Change Is Afoot on the Country’s Most Important Street Design Committee
Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.
One year after some progressive civil engineers around the country feared a crackdown against new-fangled street and signal designs, the opposite seems to be taking place.
The obscure but powerful National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which has often been a drag on changes in American street design, is now moving on several fronts to bring in new blood and prepare U.S. streets for a future that’d be much friendlier to biking and walking.
One of its member organizations is organizing into a disciplined voting bloc in favor of better tools to improve biking and walking. A prominent organization for urbanist transportation pros, NACTO, may be invited to join. And just Thursday, the Federal Highway Administration wrapped up a public comment period that could lead to the NCUTCD greatly accelerating updates to the design guidance it gives cities around the country.
“This is the most exciting time in my career,” said Dongho Chang, Seattle’s city traffic engineer and one of the NCUTCD’s new voting members this year. “I think we’re on the cusp of having that committee think much more broadly than just the highway focus.”
Institute for Transportation Engineers will use its votes to support ‘multimodal decisions’
The shifts have accelerated since Jan. 1, when one of the NCUTCD’s major affiliate groups, the Institute for Transportation Engineers, inducted a new president.
As one of her first initiatives in office, ITE President Paula Benway began using ITE’s eight voting seats on the NCUTCD to push for change on the national committee.
“We used to call it a ghost committee — nobody knew anything about it,” Benway, a longtime transportation consultant in Rochester, N.Y. who now works for Stantec in Tampa, said in an interview last week. “I’ve heard a lot of concerns, and I promised I was going to take some action to make it a little more visible, make it a little more transparent.”
So Benway began sticking to ITE’s previously unenforced term limits on its NCUTCD delegates. And she also gave them a new rule: Those delegates would report to ITE’s leadership regularly to make sure their voting record on NCUTCD reflects ITE goals like making streets biking- and walking-friendly.
“Their decisions must be aligned to what ITE stands for,” Benway said in an interview last week. “That we’re foward-thinking. That we’re willing to experiment with new treatments, especially with multimodal decisions.”
For Benway, making the NCUTCD more receptive to bike-specific facilities is personal.
“I’m a cyclist myself, so I have a soft spot for multimodal facilities, and that’s what I promote in everything I do professionally,” she said.
Chang, who has earned a reputation as one of the country’s most progressive engineers on biking and walking infrastructure, called Benway a “game changer” for ITE.
Urbanist professionals’ group invited to join MUTCD as voting member
Last year, Chang was among several urbanist engineers named to an NCUTCD task force that was assigned to help the national committee solve a problem.
The problem: U.S. cities were rapidly importing ideas from abroad, like painted bike lanes and dedicated bike signals, before the MUTCD had had a chance to fully approve them.
Most people agreed that this was creating inconsistency.
To pick one example: Memphis was using green paint to mark the parts of bike lanes that cars might cross, while New York City was using green paint to mark the parts of bike lanes where cars can’t.
The NCUTCD task force might have chosen to condemn cities that used new designs without permission. Instead, Chang said, it came to the conclusion that the NCUTCD needed to change.
“What the task force said was, ‘You’re not serving the needs of the community. You need to change this process,'” Chang said.
During that conversation: Chang and another urbanist engineer in the group, Peter Koonce of Portland, started pitching an idea: inviting the progressive, city-focused National Association of City Transportation Officials to become an NCUTCD member organization alongside ITE, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and others.
Chang hopes that NACTO will decide to formally apply.
“It would create a paradigm shift,” Chang said. “Having NACTO on the board saying ‘these are the tools that we need to have for the manuals, these are the things we need to have for the research,’ they can help drive some of the agenda.”
Chang said he “would think” that an organization of NACTO’s size (it has 12 staffers and hosts a significant annual conference) would get the same eight seats as the NCUTCD’s founding organizations, ITE and AASHTO.
“If NACTO really wants to provide long-term change then being part of the committee is a huge mechanism,” Chang said. “That’s probably one of the most effective ways to get these tools to practitioners.”
Federal Highway Administration weighs faster changes to crucial street manual
The third front of change at the NCUTCD is in the hands of the federal agency that gives the private committee its authority: the Federal Highway Administration.
In December, the FHWA requested comments about, among other things, the “frequency of MUTCD editions.”
Updates to the NCUTCD’s massive Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices are notoriously slow-moving. The text of the current edition was prepared in 2007; the next one may not be adopted at the state level until 2021.
Benway, Chang and others worry that that’s an eternity in the fast-evolving transportation world.
“If you look at the MUTCD and say all of this stuff looks like it was written in the mid-90s, that’s because it was,” said Matthew Roe, the director of NACTO’s Designing Cities Intiative.
Roe said that the FHWA “definitely look like they’re fishing” for people to respond with ideas for either splitting the MUTCD into two documents, one updated more frequently than the other, or distinguishing between two types of content in the manual, with one content type updated more freuqently than the other.
ITE this month urged the FHWA to take the latter route, creating separate processes for updating the MUTCD’s “standards” (things like the proper color of plastic posts that separate a bike lane) and its “guidance” (things like whether it’s OK to use plastic posts to separate a bike lane).
In ITE’s letter, Benway suggested a regular process for making small revisions to the MUTCD “every 2-3 years” in between its major updates every six to eight years.
“Regular updates will allow the MUTCD to change with time to reflect the growing number and application of traffic control devices,” Benway wrote.