When Will America’s Street Design Bible Enter the 21st Century?

Signs that say "Bike Lane Ends" now have the official stamp of approval in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. That's what counts as progress. Photo:  Phil Riggan via Twitter
Signs that say "Bike Lane Ends" now have the official stamp of approval in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. That's what counts as progress. Photo: Phil Riggan via Twitter

Cities around the country are trying out new street design treatments that put walking, biking, and transit first. What makes this new wave of street design all the more impressive is that city DOTs have to do it without much guidance from the nation’s transportation engineering establishment.

The bibles of American street engineering still don’t recommend designs like protected bike lanes. If these industry standards ever do catch up to modern practice, the pace of change would accelerate, as more engineers feel comfortable designing multi-modal streets. But so far, guides like the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which lays out rules for pavement markings and traffic signals and signs, have been slow to adapt.

The engineers who control the manuals are in no rush to embrace change. Following the emergence of more city-friendly street design guides published by National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which publishes the MUTCD, established a “task force” to investigate “interest groups that may not be part of the NCUTCD” and propagate street designs that don’t conform to their rules.

Old-school American engineers like to say that NACTO-endorsed street designs are unproven and need more study before their safety can be certified. Meanwhile, traffic deaths in the United States are soaring while countries with street design philosophies closer to NACTO’s continue to achieve safety gains.

Last year, the number of people killed on American roads surged back above 40,000. In light of that development, we asked NCUTCD chair Lee Billingsley, the former deputy director of public works for Broward County, Florida, for an interview about what the committee is working on.

When the committee met in January, he said, it approved green backgrounds for “sharrows” and signs that inform people where a bike lane ends.

Billingsley said he hadn’t heard the new national fatality data from the National Safety Council and that the committee doesn’t have any specific response planned to combat the rising death toll. But “anything that any of our members see in those statistics that they feel would translate into changes needed in the manual” could potentially be considered.

“We’re working to try to enhance highway safety all the time,” he said.

I asked whether some engineering standards might be worth revising to improve safety. For example, Boston-based engineer Peter Furth has highlighted how signal timing conventions prioritize motor vehicle movement at the expense of pedestrian safety. Should those standards change?

Billingsley defended them without ruling out changes. “They’ve stood the test of time,” he said. “If there are improvements that can be made to the warrants we would bring those forward. There’s been a great deal of research that exists on the warrants in the manual.”

In 2013, the League of American Bicyclists called for the MUTCD to reflect current thinking about the design of bike infrastructure. Advocates were frustrated by the slow pace of approval for treatments like protected bike lanes, which are still considered “experimental.”

I asked Billingsley if he thinks the committee is, in general, making progress quickly enough on standards that make walking and biking safer.

Billingsley pointed to the plodding schedule for updating the print edition of the MUTCD, which is produced by the Federal Highway Administration. The text of the print edition was published in 2009, but finished in 2007. Although there was a revision published in 2012, a new print version may not be officially adopted until 2021.

In the meantime, said Billingsley, the committee has been approving some new treatments, like contraflow bike lanes, on an interim basis.

  • Robert Engle

    “For example, Boston-based engineer Peter Furth has highlighted how signal timing conventions prioritize motor vehicle movement at the expense of pedestrian safety. Should those standards change?
    Billingsley defended them without ruling out changes. “They’ve stood the test of time,” he said.”
    I wonder if by saying “They’ve stood the test of time” he realizes that he is saying harming pedestrians at higher rates is part of his goal.

  • Ben Ross

    The statement that “there’s a great deal of research” is very misleading. Driver reaction to many of the more recent additions to the manual was studied only before they were adopted, when drivers were unfamiliar with them. Once drivers get familiar, behavior can change. For example, flashing lights that a driver has never seen before will naturally induce caution, while drivers familiar with them may ignore them.

    Some of the older (and more basic) concepts in the MUTCD were adopted many decades ago, when driving conditions were very different from today. Research at that time has limited relevance to current behavior.

