FHWA to Engineers: Go Ahead and Use City-Friendly Street Designs

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NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide includes engineering guidance for transit boulevards. Image: NACTO

The heavyweights of American transportation engineering continue to warm up to design guides that prioritize walking, biking, and transit on city streets. On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration made clear that it endorses the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes that you won’t find in the old engineering “bibles.”

FHWA “supports the use of the Urban Street Design Guide in conjunction with” standard engineering manuals such as AASHTO’s Green Book and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the agency said in statement released on Friday. FHWA had already endorsed NACTO’s bikeway design guide last August. The new statement extends its approval to the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, which also covers measures to improve pedestrian space and transit operations.

Federal approval of what were until recently considered “experimental” street designs means that more engineers and planners will feel comfortable implementing them without fear of liability.

  • cmu

    Great news! We’re finally getting to where the rest of the urbanized developed world has been for a hundred years.

    But can anyone explain that last comment about ‘liability’? Does that imply that in the absence of federal ok’s, a city or other entiry can be held liable for “improper” street design? On what basis and who might file a suit?

    If true, it’s another sad commentary of how our overblown legal system stifles us.

  • BBnet3000

    Does it count as “in conjunction with” the AASHTO Manual and MUTCD if the latter two are under the computer monitor to raise it to a better height?

  • thielges

    On liability – In my locale often the city’s legal council would put the kibosh on an “experimental” treatment out of concern that the city could be sued if an injury could be linked with the experimental treatment. This even happened in cases where it was obvious to everyone that the street would be safer with the proposed modification. The city placed a higher value on safety from litigation over actual physical safety. The result was that if it wasn’t in “the manual” it wasn’t implemented.

    You can see their point of view. There are cases where plaintiffs go after deep pockets regardless of whether or not the owner of those deep pockets had any real liability. I remember a case of a cyclist who was hit in a bike lane on a section of the street with unusual geometry. The solution that the city implemented was not at all in “the manual” because the manual didn’t have any recommendations for this unusual case. Though the city’s engineer did a good job with improvising, there were still those looking to sue the city. An objective analysis assigned 100% fault was with the motorist who rear-ended the cyclist but of course that motorist had minimum insurance. The city on the other hand is capable of settling for millions.

  • BBnet3000

    My understanding is that they’re liable by default but using a standard shields them from liability, they can just point to the standard and say theyre doing it the same way everyone does.

  • Sometimes I wonder if lawyers do more harm than good when it comes to street design.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    This graphic above is very nice. However, where do you have space for 12 lanes like this?

  • ChrisLoos

    Every major blvd in Los Angeles could fit some variation of the street configuration in that graphic 🙂

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    That’s great. But for older cities the choice is not so good. That’s all I was saying.

  • vabike

    Yeah, municipal attorneys do that a lot, raise BS objections to preserve the status quo and because they think it makes them look smart. Don’t put up with it — call their bluff! http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/7/28/on-liability.html#.U9fk49_LL3w

  • Gezellig

    There’s more than one kind of street addressed in the guide.

  • marcotico

    That’s a good point, but the smaller the roadway the less need there is for infrastructure, because the vehicle speeds should be slower and more eye contact occurs between users.

  • neroden

    This is good. However, the FHWA has never been the major problem; state DOTs have been the major problem. Perhaps this FHWA announcement can be used to get state DOT officials to change their mind?

  • John Hanson

    The obvious solution is to aggregate lawyers into the concrete mix.

  • The FHWA guidance is to use NACTO in conjunction with existing guidance, since the NACTO is neither comprehensive or at times, rigorous. That seems like good guidance to me.

  • The jurisdiction could lose its shirt if successfully sued over an experimental design, and the engineer of record could be in hot water as well with his or her professional license. One of the reasons engineers are so conservative is that they are protecting themselves from being attacked when something unanticipated goes wrong. Using well established engineering guidance is good lawsuit-proofing.

    In addition, it means some other jurisdiction’s engineer gets the heat for scraping up the bodies when an experiment goes wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the first guy out of the trenches.

    Therefore, when one can use a NACTO idea in conjunction with existing (i.e., AASHTO, etc) guidance, one is better protected against litigation. We did that in one location in my town, where we combined an AASHTO and NACTO idea to solve a vexing problem. I found an example in the NACTO guide that seemed on point, and our engineer found a way to finesse it with existing engineering guidance. It works pretty well, so far, where the original design was a death trap.

  • Jeeze, John. Do you really want to mess up good concrete?

  • John Hanson

    I said obvious solution, not best solution. Having said that, pre-processing would be required.

  • …grin…

  • super BOB mania

    “Older cities” aren’t generally where the growth is happening. High real estate prices abetted by restrictive zoning inhibit family formation and displace workers to the exurbs.

    The sunbelt, on the other hand, is exploding, and the major urbanized areas of AZ, NM, TX, OK, and others are largely defined by postwar development with arterial right of ways 100 feet and wider.

    That’s where this busway belongs (and it is a vast improvement over the 6- and 8-lane slabs that are there now). If you’re in a PHL, SF, or Boston type place, you should be agitating instead for a subway.

  • Looks like it might be 138-142 feet in-width to me, much narrower than the portion of Woodward Ave between McNichols and Square Lake Rd in suburban Detroit which has a 200-210 foot right of way, where they are doing a complete streets redesign to include center-riding BRT.

    I am currently working on one in Colorado with a 147-150 foot right of way and trying to incorporate a trolley in the center median or possibly in one or both of the outer medians.

    I am also working on another multimodal boulevard in Colorado on a 127-133 foot right of way, which will include 5 lanes between two outer medians with 19 feet on each side for parallel parking and a shared roadway for bikes plus a 10-foot sidewalk. Some of it will have a center left turn lane and in-between turning lanes we will have raised medians with pedestrian refuges.

    My one complaint about this particular design is that the median benches and median pedestrians appear to be poorly protected from cars that leave the roadway and jump onto one of the center medians. Either K-rail or bollards would fix the issue but add to the cost and be somewhat less-attractive too. Other than this issue I feel that it is a decent design.

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