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Four Nice Touches in U.S. DOT’s New “Mayors’ Challenge” for Bike Safety

Denver Transportation Director Crissy Fanganello, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard in 2014.

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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.

There’s a difference between bike-safety warnings that focus on blaming victims and warnings that recommend actual systemic improvements. The launch of a Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is the good kind of warning.

Yes, it’d be nice if it weren’t being pegged on the dubious claim that biking has gotten more dangerous in the last few years. Also if U.S. DOT were offering any money for cities that take its advice.

That said, there’s a lot to love in this initiative launched Friday. Let’s count a few of the ways.

The feds want cities to measure successful bike trips, not just bad ones.

Austin, Texas.

In many cities, the only times bikes show up in the official statistics is when something goes wrong.

When a person collides with a car or a curb while biking, they enter the public record. When they roll happily back to work after meeting a friend for tacos, they’re invisible to the spreadsheets that drive traffic engineering decisions.

This is the sort of logic that sometimes leads people to the conclusion that on-street bicycle facilities decrease road safety. What they’re actually doing is increasing bike usage, which in turn is the most important way to increase bike safety. When our primary metric of biking success is the number of people biking rather than the number of people dying, we’re making our cities better across the board, not merely safer.

Foxx’s lead recommendation that cities “count the number of people walking and biking” shouldn’t be revolutionary. But if every city did, it would be.

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Anthony Foxx Challenges Mayors to Protect Pedestrians and Cyclists

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wants mayors to step up bike and pedestrian safety efforts. Photo: Building America's Future

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayors yesterday. Photo: Building America’s Future

With pedestrian and cyclist deaths accounting for a rising share of U.S. traffic fatalities and Congress not exactly raring to take action, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is issuing a direct challenge to America’s mayors to improve street safety. Yesterday Foxx unveiled the “Mayor’s Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets” at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Transportation Committee meeting in Washington.

Overall traffic deaths are on a downward trend in the U.S., but the reduction in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities is not keeping pace with improvements for car occupants. Pedestrians and bicyclists now account for 17 percent of all traffic fatalities in the U.S., and most of these deaths in urban areas, Foxx noted.

Back in September, Foxx told the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh that U.S. DOT is “putting together the most comprehensive, forward-leaning initiative U.S. DOT has ever put forward on bike/ped issues.” The Mayor’s Challenge fleshes out that initiative to some extent.

Foxx wants mayors to implement seven key recommendations from U.S. DOT. In March, mayors and local leaders will convene at DOT headquarters to discuss how to put the recommendations into practice. Participating cities will implement the strategies in the following year, with assistance from U.S. DOT.

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The Feds Quietly Acknowledge the Driving Boom Is Over

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After years of erroneously predicting rapid growth in driving, the FHWA finally made significant downward revisions to its traffic forecast last year. Graphic: U.S. PIRG/Frontier Group

The Federal Highway Administration has very quietly acknowledged that the driving boom is over.

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of rapid driving growth, the agency’s more recent forecast finally recognizes that the protracted post-World War II era has given way to a different paradigm.

The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

The forecast is a big step forward from the FHWA’s past record of chronically aggressive driving forecasts. Most recently, in February 2014 the U.S. DOT released its 2013 “Conditions and Performance Report” to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles (VMT) will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the “Conditions and Performance Report” issued at the beginning of 2014 to the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate by between 24 percent to 44 percent.

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NHTSA Touts Decrease in Traffic Deaths, But 32,719 Ain’t No Vision Zero

Twenty-four-year-old Taja Wilson was killed near the Louisiana bayou in August when a driver swerved on the shoulder where she was walking. Noshat Nahian, age 8, was killed in a Queens crosswalk on his way to school in December by a tractor-trailer driver with a suspended license. Manuel Steeber, 37, was in a wheelchair when he was killed in Minneapolis while trying to cross an intersection with no crosswalk or traffic signal on a 40-mph road. One witness speculated that Steeber must have had a “death wish.”