  • That response was glaring. Basically: “We’ve been killing people in high numbers with our street designs, so we are simply going to continue to do so.”

  • J

    THe entire MUTCD appears to be a conservative one, based on extensive evidence and thorough research. If the current system was safe, this would be a prudent approach. Just like with new medicines we don’t just test things willy nilly. However, the current system is directly responsible for killing 1,000s and injuring millions each year. Perversely, this plodding approach is leading to the very death and injury it aims to prevent.

  • gneiss

    It is doubtful that NCUTCD believes that they hold any responsibility for the rising death toll. All the various transportation engineering organizations have been trying to suggest that driver and pedestrian behavior is at fault, particularly the fallacious charge that distracted walking is at the root of the uptick in fatalities.

    To suggest otherwise, would be to directly challenge their approach and methodology, which could open themselves up to potential liability claims. As a result, they have a significant economic incentive to maintain the status quo.

  • SD70MACMAN

    Ignore those deaths. The extensive, decades-old research which has clearly withstood time itself, says MUTCD is safe and this infalliable. /s

  • Asher Of LA

    From personal experience, this is the Bureaucrat’s Brick Wall of Intransigence. The subtext of his responses is:

    “You’re not my boss, you can’t get me fired, I have no reason to listen to you, now go away… The rules are the rules, always have been, always will be.”

    In person, it’s usually conveyed with a contemptuous blank stare.

  • That is a really good point.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Angie makes multiple errors in this article and it thus calls into question how well researched it is. She also demonstrates a lack of understanding about which guides and standards dictate what happens on the street. The photo with the “Bike Lane Ends” sign; that has long existed (well over a decade), so the caption is erroneous. In fact, that sign shown is old and outdated, going back to when diamonds were used in bike lanes.

    The MUTCD is not a guide, it is the federal standard for TCDs, and the reason is to have uniformity across the country with respect to signs, signals, and markings. The AASHTO green book and others are guides. Also, the MUTCD simply provides the basic standards and applications for TCDs; it is not a street design manual. It is referenced in the same paragraph as “protected bike lanes” yet it doesn’t prevent the design of those. In fact, “protected” bike lanes are not experimental under the MUTCD because “protected” bike lanes are not a TCD. And many TCD elements from NACTO can be used currently. Some have interim approval (e.g. green enhanced bike lanes), while others require a request to experiment during the evaluation period (bike boxes).

    NACTO is quite lacking itself. It is largely a lot of renderings that provide no details or standardization for design elements. If it is so simple then why isn’t there a robust document with those specifics so that practitioners could easily design and implement this stuff. Truth be told the entire profession is in a state of transition and learning. Heck, NACTO started out purveying the substandard Danish intersection design (as opposed to more advanced Dutch design), simply because it was easier. But even then it still can be challenging to implement. Dutch-style “protected intersections” require A LOT of space, and in compact, old cities it can be very challenging to design within limited right of way. For example, Utrecht has streets 110′ wide not including the sidewalks. On a two-lane road it is ~70′ with the sidewalks. In my city we don’t have any streets with that kind of space.

    With respect to time to update the MUTCD; yes it can be laborious, however the criticisms are sometimes unfounded. Slapping paint and signs on the road doesn’t do much to enhance safety, and it requires rigorous review and periods of experimentation to evaluate the benefits and outcomes. The bike boxes are a good example. Their use in western Europe is applied differently than here, but people will frequently say “you should use a bike box” when it doesn’t even serve the intended purpose. In fact, the experimental period for them was suspended due to some unintended consequences, including deaths of cyclists. Ooops. But people still clamor for them, seeing them as some kind of silver bullet.

    One inconvenient truth is that in Western Europe there is much more education for drivers and cyclists. So everyone is more educated and aware of rights and responsibilities. Here everyone wants to insist on more signs, paint, flex posts, and other items while ignoring the fact that there is a need for a huge cultural shift and more education. I live this daily in my work as a bike/ped planner. I’ve been a cyclist for 35+ years and I’m often amazed at the poor behaviors of all modes. A coworker talks about a specific terrifying street (it’s not, but lately we like to fear-monger it seems), but then I see her blithely proceed straight through an intersection from the right turn only lane without so much as a glance back as she veers into the through lane. And I see that same thing day after day. And if she or someone gets hit while doing that people will be sure to blame the dangerous street design.

