Feds to Traffic Engineers: Use Our Money to Build Protected Bike Lanes

The feds say there’s no excuse not to use federal funding on designs like protected bike lanes.
The Federal Highway Administration wants to clear the air: Yes, state and local transportation agencies should use federal money to construct high-quality biking and walking infrastructure.

State and local DOTs deploy an array of excuses to avoid building designs like protected bike lanes. “It’s not in the manual” is a favorite. So is “the feds won’t fund that.”

Whether these excuses are cynical or sincere, FHWA wants you to know that they’re bogus.

Last week, the agency released a “clarifying” document that shoots down, on the record, some of the common refrains people hear from their DOT when they ask for safer street designs. This is a good document to print out and take to the next public meeting where you expect a transportation engineer might try the old “my-hands-are-tied” routine.

Here are the seven things FHWA wants to be absolutely clear about:

1. Federal funds CAN be used to build protected bike lanes.

In case any doubt remains, FHWA printed its own design guide for protected bike lanes. It’s okay to use federal money to build them.

2. Federal funds CAN be used for road diets.

FHWA created a whole website to help states and municipalities implement road diets that reduce lanes for motor vehicle traffic to improve safety. FHWA wants local agencies to know that federal money can be used on them.

3. Engineers are allowed to use design guides other than the AASHTO Green Book for projects that receive federal funds. 

The AASHTO Green Book — published by the association of state DOTs — is a behemoth, but its crusty old street design standards aren’t the only game in town. The protected bike lane templates in the design guide published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials are totally kosher. Go ahead and use them. FHWA says it supports a “flexible approach to the planning and design of bike and pedestrian facilities.” That means “It’s not in the Green Book, so we can’t do it” isn’t a valid excuse.

Peter Koonce, a transportation engineer with the City of Portland, said this clarification should make designing quality bike infrastructure easier.

“Agencies like ours occasionally encounter resistance to the use of treatments in the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the FHWA Separated Bike Lane Guide, or other Guidance documents from reviewing agencies [] because there is a lack of familiarity with new treatments, thus a difficulty to apply engineering judgment,” he said. “An example of this is bicycle traffic signals.”

4. “Highway” funding CAN be used for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

It’s not only the Transportation Alternatives Program that can be used to fund bike and pedestrian infrastructure, FHWA says. Many other sources of federal funding can be used to support safer biking and walking in the right circumstances, including funds from the huge pot in the Surface Transportation Program.

5. Vehicle lanes DON’T have to be a certain width to receive federal funds.

No, lanes don’t have to be at least 11 feet wide on the National Highway System or at least nine feet wide on local roads. According to FHWA: “There is no minimum lane width requirement to be eligible for Federal funding.”

FHWA refers to blanket adherence to typical lane-width standards as “nominal safety,” but using engineering judgment based on the particular circumstances as “substantive safety,” urging engineers to practice the latter.

Also: “In appropriate contexts, narrower lanes, combined with other features associated with them, can be marginally safer than wider lanes.”

6. Curb extensions, roundabouts, and trees CAN be used on streets in the National Highway System.

“There is no prohibition on incorporating these features on NHS projects,” FHWA says. “Curb extensions, also known as bulbouts or neckdowns, can have significant benefits for pedestrian safety.”

7. Speed limits DO NOT need to be set using average vehicle speed. 

Another common myth the FHWA addresses is the idea that the speed limit for federally funded roads must be set using the “85th percentile” rule — which means that the limit is based on the speed that the fastest 15 percent of drivers exceed on a road. FHWA calls the 85th Percentile rule “just one part” of an approach that should consider other factors like pedestrian traffic. FHWA has its own tool for calculating appropriate speed limits.

  • Ed Ravin

    “Vehicle lanes DON’T have to be a certain width to receive federal funds” – that excuse was used by the city administration (Dinkins or Giuliani, I forget which) when they removed the bike lane on 6th ave north of 42nd Street after a street reconstruction.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    What city did such elaborate road markings for bicycle riders in an intersection shown in the picture? I know it wasn’t the city of Los Angeles, which has never done a intersection treatment specifically for bicycle riders.

