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Posts from the Federal Highway Administration Category

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Finally, a Little Accountability for State DOTs on Bike and Pedestrian Safety

In a win for bike and pedestrian safety, the Federal Highway Administration announced yesterday that it will require state transportation agencies to do something they have never had to do before: set goals to reduce bike and pedestrian fatalities, and track progress toward attaining those goals.

The news is part of FHWA’s roll-out of several “performance measures” for state and regional transportation agencies. The system of metrics is supposed to make the agencies more accountable for the billions of dollars in federal transportation funds they receive every year.

Advocates for walking and biking pressed FHWA to include bike and pedestrian safety measures in the performance standards, after they were initially excluded. Andy Clarke, former head of the League of American Bicyclists, now with the Toole Design Group, said the League helped solicit more than 11,000 comments in favor of creating performance measures for bike and pedestrian safety.

FHWA must have been listening. In its announcement, the agency said, “Non-motorized safety is of particular concern and improving conditions and safety for bicycling and walking will help create an integrated, intermodal transportation system that provides travelers with real choices.” Translation: The feds value walking and biking.

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The Feds Want to Reform the Cult of “Level of Service”

FHWA is trying to encourage states and localities to move away from using Level of Service. Cartoon by Andy Singer, via PPS.

The old way of making transportation decisions prioritized the movement of cars above all. The Federal Highway Administration will encourage local agencies to shift to other methods. Cartoon: Andy Singer via Project for Public Spaces

“What you measure is what you get,” the saying goes.

That’s certainly true for transportation policy. And for a very long time one metric has reigned supreme on American streets: “Level of Service,” a system that assigns letter grades based on motorist delay. Roughly speaking, a street with free-flowing traffic gets an A while one where cars back up gets an F.

Level of Service, or LOS, is what traffic engineers cite when they shut down the possibility of transitways or bike lanes. It also leads to policy decisions like road widenings and parking mandates. Even environmental laws are structured around the idea that traffic flow is paramount, so they end up perpetuating highways, parking, and sprawl. Because if the top priority is to move cars — and not, say, to improve public safety or economic well-being — the result is a transportation system that will move a lot of cars while failing at almost everything else.

The good news is that there’s a growing recognition inside some of the nation’s largest transportation agencies that relying on LOS causes a lot of problems.

Just last week, the state of California introduced a new metric to replace LOS in its environmental laws. Instead of assessing how a building or road project will affect traffic delay, California will measure how much traffic it generates, period. Car trips, not car delays, will be the thing to avoid. This is likely to have the opposite effect of LOS, leading to more efficient use of land and transportation infrastructure.

Change is afoot at the federal level too. Officials at the Federal Highway Administration are looking at how they can spur changes like California’s LOS reform in other places.

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The Feds Aren’t Crowing About the Record Amount of Driving in America

Driving miles are again on the rise after a historically unprecedented dip. Graph: Doug Short

Driving mileage is on the rise again after a historically unprecedented dip. Graph: Doug Short

Gas is as cheap as ever, and cumulatively, Americans are driving a record amount.

Newly released U.S. DOT data shows that through the end of November, Americans drove a cumulative 2.88 trillion miles last year, well above the same period in 2014, indicating that 2015 will set a new national record for driving mileage. Adjusting for population growth, driving is still about 6 percent lower than the peak in 2005, though that metric is also on the rise, reports analyst Doug Short.

On the bright side, at least this time the feds aren’t cheering the news, like they did back in August. Todd Solomon at U.S. DOT’s blog, The Fast Lane, wrote about the drawbacks of more traffic:

Each of those miles is wear and tear on the roadway surface. And when combined, those miles represent a significant challenge to our capacity. And that means traffic congestion. Which means lost time, lost money, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. So, while we appreciate that our roads made possible those 3+ trillion vehicle miles traveled, we aren’t exactly celebrating this new record.

Even if the average American isn’t driving as much today as 10 years ago, too many cities and towns are saddled with infrastructure that leaves people with no good alternative to driving for almost every trip. Without significant changes to transportation and land use policy, traffic isn’t going to decline on its own.

Hat tip: Tony Dutzik

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Tell FHWA You Want Safer Designs for City Streets

Earlier this fall, the Federal Highway Administration proposed a major policy change: Instead of requiring roads that receive federal funding to be designed like highways, the agency would change its standards to allow greater flexibility. The implications for urban streets were huge — with less red tape, cities would have a much easier time implementing safer designs for walking and biking. Now FHWA is accepting public comment on this proposal, and you can help ensure that it’s enacted.

