Bike Advocates Seek to Reform Obscure Caltrans Committee

Green bike lanes are not yet an officially approved traffic control device in California. Photo: Bryan Goebel

For decades, a little known Caltrans advisory committee dominated by highway and automobile interests has been setting the design standards for signs, signals and pavement markings for California’s urban streets. If a city wants a green bike lane, it has to be approved by the California Traffic Control Devices Committee (CTCDC), which also develops the state’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

The problem, say advocates and city transportation planners, is the committee, which only meets three times a year, doesn’t include representation from all road users, and requires such an arduous process to do something innovative that many cities don’t even bother. It’s chaired by a manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA).

“Essentially what you have are no road user groups participating in decisions about traffic control devices that are meant to control the behavior of all road users,” said Jim Brown, the communications director for the California Bicycle Coalition (CBC).

An agency can get around the state process by getting approval for an experiment from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which sets federal standards, but it still has to get CTCDC backing to make a treatment permanent. Green bike lanes that have been installed in cities like San Francisco and Long Beach are considered trials, and have not gotten the state’s official blessing.

“We need to open up this idea of a state highway function dictating the design standards and the traffic control devices for urban streets,” said Timothy Papandreou, the deputy director of transportation planning for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). “There are unique differences on urban streets.”

A bill working its way through the Legislature and being pushed by the California Bicycle Coalition would require the CTCDC to consult with groups representing “bicyclists, children, persons with disabilities, motorists, movers of commercial goods, pedestrians, users of public transportation, and seniors.”

It’s the beginning of a process that the CBC hopes will lead to the state adopting bike standards similar to the recent bikeway guidelines adopted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which incorporated best practices from all over the world. Caltrans is currently working on updating the state’s MUTCD and has adopted a complete streets policy.

“If we could get California to adopt these guidelines as a standard, then cities could try some of the facilities that are reflected in that guide with the protection that comes from doing something that has been endorsed,” said Brown. “It’s the lack of endorsement that makes communities reluctant to give things a shot.”

Liability is also one of the main concerns that prevents cities from moving forward with innovative street treatments, said Ryan Snyder, a Los Angeles-based transportation consultant and longtime bicycle advocate. He feels it is sometimes overblown, though.

“The first thing lawyers for the plaintiffs always ask is ‘did you follow established standards and guidelines’? If you don’t, the chance of a city losing a lawsuit is pretty high,” said Snyder. At the same time, it’s good to experiment, gather data and be cautious before establishing a standard because “there have been a lot of mistakes made in road design,” he added.

The SFMTA’s Papandreou worries that if the California standards aren’t changed soon, San Francisco will have trouble meeting its goal of making 20 percent of all trips by bicycle by 2020. That’s because obtaining state and federal funding for innovative treatments such as green bike lanes can be difficult if the treatment is not a recognized state standard.

“In all of our understanding of what gets people to ride their bicycles it’s really about design, and the design on the street. Funding aside, I’m not sure how we’re going to meet the 20/20 goals unless we put out more innovative designs,” he said. “It’s what creates that ridership and allows people to ride their bicycles.”

  • Upright Biker

     …um, how about including a design professional on any such committee? Someone who can speak in pictures, not words? Look at Europe, where a “Do Not Enter” sign is just a symbol, and the U.S., where the sign also says “Do Not Enter” “Wrong Way” “Cars entering in this direction must turn around immediately to avoid collisions.” OK, I made that last one up, but why are there so many words on U.S. signs? Who has time to read all this stuff besides the lawyers?

  • Actually, many US signs have transitioned away from words. “No left turns” is now a left arrow with a circle cross over it.  No u turns is also an image, etc.

    If you see the signs with words on them, they are obsolete, and will be replaced whenever their sign life runs out.

  • I sent in a tip 6 months ago about this process. Rob Anderson’s lawyer was busy sending in feedback trying to limit all improvements to the bicycle section of the guide.