  • J

    Pretty sure that’s Vancouver, BC.

    https://goo.gl/maps/r7PZO

  • Stewart Clamen

    Looks like Vancouver to me (note the British Columbia flag)

  • Jesse Bailey

    Great news! Nice reporting Angie.

  • Gezellig

    You can also tell it’s Canadian because Canada uses diamond markings to alert drivers that the lane has any sort of restricted/special use (whether that be a dedicated bike lane, high-occupancy vehicle/carpool lane, emergency vehicle lane, taxi lane, etc.) whereas in the US diamonds usually just refer to high-occupancy/carpool lanes.

  • Paul Krueger

    Definitely Vancouver. I know since I took the photo!

    Find it and related images on Flickr here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pwkrueger/5133812437/in/album-72157625160007617/ .

    Anyhow, great news!

  • Azunyan

    Politicians and bureaucrats who come up BS arguments in hopes of shutting up the dissent need to recognize that we live in a world of Google fact checking. Any bogus claims that previously people could not just fact check and assumed to be true because of the time and expenses involved to research those matters can now be done at a stroke of a keyboard and takes less than second.

    BTW, this also goes true for people with vetted special interests or other hidden agenda behind them. Stuff like “I think this is so-and-so, but I offer no proof or data to back up my claims, but you’re going to take my word for it” just doesn’t work anymore in the Google era.

  • Chris

    Here’s a video I made, visiting there in 2013.

  • Please don’t give U.S. Tax Money to Canadian Traffic Engineers. America sends them enough money for all the filming productioin they steal, and their comedians take gigs from Americans.

  • war_on_hugs

    Bike lanes here in DC also use diamonds, FWIW.

  • Joshua Putnam

    While FHWA is friendly to the design guidance of NACTO and others, there are still some binding Federal requirements. Try to count how many times in the past year the MUTCD administrators have had to remind users that:

    “Agencies are reminded to perform due diligence on the Notes in the Urban Bikeway Design Guide and are also reminded that the Urban Bikeway Design Guide does not supersede the MUTCD.”

    http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/knowledge/faqs/faq_part9.htm

  • Gezellig

    Interesting–didn’t know that! As ever, in some ways the US is like 50 (+ more with DC and territories) separate countries with all the differing road signage and rules. Haven’t seen the diamonds for bike lanes here in California or other West Coast states.

    Another funny thing–if you do see the Mr. Mushroom Head On A Bike road stencil it’s definitely the US–never seen this one in Canada:

    https://pavementstencil.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/bike-lane-247×291.jpg

    However, that being said…*not* seeing Mr. Mushroom Head is also perfectly common in the US. Even in San Francisco we see a lot of variation in terms of bike stencils/signage. Mr. Mushroom Head is well represented but then sometimes you’re biking along and there’s this:

    http://www.roughguides.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/05.PacificCoast-173743561-1680×1050.jpg

    In fact, that’s more or less the same stencil you commonly see in the Netherlands–go figure.

  • Dave

    This is off topic, but do you by chance know what kind of helmet she’s wearing? I’m looking for a new one and really like hers. It looks like a Bern but I can’t tell for sure.

  • Guy Ross

    Portland as well.

    Complimentary idiot driver footage for everyone too….

  • USbike

    I’ve never liked the mushroom head stencil that’s so commonly used in the US. I wish they’d just use a regular stencil of a bicycle, as shown in your bottom photo; this is also what’s used in many parts of the world. After all, the sharrows here all have just a regular bicycle stencil. Amusingly, many of the stencils here are worn to the point where the “cap” of the mushroom has been lost!

  • Gezellig

    Thanks for the vid–are you referring to the markings on the speed humps?

    But Portland doesn’t use diamonds for dedicated bike lanes, right? (from what I remember). This is what I’m referring to:

    http://movimentoconviva.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/vancouver-bike-lane-paul-krueger1.jpg

  • Lester Luallin

    Looks like a Nutcase helmet.