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a motorist on his way to school in Queens with his sister, Nousin Jahan Nishat, 11. Photo: ##http://accidentsinus.com/Victims/detail.aspx?Victim=ea990b8d-8312-4526-bf61-b326706ffdf9##Accidents in US##

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a truck driver on his way to school in Queens with his sister.
Photo: Accidents in US

These are just three of the 4,735 pedestrians killed in 2013. Believe it or not, that was an improvement, down 1.7 percent from the year before. New data [PDF] from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that overall, traffic fatalities went down in 2013 — reassuring news after a disturbing uptick in 2012. But 32,719 preventable deaths on the country’s streets is still an alarming death toll. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved if the United States achieved a traffic fatality rate comparable to the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan. The Vision Zero movement is growing around the country, but advocates are still trying to come up with a way to bring the movement for zero deaths to the national level, instead of just city by city. Moreover, though the overall situation improved in 2013, beneath the surface there were some disconcerting trends and facts:

  • Bicyclists (categorized as “pedalcyclists” in NHTSA reporting language) were the only group to experience more deaths in 2013 than 2012. With more and more people riding bicycles, the 743 cyclists killed in 2013 probably still represents fewer deaths per miles ridden, but it also reveals a blind spot in many places in the country that have yet to adapt their roads to the reality of more people biking.

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Documentary to Explore Racial Discrimination in Transportation Planning

Beavercreek, Ohio, nabbed its own infamous place in civil rights history last year, when the Federal Highway Administration ruled that the suburb had violated anti-discrimination laws by blocking bus service from nearby Dayton.

The Beavercreek case marked the first time civil rights activists had successfully filed an administrative complaint with the FHWA against a public agency for violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since the law was passed, dozens of these complaints have been filed, but not until Beavercreek did advocates use this mechanism to compel action by a local government. The decision gave Dayton area transit riders access to a bus route to a growing, mostly-white suburb that had sought to keep them out.

The Beavercreek case illustrates larger, more widespread problems with America’s transportation system, say researchers at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The Kirwan Institute is producing a one-hour documentary exploring the Beavercreek case and how racism can influence transportation decision making. The filmmakers hope to air the show on PBS after its completion this spring.

I got in touch with producer Matt Martin about the project via email. Martin noted that in a Title VI administrative complaint, the plaintiff must only show there was “disparate impact” on protected classes of people, rather than the much-tougher standard of intentional discrimination required in civil rights cases that go to court. Raising awareness of the administrative complaint as a tool for local activists and preserving its usefulness is one of the film’s main goals, Martin says.

Here is our short Q & A.

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U.S. DOT Releases New Guidance to Make Streets Safe for Cycling

Last month in Pittsburgh, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx unveiled a new federal initiative aimed at reducing pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. Despite declining overall traffic fatalities, people walking and biking are being killed more often on American streets, a disturbing trend that U.S. DOT wants to reverse.

Protected bike lanes are in the toolkit that FHWA recommends to reduce cyclist fatalities. Photo: Carl Sundstrom via FHWA

Now we’re beginning to see what the feds have in mind. This week, U.S. DOT released a new guide for transportation professionals it calls Bikesafe. The online resource includes recommendations for state departments of transportation and local governments on how to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

Bikesafe contains a list of 46 “countermeasures,” including chicanes, protected bike lanes, roundabouts, and “visual narrowing” of the roadway. Under protected bike lanes (FHWA calls them “separated bike lanes“), for example, the guide advises planners to pay particular attention to driveways and intersections and to “make full use of signing and marking to improve awareness and guidance of the facility through these conflict zones.”

In addition, the guide includes a primer on how land use decisions affect bicycling safety, how complete streets serve to improve safety, and other big-picture elements of sound bike planning. Another component is supposed to help agencies identify the proper intervention for specific safety problems they encountered.

