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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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NACTO Beats the Clock With Quick Update of Bike Guide

Once again, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has proven what an agile, modern coalition of transportation agencies is capable of. It was just a year and a half ago that NACTO released its first Urban Bikeway Design Guide and today, it’s released the first update to that guide.

A bicycle boulevard identification sign in Madison, Wisconsin. Image: NACTO

NACTO’s guide is far ahead of the industry standard, old-guard manuals: the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ design guidelines.

NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide was the first to provide engineering guidance for protected bike lanes. It also laid out four different kinds of bike signals, four types of striped bike lanes and a variety of intersection treatments and signage recommendations. The update, released today, also includes bike boulevards, which NACTO defines as “enhanced, low-stress, low-speed streets parallel to major roads.” (Check out this Streetfilm to see bike boulevards in action.) All of the treatments NACTO highlights are in use internationally and around the U.S.

Meanwhile, AASHTO just published its first update in 13 years and is still not ready to embrace protected bike lanes. (Boulevards do get a mention.)

The speed with which updates are made and disseminated could be the biggest difference between the two guides. With just 18 months’ turnaround, NACTO is updating its guide with the newest ideas. Meanwhile, AASHTO is hoping to get around to an update within five years, but given their history, it could be two or three times that long. It’s not online, and it’s not free — you have to order a paper copy (how quaint!) for $144.

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How State DOTs Got Congress to Grant Their Wish List

Bike and pedestrian funding got slashed. Federal assistance for transit operations was rejected. Even the performance measures – arguably the high point of the recently passed federal transportation bill – are too weak to be very meaningful. For Americans who want federal policy to support safe streets, sustainable transportation, and livable neighborhoods, there were few bright spots in the transportation bill Congress passed last month.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

But state transportation departments are celebrating. They scored victory after victory, getting a bigger share of federal funding with fewer rules and regulations attached.

In the Senate, advocates were able to work some reforms into the bill and mobilize grassroots support for amendments like the Cardin-Cochran provision, which put funds for street safety projects in the hands of local governments, not state DOTs. But the House never managed to pass a bill of its own, and the opaque conference committee process was an exercise in horse-trading that advocates found difficult to penetrate.

The final product, which included measures like raising the federal contribution for certain highway expansions, seemed finely tailored to benefit DOTs in several ways. “This is a bill written by and for the benefit of state DOTs at the expense of both federal oversight and regional and community outcomes,” wrote David Burwell, director of the climate change program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email shortly after the bill passed. He said the policy changes “are too elegantly crafted and specific in their effect to have been written, or even conceived, by members of Congress or their staff.”

For state DOTs, access to lawmakers is a given. “We worked very closely with the House and Senate to craft those measures,” AASHTO Director John Horsley confirmed to Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. He said that while AASHTO offered recommendations, no text written by AASHTO made it into the bill verbatim, as far as he knows.

According to Horsley’s account, AASHTO followed a pretty standard script when it came to advocating for their interests on the Hill. Every stakeholder and special interest under the sun had its lobbyists knocking on lawmakers’ doors, offering their two cents – everyone from gravel producers to equipment manufacturers to environmentalists to free market fundamentalists. It’s just that the state DOTs seemed to get everything on their wish list.

Horsley said AASHTO had been laying the groundwork for many, many months before conference started, working with Republican House Transportation Committee staffers as well as aides of both parties in the Senate. (He didn’t mention working with House Democrats, who were shut out of the process from day one.)

The House is where the magic happened for AASHTO. “We’ve been very pleased with where the Senate bill started,” Horsley said. “And we were even more pleased when the House and the Senate in conference agreed to incorporate a lot of the House provisions that were even better for states.”

What were those House provisions? Horsley went through the list:

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AASHTO Adds Designs to Bikeway Guide, But Not Protected Bike Lanes

Last week, AASHTO, the national association of state DOTs, published the first update to its bicycle facility design guide in 13 years (available online for $144). Since many transportation engineers take their cues from AASHTO, there was an urgent need to update the 1999 guide, which failed to include many effective design treatments and promoted some standards that actually made streets more dangerous. The new guide includes some significant steps forward, but it still lacks the bikeway designs widely recognized as the best practice for making cycling a mainstream mode of transport.

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AASHTO's new bikeway design guide includes some significant updates, but not the treatments for protected on-street bike lanes that American cities are increasingly using to make cycling more accessible.

AASHTO is saying all the right things as it publicizes the update. “Transportation engineers know that the entire system works more efficiently when we build streets, bridges, and highways that can accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians in the safest way possible,” AASHTO Director John Horsley said in a statement.

And the guide has ballooned from 70 to 200 pages, adding much more detailed information about buffered bike lanes, bike parking, bike boulevards, and travel lane narrowing. Still, it leaves out protected bike lanes, also known as cycle tracks, which the world’s best bicycling cities — and America’s most bike-friendly transportation departments — have employed to make biking safer and broadly accessible.