Applying highway design standards like wide lane widths and “clear zones” to city streets encourages speeding and recklessness, increasing the risk of walking and biking especially. FHWA’s October rule change proposal acknowledged those dangers, saying that scholarly research doesn’t support 11 of the 13 standards the agency had imposed on roads intended for speeds less than 50 mph.

Many urban streets would be affected by updating the FHWA rules. Freed from outdated design standards, cities will be able to change their streets much more quickly.

But the change isn’t official yet. The public comment period — part of the process of changing federal rules — is happening now Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says its critical that FHWA hear from people who support this change. Unlike other types of public comment periods — environmental reviews of highway projects, for example — these rulemaking comments are taken seriously, says Davis.

Transportation for America has created a tool to help people send their thoughts to the right people.

“For the cities out there leading the way on building smarter, safer, complete, walkable streets that are also magnets for productive economic growth, this is a really encouraging move that will make their work easier,” he said. “We hope others will support FHWA’s proposal.”

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Feds Propose Major Rule Changes to Eliminate Barriers to Safer Streets

Planners will more easily be able to design "Great Streets" like Fifth Street in Dayton, Ohio, pending new federal rules. Photo: APA

By eliminating outdated design standards, the feds can make it much easier for local governments to design streets like Fifth Street in Dayton, Ohio. Photo: APA

Applying highway design standards to city streets has been a disaster for urban neighborhoods. The same things that make highways safer for driving at 65 mph — wide lanes, “clear zones” running alongside the road that have no trees or other “obstacles” — make surface streets dangerous and dreadful for walking, killing street life.

The one-size-fits-all approach to street design has been propagated, in part, by federal standards that apply to a surprisingly large number of urban streets. But not for much longer. In what appears to be a major breakthrough, yesterday the Federal Highway Administration proposed rule changes that will allow cities and towns to more easily design streets in a way that’s consistent with an urban setting.

The FHWA may drop 11 of the 13 design requirements that currently apply to streets in the National Highway System designed for speeds below 50 miles per hour. In place of requirements that dictate things like street width and clear zones, FHWA is encouraging engineers to use judgment and consider the surroundings.

According to Joe McAndrews at Transportation for America, the rule change “will make it dramatically easier for cities and communities of all sizes to design and build complete streets”:

This covers most of the non-interstate roads and highways running through communities of all sizes that are built with federal funds, like the typical four-lane state highway through town that we’re all familiar with, perhaps with a turning lane on one side. Incidentally, many of these roads are among the most unsafe for pedestrians.

In its press release, FHWA said the change is part of an effort to eliminate “outdated standards.”

Read more…

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Feds to Traffic Engineers: Use Our Money to Build Protected Bike Lanes

The feds say there’s no excuse not to use federal funding on designs like protected bike lanes.

The Federal Highway Administration wants to clear the air: Yes, state and local transportation agencies should use federal money to construct high-quality biking and walking infrastructure.

State and local DOTs deploy an array of excuses to avoid building designs like protected bike lanes. “It’s not in the manual” is a favorite. So is “the feds won’t fund that.”

Whether these excuses are cynical or sincere, FHWA wants you to know that they’re bogus.

Last week, the agency released a “clarifying” document that shoots down, on the record, some of the common refrains people hear from their DOT when they ask for safer street designs. This is a good document to print out and take to the next public meeting where you expect a transportation engineer might try the old “my-hands-are-tied” routine.

Here are the seven things FHWA wants to be absolutely clear about:

1. Federal funds CAN be used to build protected bike lanes.

In case any doubt remains, FHWA printed its own design guide for protected bike lanes. It’s okay to use federal money to build them.

2. Federal funds CAN be used for road diets.

FHWA created a whole website to help states and municipalities implement road diets that reduce lanes for motor vehicle traffic to improve safety. FHWA wants local agencies that federal money can be used on them.

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FHWA Gleefully Reports That Driving Is Rising Again

Chart: Doug Short

Chart: Doug Short

After flatlining for nearly a decade, the mileage driven by Americans is rising once again. That means more traffic overwhelming city streets, slowing down buses, and spewing pollutants into the air. But to the Federal Highway Administration, it’s a development to report with barely contained glee.

This June, Americans drove 8.7 billion more miles than last June, according to FHWA, a 3.5 percent increase. Total mileage in 2015 is on pace for a new high — finally “beating the previous record” of 1.5 trillion vehicle miles set 2007, the agency reports, as if the further entrenchment of America’s car-dependence is some sort of achievement.

