U.S. DOT to Challenge AASHTO Supremacy on Bike/Ped Safety Standards

For years, the federal government has adopted roadway guidelines that fall far short of what’s needed — and what’s possible — to protect cyclists and pedestrians. By “playing it safe” and sticking with old-school engineering, U.S. DOT allowed streets to be unsafe for these vulnerable road users.

But that could be changing. The bike-friendliest transportation secretary the country has ever seen told state transportation officials yesterday at AASHTO’s annual Washington conference that U.S. DOT was getting into the business of issuing its own design standards, instead of simply accepting the AASHTO guidelines.

LaHood told an audience of state transportation officials that the FHWA is getting into the roadway design business.

Normally, the Federal Highway Administration points people to AASHTO’s Green Book, the organization’s design guide for highways and streets — and indeed, the agency is still directing people to the 2001 edition of the Green Book. Cycling advocates have long criticized the AASHTO guide, and the FHWA’s adherence to it, since even the most recent version doesn’t incorporate the latest thinking in bicycle and pedestrian safety treatments.

In FHWA’s new round of rule-making, DOT will set its own bicycle and pedestrian safety standards for the first time. The agency will “highlight bicycle and pedestrian safety as a priority,” LaHood said. (You can watch his entire speech on AASHTO’s online TV channel.)

FHWA will rely heavily on input from AASHTO but also signaled that it would work with others to incorporate the full spectrum of bike/ped design best practices.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials publishes its own, much more cutting-edge, design guide for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. No one at U.S. DOT reached out to NACTO in advance of the AASHTO speech, but NACTO spokesperson Ron Thaniel said they have a “close working relationship with Secretary LaHood” and “look forward to working with him” on the new standards.

LaHood noted that he would be meeting with cyclists next week at the National Bike Summit here in Washington and that he would work with them on ways to improve infrastructure “to make biking and walking opportunities as safe as they possibly can be.”

But it was wise of him to make his announcement at AASHTO, not at the Bike Summit. He seems to be trying to bring AASHTO into the fold of a movement to embrace more innovative bikeway designs. “I’m asking [the cycling community] for their help but I’m asking you to be helpful also,” he told the state officials. “I know that most of you want to build the 21st century infrastructure that your communities need to be competitive. The problem is we don’t have modern-day roadway standards to help us bring these ideas to life.”

It’s a big step for U.S. DOT to craft its own bicycle and pedestrian safety standards, and it’s especially positive that the move started under a secretary that sees biking and walking as equal to driving in the transportation world. “We know that people are cycling more and walking more, and that pedestrian and cycling safety has to be a priority,” he told the audience at AASHTO yesterday. “We must ensure that our streets, bridges and highways are safe whether we’re in a car or on a bike.”

Below are LaHood’s remarks, in full:

Our job is never done. We can always do better, and that’s especially true when it comes to bicyclist and pedestrian safety.

I’m going to meet with cyclists — their meeting is here in Washington next week, and we’re going to continue to work with the cycling community on promoting bicycle and pedestrian safety through public education, such as encouraging bike riders to wear a helmet, and through improved infrastructure in more livable communities that make biking and walking opportunities as safe as they possibly can be.

We need your help in this. We know that people are cycling more and walking more and that pedestrian and cycling safety has to be a priority. We must ensure that our streets, bridges and highways are safe, whether we’re in a car or on a bike.

So I’m asking them for their help but I’m asking you to be helpful also. I know that most of you want to build the 21st century infrastructure that your communities need to be competitive. The problem is we don’t have modern-day roadway standards to help us bring these ideas to life.

Today, I’m proud to tell you that DOT is looking to create a standard guide for how we will build modern streets that work for everyone who depends on them.

As we begin work on this, we’re going to look at the AASHTO bike guide — and other, similar types of assistance — to help us build streets, bridges and highways that keep all travelers as safe as possible.

We’re going to build from your ideas in order to highlight bicycle and pedestrian safety as a priority. And we’re going to work with you as we create this critical safety resource.

Businesses and travelers alike are looking to us to build modern infrastructure that not only meets their changing demands, but is safe as well. We must work together to meet the growing demand for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and to make these transportation options safe for more Americans.