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AASHTO’s Draft Bikeway Guide Includes Protected Bike Lanes and More

Bike guide contractor Jennifer Toole speaks last month at the annual meeting of the AASHTO Subcommittee on Design.

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities connect high-comfort biking networks.

As the most influential U.S. transportation engineering organization rewrites its bike guide, there seems to be general agreement that protected bike lanes should be included for the first time.

A review panel appointed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials will meet July 25 to start reviewing drafts of the new guide, including eight new chapters highlighted here in blue:

If the panel likes what they see and the relevant committees sign off, AASHTO members could vote on possible approval next year.

When AASHTO’s design subcommittee held its annual meeting in Baltimore last month, members who focus on bicycling facilities said they often need the sort of engineering-level detail and guidance about physically separated bike lanes that AASHTO guides are known for providing.

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State DOT Engineers Say They’ll Do Better on Walking, Biking, Transit

In a welcome sign from an industry group that has been slow to embrace street designs that prioritize walking, biking, and transit, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) released a statement last week saying it intends to “better address multi-modal issues.”

"Stroads" -- dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Can the engineering profession do better? Photo: Strong Towns

The engineering profession can do better than this. Photo: Strong Towns

AASHTO’s street design manuals are highly influential and lay out standards that many engineers view as gospel. While the guidelines are supposed to be flexible, in practice they promote a highway-style approach to city streets, emphasizing the movement of motor vehicles more than a welcoming pedestrian environment or safe routes for biking.

That appears to be changing — slowly. The group’s Committee on Highways recently passed a resolution [PDF] saying its next “Green Book” — the big book of street design standards — “should address designing in and for a multi-modal transportation system.” That version is due out in 2021.

Five years may be a long time to wait, but this is an encouraging development, said Ian Lockwood, an engineer with the Toole Design Group and a voice for reform inside the profession. “‘Multi-modal issues’ is their way of saying ‘allowing and encouraging cities, counties, and states to design streets that are safer and more comfortable for people who are walking, cycling or using transit,'” he said.

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State Engineers Warm to Protected Bike Lanes for Next AASHTO Bike Guide

Linden Avenue, Seattle. AASHTO’s current manuals recommend against separating bike and car traffic with curbs or parked cars under any circumstances.

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.

The professional transportation engineers’ association that writes the book on U.S. street design is meeting this week in Seattle — and talking quite a bit about protected bike lanes.

As we reported in January, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is considering bringing protected bike lanes into the next edition of its widely used Guide for the Development of Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities.

For that to happen, AASHTO’s design committees will need to vote to include such designs. Based on interviews over the last few weeks, members have some disagreements over the issue but tend to agree that it’s important.

Tony Laird

Tony Laird of Wyoming DOT.

I asked Tony Laird, state highway development engineer at the Wyoming Department of Transportation and vice chair of AASHTO’s technical design committee on non-motorized transportation, what he saw as the major issues in the lead-up to AASHTO’s next bike guide.

“The hottest issue right now is what we’re calling protected bike lanes, what we called cycle tracks for a while,” Laird replied. “There’s a lot of demand for some guidance and consistency for what those look like… I think by the time we put together that new bike guide it’s going to have new guidance on protected bike lanes.”

Eric Ophardt of the New York State DOT, who also serves on the non-motorized committee, also cited new bike lane designs as the top issue he sees.

“The big thing is the bike paths and sidepaths that are being built all over this country,” he said.

Though physically separated bike lanes are only one of several issues on the committees’ plates, it’s one that people remain likely to disagree about.

Lynn Jonell Soporowski of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and another member of the non-motorized committee, is dubious about protected bike lanes, saying that Kentucky cities don’t have much room for such facilities.

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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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AASHTO Chief: Don’t Blame Street Design for Cyclist Deaths

This is a pretty revealing (read: depressing) exchange between a U.S. representative and the president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state DOTs.

The transportation agencies that comprise AASHTO essentially dictate how streets are designed throughout the U.S. They are aware that pedestrian and cyclist deaths are not declining as fast as total traffic fatalities. But don’t worry, says AASHTO President Jon Cox, because there is absolutely no problem with the design of America’s streets.

Around 49 seconds into this clip from a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Tuesday, Representative Rick Larsen of Washington State questions Cox about the rising share of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities:

A few of us asked the [Government Accountability Office] to look at this trend. And one suggestion we’ve heard is that we’re over-engineering or overbuilding roads so the posted speed limit may not match the size of the road. As a result that contributes to a more unsafe road for bikers and pedestrians. Has AASHTO looked at this issue — the relationship between design standards and road safety for bikers and pedestrians?