Caron Whitaker, vice president of government relations at the League of American Bicyclists, said national advocates are pleased that this initiative is focused on infrastructure solutions — like better bike lanes and traffic calming — rather than education alone. Whitaker also likes that the proposal laid out by Foxx calls for requiring state DOTs and FHWA field offices to study bike networks and establish strategies for improving safety.

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U.S. DOT to Publish Its Own Manual on Protected Bike Lanes

FHWA's Dan Goodman pointed to before-and-after images from New York's First Avenue retrofit to show how separated bike lanes can improve safety. Photos: ##http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/First_Avenue_in_New_York_by_David_Shankbone.jpg##Wikimedia## and ##http://www.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Downtown-First-Avenue.jpg##Streetsblog NYC##

FHWA’s Dan Goodman pointed to before-and-after images from New York’s First Avenue redesign to show how protected bike lanes can improve safety. Photos: David Shankbone/Wikimedia and NYC DOT

Before the end of this year, the Federal Highway Administration will release its own guidance on designing protected bike lanes.

The agency’s positions on bicycling infrastructure has matured in recent years. Until recently, U.S. DOT’s policy was simple adherence to outdated and stodgy manuals like AASHTO’s Green Book and FHWA’s own Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) — neither of which included protected bike lanes.

In 2010, the department developed a policy stating that “every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems” and that they should “go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes.” That was the first hint that the agency was looking beyond the Green Book and the MUTCD, which were (let’s face it) the very minimum of standards.

The department’s new strategic plan, released last year, emphasized pedestrian and bicycle safety and highlighted the need to create connected walking and biking networks that work for all ages and abilities, which is also a focus of the secretary’s new bike/ped safety initiative.

Then last year the agency explicitly endorsed “design flexibility,” unshackling engineers from the AASHTO and MUTCD “bibles” and encouraging them to take a look at the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ urban bikeway guide and the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ manual on walkability.

Now, with a secretary at the helm who’s determined to make bike and pedestrian safety his signature issue, the agency is going further. First, the next edition of the MUTCD (expected to be released in 2016 or 2017) will have a slew of new signage and markings recommendations for bicycling. FHWA’s Dan Goodman told an audience at Pro-Walk Pro-Bike earlier this month that the updated MUTCD is expected to have everything from signage indicating how bikes should make two-stage turns using bike boxes to stripes extending bike lanes through intersections — and, of course, guidance on buffered and protected bike lanes.

But perhaps more important than the changes to the MUTCD is the fact that FHWA is publishing its own manual dedicated to the design of protected bike lanes. (Despite the fact that the guide will deal exclusively with bike lanes that are protected from traffic with some kind of vertical barrier — not just paint — they still insist on calling the designs “separated” but not “protected” bike lanes, out of recognition of the fact that even what passes for “protection” in the U.S. these days — like flexible plastic bollards — don’t offer much protection against a moving car. Streetsblog calls these lanes “protected,” however, as a way to distinguish them from regular painted lanes, which are also “separated” from traffic.)

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US DOT Awards 72 TIGER Grants, But the Program Remains in Jeopardy

This afternoon, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will announce the latest round of TIGER grants awarding $600 million among 72 transportation projects in 46 states and the District of Columbia. You can see all TIGER grants to date or just the latest round — TIGER VI — in this map from Transportation for America.

Here are a few things to know about the state of the program:

Demand for these grants still far outstrips supply. U.S. DOT received 797 eligible applications this time, up from 585 in 2013, requesting 15 times the $600 million available for the program. TIGER fills a significant void in the federal transportation program — it’s one of the only ways cities, metro regions, and transit agencies can apply directly for federal funds, bypassing state DOTs. Plus, the emphasis on non-automotive modes and the availability of small grants make it a good fit for transit improvements and bike and pedestrian projects, which can’t access other federal pots of money so easily.

