The High Priesthood of Transportation Engineering Has a New Leader

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has a wide-ranging influence on street design around the nation. Photo:  MUCTD Info
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has a wide-ranging influence on street design around the nation. Photo: MUCTD Info

The men and women who write the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices are an obscure bunch. But their influence over our living environments and how we get around extends almost everywhere you go in America.

This group of a few hundred engineers, which goes by the unpronounceable acronym NCUTCD (it stands for the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), is responsible for setting engineering standards for street configurations, striping, signs, and signals. The industry templates for everything from crosswalks to bike lanes to freeway exit signs can’t be changed without their say-so.

Do your city’s street engineers feel comfortable implementing protected bike lanes? Probably not without the blessing of the NCUTCD, and they have been withholding it for a long time. The group is notoriously slow to evolve and still hasn’t given its stamp of approval for protected bike lanes. While many local governments aren’t waiting for NCUTCD to catch up to modern practice, many others are reluctant to depart from their standards.

Gene Hawkins is nominated to chair the group that writes a key engineering manual. Photo:
Gene Hawkins, new chair of the NCUTCD. Photo: Texas A&M

Lee Billingsley, who chaired the NCUTCD since 2004, recently stepped down from the top spot on the committee. I interviewed Billingsley back in March, and he defended the slow pace of change. At a time when America’s traffic safety record is falling even farther behind global peer nations, with drivers killing 6,000 people walking on our streets each year, Billingsley said conventions in the MUTCD like pedestrian signal timing have “stood the test of time.”

Two veteran members of the NCUTCD were nominated to replace Billingley, and it was Gene Hawkins, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M, who was elected. Hawkins was previously vice chair under Billingsley.

We initially contacted Hawkins and the other nominee, Jon Upchurch, a retired engineer who teaches at the University of Northern Arizona, in September, in order to get a feel for their sensibilities before the vote. Even though NCUTCD staff had informed Streetsblog that Hawkins and Upchurch were nominated, both refused to comment at the time, saying the nominations were not official yet.

We followed up with Hawkins more recently and he replied to our questions via email.

Will he lead the NCUTCD in a way that’s open to change? Any successful reform effort to will have to produce a culture shift at NCUTCD, where sluggishness to embrace new ideas seems to be a point of pride. When refusing to sign off on new design treatments, committee members often couch their position as a defense of data and research — without sufficient study, their argument goes, it would be irresponsible to allow new things.

The case for defending the status quo in the U.S. has never been that strong, however, and it continues to erode as the nation’s terrible traffic fatality rate keeps getting worse. In 2016, traffic deaths topped 40,000, the worst total in almost a decade, and a major reversal of a long-time trend.

America’s traffic safety establishment is finally coming to grips with the failures of longstanding street design practice. The National Transportation Safety Board, for instance, recently came out with a landmark report on the need to reduce exposure to lethal vehicular speeds. Engineering practices like the 85th Percentile Rule, which essentially holds that streets are designed well when 85 percent of drivers travel at or below the posted speed limit, should be replaced by standards that explicitly prioritize safety, the NTSB recommended.

Our questions for Hawkins centered on how the NCUTCD will adapt to the increasingly prevalent understanding of the ways conventional American street engineering puts people at risk. Below is the Q&A, lightly edited for length and clarity.

NTSB recently advised against strict adherence to the 85th Percentile Rule in light of the growing traffic fatality rate. The MUTCD still advises more or less strict adherence to it. Would you support changing that?

The NCUTCD is aware of the NTSB report and one of the technical committees is reviewing it.

The strength of the NCUTCD is its consensus-building process that considers input from many reviewers among its sponsoring organizations. If the technical committee recommends changes to MUTCD language based on the NTSB report, the recommended language will be distributed to the sponsoring organizations for review. The review comments will be considered by the technical committee and may lead to changes in the recommendation.

If approved by the technical committee after sponsor review, the proposal would then be presented to the NCUTCD Council for debate, possible change, and potential approval. It is only after approval by the Council that the NCUTCD would submit a recommendation for a change to MUTCD language to the FHWA, who owns the MUTCD.

To become official MUTCD language, that change would then need to go through the federal rulemaking process, a process that includes the opportunity for public comment. As chair of the NCUTCD, my job is to manage and administer the organization to optimize the process of developing MUTCD recommendations. It is not my responsibility to support or oppose any particular proposal.

Engineers like Boston’s Peter Furth have been critical of some aspects of the MUTCD, saying for example that signal timing conventions put pedestrians at risk in places like Boston. What is your response? Do you think any of that is due for revision in light of the skyrocketing pedestrian and cycling death rate?

I have yet to find a person who believes that the 2009 MUTCD is perfect and does not need to be changed. The many members of the NCUTCD volunteer thousands of person-hours each year developing recommended changes to the MUTCD for FHWA to consider for future rulemaking efforts.

