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Green Lane Project Spreads the Word About NACTO’s Bikeway Design Guide

For the next two years, the Green Lane Project will lend expertise and support to Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. as those cities implement the type of infrastructure that has proven successful at leading people to take up biking for transportation. The project bills itself as a “storytelling campaign” for the cities to share their experiences.

Separated, green-painted bike facilities like these are still considered "experimental" by AASHTO and FHWA. NACTO and the Green Lane Project are trying to make them standard. Photo: Cycling##

“We want to build that library of great examples from the United States... rather than having to point people to Europe,” said Green Lane Project director Martha Roskowski.

The Green Lane Project -- which officially kicks off Thursday with an event in Chicago -- will also make an impact beyond those six cities. By broadly disseminating the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, a pioneering document released last year by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the project will reach a critical audience in places that may not have the level of political support for bike infrastructure found in the six cities receiving direct assistance.

Last March the Boulder-based organization Bikes Belong, which oversees the Green Lane Project, co-sponsored the publication of the NACTO guide, the country’s first attempt at a uniform set of traffic-engineering standards for effective bike infrastructure such as protected bike lanes, bike boxes, bike signals and a host of treatments that are just now gaining currency in American cities.

Bikes Belong is also providing funding for the guide’s second module, due out next month, which focuses on bike boulevards.

A guiding force behind these efforts is the vision for more protected bike lanes in the U.S.

“If you look at the good Dutch or Danish systems, on the bigger streets, you provide protection and separation,” said Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. (SRAM, the other sponsor of the NACTO guide, is the major funding source for the Green Lane Project.)

The challenge now is to foster the adoption of NACTO’s designs, so the guide can hold its own next to old-guard engineering standards like the FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ design guidelines.

In its first year, the NACTO guide made a lot of headway. More than 40 U.S. cities have signed on to endorse the guide, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood voiced his support last October.

On-the-ground use of the guide has varied, but a handful of cities -- Austin, Atlanta, Portland, Salt Lake City and Syracuse -- have formally approved the guide as their official resource for bike planning.

Austin adopted the guide through a city council ordinance last August. The city's bike program manager, Annick Beaudet, said the NACTO guide -- and now the Green Lane Project -- validated concepts engineers had explored in a 2009 bicycle master plan.

But Austin, like the five other Green Lane cities, already has political and community support for more innovative bike infrastructure. The project deliberately sought cities “that have already digested the NACTO guide [and] are now moving deeper into the implementation details,” said Roskowski.

Going forward, the goal is to reach out to cities that are at an earlier stage in developing their cycling programs, so that one day “the city engineer in Omaha who wants to design a cycle track doesn’t have to call New York City to get their plans,” said David Vega-Barachowitz, NACTO’s sustainable initiatives program manager.

Progress at the city level will be critical for the next stage of mainstreaming these practices – embedding effective designs for bike infrastructure in state transportation departments. “The states want to make sure we have a vetted, legal position of what [the NACTO guide] is – so they’re not in murky territory,” said Vega-Barachowitz.

"There are a lot of engineers and project designers who are still really intimidated by these designs," Roskowski said. "They’re so new – and so they’re not backed by years and years of safety data."

The MUTCD, last updated in 2009, currently classifies bike boxes and most types of bike signals as “experimental.” Green pavement markings for bike routes recently won interim approval.

AASHTO’s latest Guide for Development of Bicycle Facilities was published in 1999 [PDF], years before American cities began implementing designs like protected bike lanes. An overhauled guide is slated to come out next month, more than doubling the content and adding guidance on treatments like shared-use paths and bike signals. But the update still lags behind the NACTO guide in its “lack of positive guidance for protected bike lanes,” according to Vega-Barachowitz.

Bill Schultheiss, a traffic engineer who serves on the national committee that writes MUTCD updates, said that professionals involved in the MUTCD and AASHTO guidelines are also frustrated at the slow pace of change. There’s a misconception, he said, "of stodgy people who don’t want updates."

Still, he said there are good reasons for planners to take their time with these newer street treatments. "A lot of advocates, a lot of people in charge of biking for public agencies, are not engineers," he said, and can be "desensitized to the responsibilities and liability associated with an engineering license."

Funding for research and evaluation is often a barrier. "People who make the decisions of what gets funded are predominantly from motorist-oriented agencies," less geared toward cycling, Schultheiss said.

As the NACTO guide grows more popular, it could catalyze more dramatic changes to the MUTCD and AASHTO guides -- or it could cement its own authority, becoming a trusted resource alongside the older standards.

"It feels like the NACTO guide is still seen in some sectors as the stepchild to MUTCD and AASHTO," said Roskowski. "We’re interested in knitting that family closer together."

Neufeld pointed out that there’s room for "professional, contextual" flexibility in these matters. "It’s not like an IRS tax code where there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it," he said.

The Green Lane Project should help forge a path for the next generation of American bike infrastructure. "It’s most important that there’s a commitment to innovation," said Neufeld. "I think that all of these cities involved have a lot to learn about the process and how to negotiate the political and public acceptance."

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