    Some of the rules in the CA MUTCD make absolutely no sense. Especially the way bike lanes are treated at freeway on and off ramps. Solid white line = do not cross, but suddenly when bikes are involved, its ok to stripe a solid white line across a bike lane…? Huh?

  • YouSoSpecial

    Does this bill go far enough?  Why just consult with other users?  Why not actually give us a seat on the committee? 

  • Anonymous

     This bill would open the door to progressive street design.  As members of an advisory committee to the creation of a municipal bike plan, we struggled in vain to get effective solutions to dangerous street conditions.  The city’s position was to avoid liability by not considering ANYTHING that wasn’t in the MUTCD playbook.
    The MUTCD needs to be revised to reflect current conditions and protect all users of the street.

  • Dave Snyder

     A YouSoSpecial, the bill does essentially require Caltrans to include complete streets representatives on the CTCDC, without mentioning it by name, as the CTCDC is currently not mentioned by name in statute:
    The Department of Transportation shall ensure that an advisory 
    committee or group organized for the purposes of this section 
    includes representatives from groups that represent nonmotorizing 
    interests of users of streets, roads, and highways. 

  • John Fisher

    Your blog article has numerous factual errors.

    There already are bicycle advisory and pedestrian advisory committees that advise Caltans of special needs.  On many occasions those advisory committees have proposed changes to the CTCDC, which also advises Caltrans.  The CTCDC has always taken action to advise Caltrans, in response to requests from those advisory groups.  Thus, there already is a system in place for various modal groups to advise Caltrans.

    The CTCDC is not chaired by a manager of the AAA–it is chaired by a representative of the League of California Cities.  I am the current chairman of the CTCDC.

    Six of the eight representatives on the CTCDC work for public agencies, while the other two advise public agencies and chair public agency committees.  None represent “highway” interests.  The rationale for having public agency representatives is that they have real-world experience in managing the transportation systems and implementing a variety of multi-modal programs, such as bike lanes, pedestrian amenities, accessible intersections, transit programs, as well as traffic management.  That’s what public agencies (cities and counties) do.  I don’t know of a public agency that doesn’t consult with various road users and their needs.  

    An agency cannot “get around the state process” by going to the FHWA.  It always has to go to the FHWA.  Once an agency gets FHWA experimentation approval they seek CTCDC approval.  CTCDC approval is virtually automatic and there is no case involving bicycle facilites where FHWA approval was granted that didn’t also receive swift approval from the CTCDC.  The CTCDC endorsed San Francisco’s experimentation request for green bike lanes and sharrows. 

    By Caltrans policy, any bikeway-related item that comes before the CTCDC is first heard by the Caltrans Bicycle Advisory Committee (CBAC) before being agendized.  We take the action of the CBAC seriously before we endorse an item and the CBAC chair sits on the CTCDC when a bikeway item is being heard. 

    The CTCDC advises Caltrans on the adoption of the California MUTCD.  It is not a transportation policy document for advancing “complete streets”, “road-diets” or other such concepts, regardless of our worthy they may be.  It is simply a document that shows the standards and applications for traffic control devices that, by law, must be in substantial compliance with the national standard.  

    The FHWA just recently gave “interim approval” for agencies to use green bike lanes.  Upon learning of the FHWA’s action, I requested that the CTCDC agendize and approve in their July 2011 meeting, the usage of green bike lanes in California.  I have no doubt that it will be approved.   

    I have personally been involved with NACTO.  However, California legally cannot adopt many of the so-called international best practices, as they must first be approved by the FHWA in the federal MUTCD.  It is a legal issue.  Also, public agencies are far less vulnerable to tort liability claims, if they stay in compliance with established guidelines. 

    Certainly the federal and California MUTCDs are not rigid bibles but rather are living documents where proven innovations become adopted in time.  The federal MUTCD is careful not to adopt fashionable ideas-du-jour before their time, in order to ensure that ideas are not half-baked and that the concepts are sound.  This might frustrate some innovators who wish to do things quickly.  However, at the federal level and then at the CTCDC, the door is always open for them to request experimentation approval which ensures that their success (or sometimes failure) can be shared with the broader transportation community.

