee has approved many proposals for long-desired bicycle treatments since 2012. These include bicycle boxes at intersections, buffered striping, bicycle signal indications, contra-flow bike lanes and many applications of green pavement color coatings. These treatments have added to prior successes such as shared lane markings (sharrows), Bikes May Use Full Lane signs, and bike route system signs. Key to this success has been increasing the size of the Bicycle Technical Committee and filling it with government employees and private consultants with expertise in traffic engineering for bicycles. Unfortunately, committee approval is not the final step.

Widespread change requires Federal action

The missing final step is unfortunately a very large one. Any proposed change to the MUTCD must be published in the Federal Register for review and comment by anybody inclined to respond. It is basically a national public hearing. This can produce from zero to thousands of comments of concern.

The last MUTCD was adopted after public comment in 2009. Despite a goal to adopt a new MUTCD every 5 years, the Federal Government has not proceeded with this final step, and the tentative date to publish the notice has been set back many times. The members of the Bicycle Technical Committee and National Committee continue to work and develop new designs, but continue to hear that the schedule for the new MUTCD has not been set. Recent reports suggest that there may not be a newly adopted MUCTD until 2021.

Waiting to update the MUTCD has consequences for the pace of changes to America’s streets as seen in these two examples:

While the FHWA can issue Interim Approvals, they are limited in what can be approved.

The fate of a low-cost flashing yellow device known as a Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RRFB) shows some weaknesses of the Interim Approval system. It can be installed under a crosswalk warning sign and flash when pedestrians, or bicyclists, use the crossing. It was given an Interim Approval, so agencies could use it on routine request. But then the inventor of the device secured a patent which disqualifies the device from its Interim Approval. No new Federal Approvals are being granted. The Committee is working with Federal authorities to determine what can be done.

A Device being approved by the Bicycle Technical Committee or National Committee does not have the same effect on agencies as federal approval.

At the last meeting of the Bicycle Technical Committee a proposal to allow painting a green rectangle under a sharrow marking was approved on a close vote. Will this suggest confusion as to the meaning of green paint, or will it really make recognizing and respecting sharrows improve? Many agencies already use this treatment, which has been approved subject to experimentation requirements by the FHWA, but others are fearful of the consequences of using a non-standard device. Without federal approval each agency must weigh this decision rather than being able to cite the requirements and guidance of the MUTCD.

The National Committee and League representatives are pushing to get the final steps to a new MUTCD onto the streets. We also continue to work on new proposals that will make it possible for cities, counties, and states to provide innovations that are only found now in cities and foreign countries.

Rock Miller is designated as the League’s voting member on the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2013. Rock is a registered engineer specializing in traffic. He was previously the President of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and has designed innovative bicycle infrastructure for many communities in the US and Canada.

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