I would encourage anyone that has thoughts on how the MUTCD should be improved to get involved with the NCUTCD and work with our other volunteers to develop recommended improvements to the MUTCD. If they do not want to get involved with the NCUTCD, their other option for impacting future MUTCD language is to wait until a proposed change is published in the Federal Register and then submit a comment to the public docket.

How would you like the committee to respond to the recent declines in traffic safety?

I know that all of the members of the NCUTCD consider safety as a significant issue as they develop, review, revise, and approve recommended changes to MUTCD language. As they have in the past, I would expect NCUTCD members to give utmost consideration to the safety of the traveling public in all their deliberations.

  • Setty/Steven

    A firebrand!

  • Is it hot in here or is it just you? ?

  • DisqusNYC

    It’s one tenth inspiration, nine tenths transportation.

  • Stephen Simac

    sounds like nothing will change from the top. Those were as bland statements and indecipherable as the Federal Reserve. Have to work from the bottom up apparently. However, there are twisty alleys that exemptions from the standards can be granted. Not easy to get through, and sometimes dead end.

  • Asher Of LA

    Bureaucratic non-responses, no leadership ahead.

    He co-authored a guide to bike facilities. He’s the last of several authors, and it’s 20 years old, so it’s not clear how much it reflects his current views. That said, it’s pretty awful: it shows cyclists sharing lanes with big trucks as a viable form of bike infrastructure, does not depict protected bike lanes, and shows the typical bike rider as a hardcore road cyclist in spandex.

    https://i.imgur.com/xg0EBKh.png
    https://i.imgur.com/TZl9xmE.jpg

    https://static.tti.tamu.edu/tti.tamu.edu/documents/1449-3F.pdf

    He hasn’t published anything about bikes since. A brief skimming of his publications and his commitment to passivity in his responses suggests little cause for optimism that he will change anything.

    Here’s a list of his publications:
    https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=D57i27UAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate

  • keenplanner

    With so many pedestrian deaths, I’d say that the “conventions in the MUTCD like pedestrian signal timing” have failed the test of time.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    It’s kind of ironic that the main legitimate issue taken with the MUTCD is ped signal timing (and the issue of delay), and yet “protected bike lanes” typically incorporate a two-stage crossing, which induces…delay. As does the call to have separate phasing for all modes.

  • Andy Stow

    The final sentence is a laugh. “As they have in the past, I would expect NCUTCD members to give utmost consideration to the safety of the traveling public in all their deliberations.”

    Maybe replace “utmost” with “token.”

  • gneiss

    The supposed commitment to consensus building means that they don’t want to change the rule despite evidence to the contrary, as this would anger the motorist lobbies at the various states where this has been made into law.

  • These responses by Hawkins are extremely disappointing. It sounds like his #1 priority is to not rub anyone on the committee the wrong way, not to improve safety.

    And when he recommends getting involved and working with other volunteers, is he talking about the committee members? Is getting meaningfully involved even an option if you’re not a professional/academic engineer, and instead just happen to care about not dying on our streets?

  • dustinjamesfoster

    The most pathetic answers and the most crushingly bureaucratic process for change. Of course nothing will drastically improve for walking and bicycling…the system is rigged against protecting those modes from fast automobiles.

  • SD70MACMAN

    Which is why we have to keep fighting the good fight at the local level. More and more urban transportation engineers are understanding shortcomings of MUCTD and moving towards NACTO.

  • JimthePE

    I met him a few times years ago. For what it’s worth, the impression I got then leads me to be cautiously optimistic. He did a lot of research into human factors like legibility and comprehension of signs. I think that will be useful.

    Still, that was 15 years ago, and these non-answers aren’t exactly reassuring.

  • Drew Levitt

    Also, notice that in the “Typical Bicycle and Rider Dimensions” figure, 2.5 meters is represented as 6 feet horizontally but 8.5 feet vertically! (It’s about 8 feet 2.5 inches.) Sloppy.

  • Isaac B

    It seems like whenever someone proposes something that favors people who walk or bike, the response is “but the MUTCD!” But somehow when it comes to making life miserable for people who don’t drive, the MUTCD is not there.

    One of the busiest intersections in Atlantic City NJ, with 6 lanes to cross (in an area ironically branded “The Walk”) has a literal 1-second walk interval. Normal adults get stuck on an island. And a huge planter stands between the crosswalk and the “beg button”. In another intersection not far away, the beg button is on a pole adjacent to a property rather where it’s normally expected. Where’s the MUTCD for travesties like these?

  • Isaac B

    “Traveling public” means the people in motor vehicles. Everyone else is “other”.