  • neroden

    Oh, throw away MUCTD.

    It should be possible to get state legislatures to endorse the NATCO standards instead; state legislators hear from city officials *constantly*. Once the state endorses using the NATCO standards, MUCTD is just a worthless book put out by some worthless organization.

  • neroden

    The original MUCTD standards were not based on evidence OR research. They were slapdash and haphazard. Because NCUTCD is *so slow to change anything*, many of these ancient, bogus, dangerous “standards” *are still in the MUCTD*.

    Portions of the MUCTD which were rewritten more recently, say, *post-1980*, are better, but they’re so conservative that a lot of it dates from the 1950s, and the stuff from that era is *total garbage*, not evidence-based at all.

    The correct move would be to completely throw out any part of the MUCTD which was never based on proper evidence in the first place — which is most of it. But there’s a cover-your-ass attitude going on.

  • neroden

    We can get them fired. MUCTD has no legal authority which can’t be revoked. State legislatures have control over highway funding and can simply throw the MUCTD book in the garbage and use NACTO.

    FHWA approved NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide in 2014 and Caltrans endorsed it earlier. Let’s let MUCTD fall by the wayside and throw it in the trash heap of history.

    This is a straightforward campaign now (thank you NACTO).

  • JimthePE

    Sorry, no.

    The MUTCD is the national regulation on traffic control devices, and state codes must be in “substantial compliance” with the MUTCD. Agencies are required to use it. The NACTO Guide is just that – a guide that agencies can choose to uss.

    http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a2583ef3fa3a41e5b157549f8dd705ab&mc=true&node=pt23.1.655&rgn=div5#se23.1.655_1603

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Gee, my long and detailed comment from yesterday didn’t get posted. I guess Angie didn’t like me taking her to task for a poorly written and researched article.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    FYI Neroden (and others) the NACTO guide is very simplistic and doesn’t have enough depth and detail to replace anything. It is a starting point that is evolving. Secondly, the MUTCD is the Federal Government’s set of standards, not “some organization’s”. Thirdly, the MUTCD isn’t a design guide, it is the set of standards that ensure uniformity across the US in signs, signals, and pavement markings. Most of the NACTO guide can be implemented regardless of the MUTCD with the exception of some uses of pavement markings (e.g. sharrows in bike lanes through intersections, bike boxes are still experimental, etc).

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Angie, stop deleting my posts critical of the article and pointing out errors. It demonstrates extreme bias and shows that you lack journalistic integrity. Streetsblog should inform its readers and foster instructive dialogue.

  • Kyle McLaughlin

    I guess that’s why we go to school? We spend 50-100-150k in universities to learn engineering judgement. Don’t get me wrong, having a set of standards to refer to is an extremely beneficial tool. However, when those standards restrict progress into better/more efficient building patterns, they become less beneficial and more restrictive.

    Knowing the standards is one thing, however having a wide breadth of knowledge, and more importantly being able to make unique solutions for every project based on circumstance and community wants/needs/visions is what engineers should be doing, and MUTCD (and especially the application of the AASHTO greenbook in urban areas, but that’s a different fight all together) need to take a big step into the 21st century to stop thinking of personal vehicles as the priority mode.

  • Bernard Finucane

    >“We’re working to try to enhance highway safety all the time,” he said.

    Yeah, but the problem is the city streets.

  • Nathan C Rhodes

    So is “working to try”…they’re not even trying, just working to try. That’s pathetic.

  • I didn’t delete your original comment. Just a subsequent one attacking me for deleting a comment I didn’t delete. Yeesh. I’m gonna delete this one too here in a minute. Go ahead and try your original post again. I don’t know what else to day.

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