27 percent of the total funding is going to transit projects. That includes

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DOT Scores TIGER Grants for Vision Zero and Rockaways Transpo Study

City Hall and Senator Charles Schumer announced yesterday that NYC DOT had secured a $25 million federal grant for street safety and greenway projects in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. Notably, the press release announcing the funding hailed street design improvements as a “critical” component of the city’s Vision Zero safety agenda. In addition, a separate $1.4 million federal grant will fund a transportation study for the Rockaways.

A planted concrete median extension at Fourth Avenue and 45th Street will be funded in part by a federal TIGER grant. Rendering: NYC DOT [PDF]

The awards are from US DOT’s competitive TIGER program, which doesn’t always distribute funds to New York City. While the city nabbed two awards from the program this year and has received awards from the program in the past, all three of New York’s TIGER applications were rejected last year.

The $25 million grant comes on top of $21.2 million in federal highway safety funds distributed by the state earlier this year to similar projects. These grants can supplement dollars from the city’s vast capital budget, which also funds DOT’s bike and pedestrian programs.

The TIGER grant will help support a pedestrian safety redesign near the Metro-North station at Park Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem, where DOT is planning wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes on Park Avenue, as well as curb extensions at 124th, 125th and 126th Streets. It will also fund the capital construction of a road diet initially installed with paint and flexible posts on two sections of Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, from 8th to 18th Streets in Park Slope and from 33rd to 52nd Streets in Sunset Park. Extensions of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway will also get a boost from the grant, one near the Gowanus Canal and another in Bay Ridge, where wider sidewalks and a two-way protected bike path on Hamilton Avenue will connect to the existing greenway near Owl’s Head Park.

The TIGER grant will also support eight Safe Routes to School projects:

  • PS 154 Harriet Tubman School in Harlem will receive three curb extensions and six pedestrian islands
  • PS 54 in Woodhaven, Queens will receive four curb extensions and four pedestrian islands
  • PS 239 in Ridgewood, Queens will have a nearby complex intersection simplified and receive expanded pedestrian islands and sidewalks
  • PS 199 Maurice Fitzgerald School in Long Island City, Queens will receive five curb extensions and two pedestrian islands
  • PS 92 Harry T. Stewart in Corona, Queens will receive six curb extensions and four pedestrian islands
  • PS 13 Clement C. Moore in Flushing, Queens will receive seven curb extensions and one pedestrian island
  • Our Lady’s Catholic Academy in South Ozone Park, Queens will receive five curb extensions and three pedestrian islands
  • Our Lady’s Queen of Peace School in New Dorp, Staten Island will have a nearby complex intersection simplified and receive four curb extensions, a plaza, and improved traffic channelization.

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Foxx: New U.S. DOT Bike/Ped Initiative “Critical to Future of the Country”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx just announced to the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh that the department is “putting together the most comprehensive, forward-leaning initiative U.S. DOT has ever put forward on bike/ped issues.” He said the initiative “is critical to the future of the country.”

Photo: Wikipedia

The top priority, he said, will be closing gaps in walking and biking networks where “even if people are following the rules, the risk of a crash is too high.” He said dangerous street conditions are especially severe in low-income communities, where pedestrians are killed at twice the rate as in high-income areas, often because they lack sidewalks, lighting, and safe places to cross the street. He noted that when he was mayor of Charlotte, a child was hit by a driver because the road he was walking on with his mother had no sidewalk, and overgrown bushes pushed them into the street.

In its announcement today, U.S. DOT noted that pedestrian and cyclist deaths have been rising faster than overall traffic fatalities since 2009.

As Foxx often mentions when discussing street safety issues, he himself has been the victim of a crash. He was hit by a right-turning driver while jogging one morning during his first term as mayor.

As part of the initiative, U.S. DOT just wrapped up bike/ped assessments in Boston, Fort Worth, and Lansing, Michigan. They’ll be leading similar assessments in every state in the country.

Without going into detail, Foxx also said the department plans “to re-examine our policies and practices that without intending to do so have occasionally resulted in road designs that shut out people on foot and on bicycle.” Certainly, there is a wide variety of federal transportation policies and practices that warrant examination on that front.

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