    There is one case where, under the CTCDC’s leadership, we tried to get ahead of the FHWA.  The CTCDC approved “sharrows” before the FHWA did, based on the report prepared by Alta for the City of San Francisco.  Although sharrows prevailed the CTCDC had to rewrite the guidelines to be consistent with the federal guidelines.

    The best way for various road user interest groups to advance their concerns is through the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) which advises the FHWA on the federal MUTCD.  The NCUTCD has specialized committees of 30 plus persons each that recommend bikeway, pedestrian, etc. guidelines to the FHWA.  In fact, there are over 300 persons with substantial  experience who help to guide the development of the federal  MUTCD and meet for six days annually, to ensure that innovations are thoroughly vetted and implemented in a standard fashion across state lines.  That is the best way for ideas such as bike boxes, buffered lanes and other concepts to be thoughtfully evaluated. In contrast, the CTCDC has only eight practitioners whose role is to simply recommend to Caltrans the adoption of the federal MUTCD for use in California within a two year time frame and to track approved experiments.

    It would be unwieldy, impractical and unmanageable to have a variety of road user advocacy groups on the CTCDC, which would also have to include the truck industry, the transit profession, the taxicab lobby, the asphalt institute, consultants,  and numerous others.  With such a variety of players, the primary work of the CTCDC would not be able to be completed and the CTCDC would devolve into debates and tangential discussions on transportation modes and visions by persons who have agendas that go far beyond ensuring uniformity of traffic control devices. 

    Personally, as a public agency representative, I have: signed plans for over 100 miles of bike lanes; required that all 4,400 traffic signals have pedestrian countdown signals before it became a federal requirement; required that we retrofit our pedestrian push buttons to accessible pedestrian signals; ensured that additional pedestrian time is given at locations where the elderly cross; managed the development of smart bus priority system along 28 routes, as well as light rail priority along two lines; developed the MUTCD guidelines for accessible pedestrian signals; received a national “Complete Streets” award; and implemented numerous context-sensitive design projects.  And I could go on and on, but the point is that neither I nor my colleagues on the CTCDC are pawns of the “highway interests” or that our only concern is moving single-occupant cars as quickly as possible.  That type of thinking no longer prevails in the 21 st Century and we wouldn’t survive if we were so inclined.

    And finally, guess where the July CTCDC meeting will be?–in Long Beach, so that we can observe the many bikeway projects that they have undertaken–that were endorsed by the CTCDC.

    John E. Fisher,
     Assistant General Manager,
     City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation  

  • Hey,nice post.This is well written article.I will appreciated your writing skills.Thanks for sharing this article with us.Its great.Keep sharing with us.

  • Great article.Essentially what you have are no road user groups participating in
    decisions about traffic control devices that are meant to control the
    behavior of all road users

  • Anonymous

    Caltrans 2011 MUTCD open for public review and comment:

    Caltrans is currently soliciting comments on the Draft California 2011 MUTCD. The current deadline for feedback is July 15 , but word on the street is that this deadlines may be pushed back. Anyone wanting to provide feedback should visIt the following Caltrans website:

    http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/traffops/signtech/mutcdsupp/

  • Marcotico

    Thank you Mr. Road’s-First Fisher.  There is a reason why multi-modal advocates in Los Angeles waged an “Anyone but John Fisher” campaign for the General Manager of LADOT.  That and the fact that you used the term “Taming the pedestrian”  in your treatise on roadway design in Los Angeles.  Thanks for nothing.  Golly a whole 100 miles of Bike Lanes!  Gee whiz in a city of 6 million people.  How did you ever get such an amazing accomplishment achieved!

  • nocklebeast

    would it be too much to ask that physical
    obstacles should be 2-3 feet away from a bike lane? (that’s Caltran’s
    minimum engineering standards for bike paths)

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