Call for U.S. DOT to issue own standards causes a stir

By Robbie Webber
At an AASHTO meeting February 27th and on the U.S DOT website, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that U.S. DOT will be issuing its own standards for roadway design to meet the needs of all users, but especially bicyclists and pedestrians.

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 big ideas to life.
Today, I’m proud to tell you that DOT is looking to create a standard guide for how we will build modern streets that work for everyone who depends on them.

The blogosphere lit up with reactions that indicated some in the bicycle-pedestrian world felt LaHood was showing impatience with a lack of suitable standards by AASHTO to meet the needs of non-motorized users. Because U.S. DOT generally has accepted the roadway standards of the AASHTO “green book,” DC Streetsblog declared, “U.S. DOT to Challenge AASHTO Supremacy on Bike/Ped Safety Standards.”
Ron Thaniel is the Executive Director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an organization formed to allow transportation professionals in large cities to interact with each other and discuss urban transportation issues. He pointed out that NACTO published its own Bikeway Design Guide because it felt that even the 2012 AASHTO Bike Guide did not meet the needs of bicyclists in an urban environment. “What would a 21st century street in an urban environment look like? We wanted to have a guide that could answer that question,” Thaniel explained.
LaHood followed up later in the day with a blog post that indicated he felt many AASHTO members agreed that safety for non-motorized users was critically important.

America’s business leaders want us to build 21st century infrastructure[.]
I’m pleased to say that walking and bicycling is part of that infrastructure. AASHTO members know this. Corporate America knows this, too.

And yet, later in the same post, he again indicated that the current roadway standards are not enough.

From our nation’s business leaders to the transportation professionals of AASHTO, America has made its support for foot-friendly transportation clear. The problem is—we don’t have modern roadway standards to go along with the complete streets a competitive community needs.

Shortly after these comments, LaHood was at the National Bike Summit for the fifth and final time as Secretary and he again called for brainstorming to update roadway standards to make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. In addition to his earlier comments that he would be looking at the AASHTO Bike Guide, he also mentioned the more recent NACTO guide.

We’ll look at the NACTO guide, and we’ll do the research needed to get this right.
DOT will conduct two bicycle safety summits. We want to hear from experts in the industry, and we want to hear from the people who ride and walk our roads. We’re going to see what works and what doesn’t work.
[W]e’re going to team up with the bicycling community to help ensure that wherever cities, towns, states, and counties are thinking about bikes, they’ll be sure to implement those practices to keep all users of our roads as safe as possible.

Although LaHood’s call for input from non-traditional sectors struck some as a new approach to setting standards, AASHTO seemed to take the comments in stride. Communications Director Lloyd Brown said, “We look forward to working with U.S. DOT on this project, and we are eager to see what they have in mind.”
Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.