New national design guide moves bike infrastructure forward

by Stephen Miller   •   March 19, 2011 12:55 pm

Source: Greater Greater Washington

Bike Lane with Capitol – Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

It didn’t grab headlines, but safer cycling infrastructure took a step forward recently with a new guide for cities and a helpful clarification from the Federal Highway Administration.

Planners and engineers design any bike lane around standards. There are two existing guides out there. One for signs and markings: the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The other, from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), covers bike facilities.

They’re pretty conservative. AASHTO represents the interests of state DOT’s, after all. But these standards are widely accepted. Most counties and states aim to comply with every part of the standards, creating conservative designs that do not protect cyclists as much as they could.

Other places, including many major cities, push the limits. They try sanctioned experiments (such as DC’s bike lane on New Hampshire Avenue near U Street), research the effects, and use the results to help improve the standards moving forward.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) is an association of these more innovative transportation departments in major cities. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of improvement in the existing standards, NACTO released its own guide at the National Bike Summit this year.

NACTO’s executive director is Eric Gilliland, who had previously helmed the Washington Area Bicyclist Association; its president is New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The organization represents transportation department heads from major cities across the nation, including the District of Columbia.

The guide spotlights examples from cities leading the way, including DDOT’s recent installations on New Hampshire Avenue and 15th Street. It also creates a set of rules that other cities can use to implement these facilities.

While this effort to push the envelope takes shape on the national stage, where does that put state and local transportation departments, and what types of bike facilities will we be seeing on our streets?

Already accepted are the traditional elements of infrastructure, like standard bike lanes, and newer markings that have entered the canon, such as sharrows.

However, a new wrinkle was introduced the week after NACTO unveiled its guide. FHWA issued a clarification to the MUTCD, clearly listing which bicycle facilities are permitted, which are not covered by the MUTCD, and which are currently experimental, to be considered for future inclusion in the MUTCD.

Cycle tracks, contraflow lanes, two-stage left turns, and bikeway refuge islands are not prohibited by the MUTCD. More treatments will likely join them in the future. Bike boxes and green pavement for bike lanes are considered experimental treatments that may be adopted by the MUTCD in the future.

Treatments like buffered bike lanes are included in the more progressive NACTO guide but not in the more conservative AASHTO guide. AASHTO’s guide is in the process of being updated, for release by the end of the year, perhaps. But don’t expect anything revolutionary. Many of the innovative facilities in NACTO’s new document are unlikely to be included in the upcoming version of AASHTO’s guide.

Until AASHTO catches up to include facilities we’re already seeing in American cities, NACTO’s guide will serve as the place where the cutting edge is first formalized into guidelines. Although our bike lanes won’t change overnight, these developments are key steps on the way to seeing things like the 15th Street protected bike lane implemented in cities large and small across the nation.