Cox, who runs the state DOT in Wyoming — the least populated state in the union! — gave this response (emphasis added):

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Pieces in Place for AASHTO to Endorse Protected Bike Lanes… by 2020

Part of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, installed in 2011.

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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.

The bible of U.S. bikeway engineering, last revised just before the modern American protected bike lane explosion, will almost certainly include protected lanes in its next update.

That’s the implication of a project description released last month from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

AASHTO’s current bikeway guide doesn’t spell out standards for protected bike lanes. Its updated edition is on track to be released in 2018 at the soonest. A long wait? Yes, but that would still shave seven years off the previous 13-year update cycle.

“Back in 2009, we maybe had a few miles of separated bike lanes in this country,” said Jennifer Toole, founder of Toole Design Group and the lead contractor who wrote AASHTO’s current bike guide. “It was written right on the cusp of those new changes. Now we have all kinds of experience with this stuff. And data — we’ve got data for the first time.”

AASHTO’s richly detailed and researched guides are the main resource for most U.S. transportation engineers. Some civil engineers simply will not build anything that lacks AASHTO-approved design guidance.

However, dozens of cities in most U.S. states have now begun building protected lanes with the help of other publications.

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What AASHTO’s “Top Projects” Tell Us About State DOT Leadership

If you can build a project fast and under budget, AASHTO will love it, no matter how little sense it makes. Photo: Citizens Transportation Commission

Who can build the biggest road slab the fastest? Those seem to be the major criteria used by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to determine the “best” projects by state DOTs across the country.

In another sign that most state Departments of Transportation should still be called “highway departments,” there are no transit projects on AASHTO’s “top 10” projects list this year. The closest thing to one is California’s Oakland-Bay Bridge, which was “built to accommodate future expansions in light rail, bus, and other modes of transportation.”

Many of the projects listed are bridge repairs (and emergency bridge repairs), which are important. But the list is also larded with highway expansions.

In Ohio, AASHTO showers praise on a $200 million project to bypass the town of Nelsonville, population 5,400. The project earned a nod for “reliev[ing] a major congestion problem” in rural southeast Ohio.

The most ludicrous selection is probably Segment E of Houston’s Grand Parkway. This is a $320 million portion of a proposed 185-mile third outerbelt for the city. Proponents of the project have openly admitted it is more about inducing sprawl than addressing any transportation problem. The Texas Department of Transportation, mired in financial woes, has allowed real estate interests in Houston to more or less dictate where money will be spent. Whether the state will be able to find the funds to complete the $5.4 billion loop is an open question.

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Does the Gender Disparity in Engineering Harm Cycling in the U.S.?

Research has shown that women are more comfortable biking on protected bike lanes, but the male-dominated engineering profession has discouraged this type of street design. Photo copyright Dmitry Gudkov

A study published in this month’s American Journal of Public Health finds that highly influential transportation engineers relied on shoddy research to defend policies that discourage the development of protected bike lanes in the U.S. In their paper, the researchers point out that male-dominated engineering panels have repeatedly torpedoed street designs that have greater appeal to female cyclists.

The research team, led by Harvard public health researcher Anne Lusk, examines four engineering guides published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials between 1974 and 1999. All of these guides, treated like gospel by engineers across the country, either discourage or offer no advice about protected bike lanes, despite the fact that research has shown that women, in particular, are much more likely to bike given facilities that provide some separation from vehicle traffic.

Lusk found that many of AASHTO’s official claims regarding the purported safety problems of protected bike lanes were offered without supporting evidence. AASHTO refused the consider data demonstrating the proven safety record of protected bike lanes outside of the United States. And since there have been almost no protected bike lanes in the U.S. until quite recently, AASHTO based its position against protected bikeways on domestic street designs like sidewalk bikeways, not real bike lanes designed specifically to integrate physically protected bicycling into the roadway.

The researchers came to this rather damning conclusion: “State-adopted recommendations against cycle tracks, primarily the recommendations of AASHTO, are not explicitly based on rigorous and up-to-date research.”

Lusk and her team carried out a safety study of their own, examining crash reports on protected bike lanes in 19 U.S. cities. They found that protected bike lanes had a collision rate of about 2.3 per million kilometers biked — lower than the crash rates other researchers have observed on streets without any bike lanes. (Those rates vary from 3.75 to 54 crashes per million kilometers.)