  • Guy Ross

    Not sure. The road from which the vid was taken is a ‘bike route’ which is obviously not dedicated. I don’t know if each speed bump in the city is so marked or if this is the indication of the bike route.

  • I’m all for protected bike lanes. Really, I am. I’m just not for the crap that GLP keeps using as examples in EVERY DAMN ONE of its blog posts!

  • Abatu

    actually those are the best manner of bike lanes one could do
    they protect the both pedestrians from crashes (more likely to hit a biker instead)
    while offering bikers the ability to actually be protected from the drivers aswell since parked cars and the curb are between them and the driver

    painting a thin strip for a “bike lane” isn’t really effective here (U.S)…most drivers will still feel ok with going into the bike

  • Deirdre1

    That is fine for small cities, like Portland and Vancouver. It doesn’t work in L.A. Our traffic is bad enough. If a lane is taken away from cars for the cyclists, traffic gets worse. At no point will that make car drivers want to switch to cycling. It will just increase their hostility.

  • Respectfully disagree. LA roadways are notorious for being overly wide for the amount of traffic they handle. Not all but many. If NYCDoT can take lanes out of avenues in Manhattan without adverse traffic effects, LA can easily do the same on select streets.

  • I’m not trying to start an argument here (so this is the last I’ll talk about it) but having contraflow traffic to the right of motor traffic on a one-way is FAR from idea or where bicyclists are expected. A two-way cycletrack to the left of one-way motorized traffic is much more predictable place to put contraflow bike traffic. I’m not a big fan of two-way cycletracks at all but if you’re going to show a photographed of a cycletrack don’t show a photo of one of the more questionable designs.

  • Gezellig

    From the Vancouver area to Arlington County Virginia to the Bay Area etc. etc. the more you provide other options, the more some people will take them instead of driving:

    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/08/05/in-vancouver-traffic-decreases-as-population-rises/

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2014/11/12/studies-show-car-traffic-in-san-francisco-is-dropping/

    http://www.census.gov/hhes/commuting/files/2014/acs-32.pdf?eml=gd&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery

    Los Angeles is no exception. In fact, as LA continues to expand transit the number of daily transit riders in LA just keeps on going up:

    http://www.metro.net/news/ridership-statistics/

    Even though LA has a lot more to do re: bike infrastructure, the rate of bike modeshare is also growing at a rate much higher than population growth:

    http://la-bike.org/node/246

    Finally, having myself lived in a couple different neighborhoods within Los Angeles I’m well aware of how the presence of nearby walking/transit/bike infrastructure impacted my and my friends’ own modal decisions depending on what was nearby.

  • Gezellig

    The data-driven approach is what matters.

    Even within several months of their installation Vancouver was already noting how crashes in the facilities above had reduced by 18% even while ridership went up 36%:

    http://www.apbp.org/?page=Vancouver

    http://former.vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk//20110728/documents/penv2-DowntownSeparatedBikeLanesStatusReportSummer2011.pdf

    One of the major contributors to their safety is the full attention given to signalization–cars are banned from turning right on reds and bikes get their own signal.

    Having biked on both of those stretches I think if there’s anything that’s lacking it’s their subpar width, however.

  • Soren Impey

    portland did use diamonds as bike lane markings in the 80s and early 90s. some of those are still around.

  • oceanstater

    While this post doesn’t indicate that bike facilities are required, it shows that they can be more widely considered Then its up to us in the bike community to make a case for them. In Rhode Island it is a hard sell because years of inadequate maintenance have put so many of our bridges in poor shape and our DOT says they need to give that a priority, and we too have motorists quick to feel sorry for themselves if any other mode gets attention.

  • CeeTee55

    Better enforcement is the answer, not buckling into driver’s bad habits or feelings of entitlement.

  • Jim Lindner

    What I hear is the state of Ohio requires federal gas tax money to be used for the benefit of motor vehicles only. All federal funds are considered to be gas tax funds.

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