Though it may seem esoteric, one of the biggest impediments to designing streets for people is the over-reliance on design standards that have long privileged movement of vehicles over any other consideration on the streets. That’s why advocates cheered when U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood published a policy paper recently that, at least in word, placed bicycles and pedestrians on equal footing with motorists.
“Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems,” read one line of the statement.
Yet, an advisory policy paper won’t change the streets overnight and that’s where reforming the design manuals and guidelines at state departments of transportation is imperative, work that groups like Congress for New Urbanism have made a priority at the national level.
Various cities in California that have tried to rebuild their streets to be safer for pedestrians and bicycle riders have often been met with resistance from traffic engineers and city attorneys who rely on Caltrans manuals and standards that are good for moving traffic, not always for protecting vulnerable users.
“The Caltrans Highway Design Manual [HDM] has been the bible for highway engineers for the past half century and has guided the development of California’s freeway system,” said Hans Larsen, Acting Director of San Jose’s Department of Transportation. “Unfortunately, the HDM has also become the default gospel for designing local streets by many city engineers.”
Larsen said the standards that make freeways good for carrying large quantities of vehicles at high speeds are not context appropriate on most streets in urban areas. “Even today, the Caltrans HDM continues to promote such commandments as ‘a design speed as high as feasible should be used’ and ‘the basic lane width shall be 12 feet,’” he said.