Another milestone for U.S. biking: Highway Administration backs the NACTO guide

August 30, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

Photos: Stewart Eastep.

When it formed in 1996, the National Association of City Transportation Officials was a cadre of cities frustrated by the shortage of standard street designs for the budding urban renaissance.

Seventeen years later, that vision is paying off: the best American guide to modern bike infrastructure just got a stamp of approval from the federal government.

In a 3-page memo dated Aug. 20 and circulated to the Federal Highway Administration’s division administrators and directors of field services, the FHWA named NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, along with two popular AASHTO guides and the ITE Guide to “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares,” as a useful document for building safe and efficient roads.

“FHWA supports the use of these resources to further develop nonmotorized transportation networks, particularly in urban areas,” the memo writes. “FHWA encourages agencies to appropriately use these guides.”

Coming on the heels of another federal breakthrough, the FHWA’s initiative to gather original research about the safe design of protected bike lanes, the memo is a major step in giving local engineers the tools and authority they need to redesign more American streets for comfortable biking.

Street designer: ‘This liberates us’

Officials in cities striving to improve their biking and walking said the move would make bike-friendly road designs safer and more consistent from city to city, and make the developing standards more popular.

“Cities have been leading the way on modern bikeway design, and Federal Highway field offices are critical partners in getting projects on the ground,” said New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, NACTO’s president. “We’re thrilled that Federal Highway is endorsing the use of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide.”

Smaller cities are likely to benefit, too.

“As a small city, many of our major roads and corridors that might be good candidates for protected bikeways, whether it’s a cycle track or even just a painted buffer, are in the jurisdiction of the state department of transportation,” said Ben Weiss, bicycle/pedestrian program manager for the City of Missoula, Montana. “But we consistently hear from the state, ‘No we don’t recognize NACTO — if it’s not AASHTO, we don’t want to hear it.’

The new federal memo expressing approval of NACTO and its “flexible approach to bicycle and pedestrian facility design” is likely to encourage state officials “to go above and beyond what they’re doing right now,” Weiss said.

Michelle Swanson, senior program specialist for the City of Olympia Public Works, called the FHWA action “huge.”

“We often run into circumastnces where we’re reluctant to use certain design treatments because they have not been formally endorsed by the FHWA,” Swanson said. “This liberates us to create context-appropriate improvements to make our streets more safe and inviting.”

Linda Marabian, a deputy director in the City of San Diego’s Transportation Department, said NACTO has offered a “great forum for discussions” about effective bikeway design.

“We’re all in the same boat, trying to create better urban neighborhoods,” she said. “The more consistency we have not only in a city but around a state and around the country, the easier it will be for drivers.”

By making it clearer how cars and bikes should be sharing roadways, Weiss said, the road designs described in the NACTO guide are also good at getting people on bikes.

“The state DOT understands that we’re trying to encourage the 60 percent,” Weiss said, referring to estimates that a large share of urban residents are interested in biking more but concerned about safety and comfort. “Yet in terms of project design and what they’re willing to allow, it’s really just accommodation of the 1 and 7 percent.”

Image of a raised one-way cycle track from the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide.

A tool for education, too

Weiss added that the NACTO guide is also good at communicating to biking advocates the latest research on which bike designs are safest.

He described a case in Missoula in which biking advocates “got up in arms” over removal of a solid bike lane that cut diagonally across a right turn lane. Thanks to the NACTO guide’s explicit advice against such a design, Weiss said, he was able to show why dashed stripes would better communicate to bikes and cars that they needed to negotiate safe merging on the street.

“It’s good in that it teaches the engineers that, hey, there’s more than we could be doing, and it keeps the advocates informed on what the current state of the practice is,” Weiss said.

In its memo, the FHWA explained that the NACTO guide, used in conjunction with AASHTO and ITE documents, is part of the federal Department of Transportation’s 2010 policy to “encourage transportation agencies to go beyond the minimum requirements, and proactively provide convenient, safe and context-sensitive facilities that foster increased use by bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.”

Here at the Green Lane Project, we can only say that we endorse that, too.

See all Protected Bike Lanes blog entries

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