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New draft of the MUTCD is still way too car-centric

Cover of the draft edition of the new MUTCD manual.

The Federal Highway Administration is currently working on the 11th edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the national guidebook of standards for traffic signs, road markings, and signals. By law, all U.S. traffic control devices must substantially conform to these rules. The problem is that the MUTCD has traditionally had a windshield perspective, prioritizing driving before all other modes, to the detriment of safety and convenience of people on foot and bike. It might seem like obscure document, but it sets the tone and parameters for what traffic engineers are willing to consider on our streets based on whether or not it’s “in the manual” or not.

The manual hasn’t been updated since 2009, and the FWHA has released a draft of the next edition. Transportation agencies and advocates are currently providing input on the proposed amendments. Here are some tips on on how you can get involved.

I was encouraged to learn today that the Chicago Department of Transportation is lobbying the feds to make the new version of the manual more people-friendly. Today CDOT chief Gia Biagi sent a letter to Stephanie Pollack, acting administrator of the FWHA titled “Request for an expedited reframing of the MUTCD as a proactive safety regulation.”

“CDOT strongly urges the FHWA to reframe and rewrite the MUTCD so that it will address safety in a comprehensive manner, and reflect the leadership, design innovation, and investments that cities across the nation are making to put Vision Zero [the movement to eliminate traffic fatalities], livability, economic development and equity at the forefront of our streets,” Biagi wrote.

Biagi argued that the current draft of the MUTCD is still “far too focused on motor vehicle operations and perpetuates the status quo by placing higher burdens of proof and restrictions on implementing and innovating traffic control devices for walking, biking, transit, and multi-modal safety.” She highlighted the following “fundamental problems” that need to be addressed in the next rewrite:

  • New barriers to implementing bike and transit infrastructure have been included in the new draft.
  • Requirements for installing new stoplights “that ignore known conflicts and land use and stifle the ability to be proactive about safety before [emphasis added] people are killed or injured.”
  • Traffic control devices that are time-tested in cities, like red transit lanes and pedestrian safety strategies, “are subject to unreasonably high standards of testing.”
  • Too much emphasis on self-driving vehicles, which are still in the early stages of development, at the expense of other modes.
  • New language that dictates that right-of-way be dedicated only to “highway-related functions,” “undermining placemaking efforts that are proven to improve safety.”

“On behalf of CDOT, I respectfully request that FHWA begin the process anew to reframe and rewrite the MUTCD so that it more closely aligns with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities, as well as those of the Biden Administration,” Biagi concluded.

Judging from a recent interview with new U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, above, he’s fairly well-informed about to the need to make our streets less car-centric, so hopefully he’s on top of this issue and the FWHA will be responsive to calls to overhaul the manual.

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