Low gas prices, population growth, and an expanding economy are three factors nudging traffic back onto an upward trajectory, not to mention a transportation policy regime that remains tilted overwhelmingly toward highway construction.

The recent growth in traffic, however, does not negate lasting signs of a long-term shift away from driving. Economist Doug Short gets into more detail about the nuances in the trends, pointing out that on a per-capita basis, Americans are now driving about as much as we did in 1997.

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New Federal Guide Will Show More Cities the Way on Protected Bike Lanes

Oak Street, San Francisco. Photo: SFMTA.

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Protected bike lanes are now officially star-spangled.

Eight years after New York City created a trailblazing protected bikeway on 9th Avenue, designs once perceived as unfit for American streets have now been detailed in a new design guide by the Federal Highway Administration.

The FHWA guidance released Tuesday is the result of two years of research into numerous modern protected bike lanes around the country, in consultation with a team of national experts.

“Separated bike lanes have great potential to fill needs in creating low-stress bicycle networks,” the FHWA document says, citing a study released last year by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities. “Many potential cyclists (including children and the elderly) may avoid on-street cycling if no physical separation from vehicular traffic is provided.”

Among the many useful images and ideas in the 148-page document is this spectrum of comfortable bike lanes, starting with bike infrastructure that will be useful to the smallest number of people and continuing into the more broadly appealing categories:

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FHWA Will Help Cities Get Serious About Measuring Biking and Walking

This counter in San Francisco gives planners reliable, up-to-date data about bike trips on Market Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick/Streetsblog SF

The lack of good data on walking and biking is a big problem. Advocates say current metrics yield a spotty and incomplete picture of how much, where, and why Americans walk and bike. The U.S. Census only tells us about commuting — a fairly small share of total trips. The more detailed National Household Transportation Survey comes with its own drawbacks: It’s conducted infrequently and doesn’t provide useful data at a local scale.

Without a good sense of people’s active transportation habits, it’s hard to draw confident conclusions not only about walking and biking rates, but also about safety and other critical indicators that can guide successful policy at the local level. A new program from the Federal Highway Administration aims to help fill the gap.

U.S. DOT announced today that FHWA will help local transportation planners gather more sophisticated data on walking and biking. The agency has selected metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in 10 regions — Providence, Buffalo, Richmond, Puerto Rico, Palm Beach, Fresno, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Memphis — to lead its new “Bicycle-Pedestrian Count Technology Pilot Program.”

FHWA says the program will provide funding for equipment to measure biking and walking trips. Writing on U.S. DOT’s Fast Lane blog, FHWA Deputy Administrator Gregory Nadeau adds that “each MPO will receive technical assistance in the process of setting up the counters; uploading, downloading and analyzing the data; and –most importantly– using the data to improve the planning process in their community.”

The first counts will be available in December. Following the initial pilot, a second round of regions may be chosen to participate, Nadeau writes.

This would be an enormous improvement over what they do in Cleveland, where I live, as well as many other regions: recruit volunteers to stand at intersections with clipboards once a year and count cyclists by hand.

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The American Highway Safety Establishment Warms Up Some Leftovers

TZD_chart

Thinking of all traffic deaths as “highway fatalities” and measuring safety in terms of how much we drive is part of the problem. Graph: Toward Zero Deaths [PDF]

A group of heavy hitters in the road building and traffic safety establishment recently came out with a plan called “Toward Zero Deaths” [PDF], presented as an ambitious strategy to cut traffic fatalities in America. But don’t get too excited by the branding — the ideas inside don’t present much of a challenge to practices that have made the U.S. a shameful laggard on traffic safety compared to other affluent nations.

The document was produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (the body represents state DOTs), in coordination with the Federal Highway Administration and a number of safety and law enforcement groups. Take a look at what they’re proposing and it’s clear the mentality of these institutions hasn’t evolved much in the past 40 years, even as America falls farther behind countries with far safer streets.

Is it still 1975?

The report starts off stale and doesn’t get any fresher. The three main recommendations are the same ones the U.S. transportation establishment has focused on for decades:

  1. Increasing seat belt use and reducing drunk driving
  2. Improving the driving practices of young people and old people
  3. Regulating vehicle safety more strictly

All fine ideas that make a difference, but this formula leaves out many other strategies adopted by countries like Germany, Japan, and the UK — countries where the per capita traffic fatality rate is less than half the rate in America.

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