Lusk’s research also suggests the lack of gender balance in the engineering profession may have contributed to the resistance to protected bike infrastructure. Researchers found that in 1991 and 1999, AASHTO’s Bikeway Planning Criteria and Guidelines were written by a committee made up of 91 and 97 percent men, respectively.

“The AASHTO recommendations may have been influenced by the predominantly male composition (more than 90%) of the report’s authors,” Lusk writes.

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U.S. DOT to Challenge AASHTO Supremacy on Bike/Ped Safety Standards

For years, the federal government has adopted roadway guidelines that fall far short of what’s needed — and what’s possible — to protect cyclists and pedestrians. By “playing it safe” and sticking with old-school engineering, U.S. DOT allowed streets to be unsafe for these vulnerable road users.

But that could be changing. The bike-friendliest transportation secretary the country has ever seen told state transportation officials yesterday at AASHTO’s annual Washington conference that U.S. DOT was getting into the business of issuing its own design standards, instead of simply accepting the AASHTO guidelines.

LaHood told an audience of state transportation officials that the FHWA is getting into the roadway design business.

Normally, the Federal Highway Administration points people to AASHTO’s Green Book, the organization’s design guide for highways and streets — and indeed, the agency is still directing people to the 2001 edition of the Green Book. Cycling advocates have long criticized the AASHTO guide, and the FHWA’s adherence to it, since even the most recent version doesn’t incorporate the latest thinking in bicycle and pedestrian safety treatments.

In FHWA’s new round of rule-making, DOT will set its own bicycle and pedestrian safety standards for the first time. The agency will “highlight bicycle and pedestrian safety as a priority,” LaHood said. (You can watch his entire speech on AASHTO’s online TV channel.)

FHWA will rely heavily on input from AASHTO but also signaled that it would work with others to incorporate the full spectrum of bike/ped design best practices.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials publishes its own, much more cutting-edge, design guide for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. No one at U.S. DOT reached out to NACTO in advance of the AASHTO speech, but NACTO spokesperson Ron Thaniel said they have a “close working relationship with Secretary LaHood” and “look forward to working with him” on the new standards.

LaHood noted that he would be meeting with cyclists next week at the National Bike Summit here in Washington and that he would work with them on ways to improve infrastructure “to make biking and walking opportunities as safe as they possibly can be.”

But it was wise of him to make his announcement at AASHTO, not at the Bike Summit. He seems to be trying to bring AASHTO into the fold of a movement to embrace more innovative bikeway designs. “I’m asking [the cycling community] for their help but I’m asking you to be helpful also,” he told the state officials. “I know that most of you want to build the 21st century infrastructure that your communities need to be competitive. The problem is we don’t have modern-day roadway standards to help us bring these ideas to life.”

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AASHTO: America’s Best Transportation Projects Are All Highways

Are you ready to be inspired?

Well, good, because the American Association of State Highway and Transportation just released its list of finalists for the “America’s Transportation Award” Grand Prize. These ten projects span every sector of the transportation world, from enormous highway projects to … less enormous highway projects.

Maryland's Intercounty Connector, built "for 20 years of future sprawl," is an AASHTO favorite. Photo: dougtone/Flickr via GGW

Voting is open through October 19. Who will win the top prize?

One candidate is Maryland’s $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector, a “19-mile multimodal highway.” This road was “designed for 20 years of future sprawl,” wrote Greater Greater Washington, and today its wide asphalt expanses are a testament to how little the region needed this project to be built. Here’s an actual headline from a local radio station: “Why does ICC seem so empty?

Then there’s California DOT, a.k.a. Caltrans, which was nominated for its $5 million “carmageddon” communications campaign. It saved Los Angeles from complete meltdown when one portion of I-405 was closed last summer. Either that or the short-term closure of a single highway isn’t the end of the world after all.

Another highway AASHTO honors is the I-270 project in St. Louis, which “redesigned and reconstructed” three roadway projects and came in under budget. The goal of this project? To reduce congestion. Never mind that the Texas Transportation Institute ranks St. Louis third from last in congestion, or that as the scourge of congestion has been systematically eliminated in this city, people have actually spent more time behind the wheel.

Not a single transit, bike or pedestrian project makes AASHTO’s list. Is there any better indication that the majority of America’s state DOTs still view job number one as building highways?

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