  • JimthePE

    MUTCD Section 4E.06, Pedestrian Intervals and Signal Phases, specifies a minimum 7 second walk interval, with an unfortunate option that it may be reduced to 4 seconds “if pedestrian volumes and characteristics do not require a 7-second walk interval.”
    If the planter makes it difficult for a person in a wheelchair to push the button, it’s a violation of both the MUTCD and ADA Law requirements.
    I’d send a letter to the city DPW, and send a copy to the city attorney’s office. At least that way, if something happens, the city will be on notice and it will be harder for them to defend a lawsuit.
    If you want to be really nasty, send a copy of the letter about the ADA violation to the US DOJ Civil Rights Notice. Just be aware that this may result in a consent order making the city find and fix all their ADA violations within 3 years, and your property taxes may go up as a result.

  • Jonathan Upchurch

    Although not a spokesperson for the National Committee, nor authorized to speak on its behalf, I make the following comments based on many years of participation in the Committee.

    National Committee members are all volunteers – about 300 of them – who, collectively, contribute over 15,000 hours of their time each year.

    Anyone is welcome to attend National Committee meetings, held twice each year. 305 individuals attended the most recent meeting.

    The Committee is a consensus-building organization that brings together a wide variety of perspectives from organizations representing users of the roadway system (such as AAA), safety organizations (National Safety Council), bicycle and pedestrian groups, public transportation, owners and operators of roadways, and others. The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals and League of American Bicyclists are sponsors of the Committee and members from those organizations serve as members of the Committee.

    The Federal Highway Administration is the custodian of the MUTCD and the entity that can make changes to the MUTCD. Any member of the public (an individual or organization), can make recommendations for changes to the Manual and comment when FHWA utilizes rulemaking to change the MUTCD. That is the mechanism – again, available to anyone – by which the National Committee makes recommendations. The National Committee is not an entity of the federal government.

    Anyone who is interested in participating in the National Committee’s work may apply to serve on the Committee. Each year the Committee welcomes 25 to 30 new members.

    About 20 years ago several individuals interested in allowing traffic control devices to better serve pedestrians with visual, hearing and other disabilities joined the Committee. Through their participation, and sharing their knowledge, the MUTCD now better serves those populations. Those individuals contributed to the process and affected change.

    The Federal Highway Administration (and other federal agencies) control how often the MUTCD is updated. The last edition was produced in 2009. Many, many volunteers on the Committee share the same frustration expressed by some Streetsblog readers. There are new tools and applications recommended by the Committee that should be in the MUTCD. But, including them in the Manual depends on FHWA’s action.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    The MUTCD and NACTO isn’t an appropriate comparison on many levels. The MUTCD pertains only to signs, signals, and pavement markings. The MUTCD doesn’t get into facility design and geometrics but to a very limited extent. Very little in NACTO is not allowed by the MUTCD (largely details related to things like the appropriate bike lane extensions in intersections and the appropriate markings to use).

    Lastly the MUTCD is also federal law. Signs, signals and pavement markings are to be uniform from city to city, state to state. A good example is sharrows; they are already poorly understood, and that becomes even worse when people start using them for different purposes. Their limited meaning/understanding gets further muddied and diluted. But they have been employed on shared use paths, pedestrian plazas, bike lane extensions through intersections, etc. Also, NACTO still needs to develop a lot in order to be truly meaningful. There is a lot of technical detail wanting and it makes it hard for the average PE to incorporate designs that don’t have details fleshed out, but instead are quite general.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    What evidence to the contrary? Ironically it is the protracted process of study, experimental use, etc that people bemoan. A good example is bike boxes. They were allowed under experimental use, but cities started experiencing issues of safety. They were pulled, more guidance was developed, and they are now available again for experimental use. That data then informs both the official adoption of a TCD, and the standards and guidelines that go into the manual.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Oh, the horror! Rounding to a half foot for simplicity of standardization and implementation. Is that the worst offense you can find?

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    For everyone griping about the MUTCD…please share the top three things you feel are wrong with it, and what you would propose. Specifics please.

  • Drew Levitt

    Far from it! Indeed, my “bigger” quibble was that 2.5 meters was incorrectly labeled as *6* feet elsewhere in the figure. But yes, that’s also just nit-picking.

  • Michael King

    As the co-author of the NACTO USDG, I would like to remind that its raison d’etre was to help practitioners think about solutions, not dictate solutions.

  • Isaac B

    Thank you!

    (One to-do: Check 4E.06 if “walk interval” includes the flashing hand or just steady walk. Answer: 7 seconds of steady walk to start the crossing)

    Yay!

  • neroden

    85th percentile rule is not a reasonable way to set speed limits. It should be reversed. Any road where more than 15% of traffic is speeding should have a forcible redesign to narrow it and add chicanes.

    Specific enough for you?

  • neroden

    Replace “utmost” with “no”. MUCTD has demonstrably made things less safe for the travelling public.

    The psych studies show that people in cars who *don’t know what to expect* drive more cautiously. Having excessive uniformity in traffic signals causes lazy driving… weird, but there you are.

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