AASHTO says it has incorporated the strategy, popularized by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, to design streets for the 60 percent of people who are interested in biking but concerned about safety. “It’s sanctioned there as methodology,” said Bill Schultheiss of Toole Design Group, which took the lead on writing the new guide. “It’s a big deal.”

Schultheiss says that a cycle track is nothing but a bicycle-only trail, and bicycle-only trails are in there. But unlike cycle tracks, bike trails are not designed to run on streets that also include motor vehicle traffic. Advocates say there’s a big difference — a difference that matters to the “interested but concerned” population. Darren Flusche of the League of American Bicyclists says cities that have made cycling a priority will still go beyond the AASHTO guide and use the bikeway design guide developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which includes on-street, protected bike lanes and other innovative designs. “NACTO has left AASHTO behind.”

NACTO itself identified the lack of protected bikeway designs as a critical oversight in the AASHTO guide. “NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has been leading the way for cities to build streets that are safe for kids, adults, and older people alike who want to bicycle,” said NACTO Executive Director Ron Thaniel in an email. “In contrast, AASHTO’s latest edition of its bicycle design guide has virtually no guidance for on-street protected bicycle paths, despite the fact that they are a growing standard around the country.”

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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.

NACTO and the Green Lane Project are trying to make protected bike facilities a standard engineering treatment. Photo: Utility 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 tomorrow 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.

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Wider, Straighter, and Faster Roads Aren’t the Solution for Older Drivers

This response to a new report from AASHTO and TRIP on safety issues for older drivers was written by Gary Toth, senior director of transportation initiatives for Project for Public Spaces, and co-signed by Congress for the New Urbanism, the WALC Institute, and Strong Towns.

The issue of safety and older drivers is an important one. And we are grateful for the way the special needs of those drivers are highlighted in a new report called “Keeping Baby Boomers Mobile: Preserving the Mobility and Safety of Older Americans.” Unfortunately, the report, produced by AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) in collaboration with TRIP, a national transportation research group representing contractors and engineering firms, continues to reinforce the “forgiving highways” orthodoxy that the transportation establishment has been promoting for too long now. (On the positive side, it also endorses a number of measures that AARP has been pressing for: better signs, retroreflective paint, brighter street lighting, etc.)

What is remarkable is how thoroughly and blindly the profession has adopted these principles.

It is time for AASHTO, TRIP, and other members of that establishment to recognize the limitations of “forgiving highways” principles. This approach, which aims to reduce crashes by designing roads to accommodate driver error, might work well for interstates, freeways, and rural highways. But it should not be applied to the rest of our nation’s roads. Evidence is mounting that not only does the “wider, straighter, and faster” philosophy fail to fix safety problems on urban and suburban arterials — it actually makes them worse.

Let’s consider the issue of older drivers and safety from an engineering perspective. Engineering involves the practical application of science and math to solve problems, so we’ll take a closer look at the problem defined in the report and the applications suggested to address that problem.

On page 5, TRIP and AASHTO point out that left turns are of special concern because elderly people have more trouble making speed, distance, and gap judgments. These are all speed-related issues caused by cars going too fast through intersections. So what are the solutions proposed?

  • Widening or adding left-turn lanes and increasing the length of merge or exit lanes
  • Widening lanes and shoulders to reduce the consequence of driving mistakes
  • Making roadway curves more gradual and easier to navigate

In other words, make the roads wider, straighter, and faster. How will this help?

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AASHTO’s Vision of Safe Streets for Seniors: Bigger Type on Highway Signs

Last June, Transportation for America brought the nation’s attention to the fact that older Americans are increasingly stuck in the suburbs without adequate transportation options, leading them to see family and friends and even doctors less. That same month, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on transportation access for older Americans.

Not all mobility improvements for seniors involve getting in a car. Photo by Dan Burden via Transportation for America.

The debate raged: Was transit expansion the answer to the mobility crisis? Or should seniors be moving to more walkable neighborhoods? Could resource-starved local transportation authorities support more paratransit services? Or would driverless cars save the day, as proposed by Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute?

Now, a transportation research group known as TRIP has teamed up with AASHTO to produce a new report on how to keep baby boomers mobile as they age [PDF]. Their solution: brighter signs and wider lanes.

TRIP and AASHTO also mention designing and operating roads to accommodate all users – “when appropriate.” They throw a few bones to pedestrians, like refuge islands and countdown signals. But they must not have been thinking about the safety of those pedestrians when they suggested widening lanes, adding left-turn lanes, and making roadway curves more gradual. As David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment’s climate program says, those changes would just create “more pavement for those pesky walkers and bicyclists to cross.” TRIP also suggests adding rumble strips to alert drivers when they’re leaving the lane – and, of course, to leave cyclists riding on the shoulder miserably saddle-sore by the end of their ride.

And as for “clearer, brighter and simpler signage with larger lettering, including overhead indicators for turning lanes and overhead street signs” – the number one recommendation in the report? “Great idea,” said Burwell. “And how about the pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users — maybe we all should be required to carry bright signs in large letters saying ‘Please don’t hit me!’”

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