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Report: America’s Street Design Bible Behind the Curve on Bicycle Safety

If you follow this blog at all, you’ve likely heard us reference the term, “Complete Streets.” It’s a concept that involves taking into account the equality of all road users – not just those who drive a motor vehicle. boston

Most streets in the country in existence today were constructed with a single road user in mind: Motorists. People moving on foot or by bike – and even public transportation – were largely left out of the equation. What this means is we have so many cities – and even still locations within our own progressive city, Boston – that simply aren’t safe for bicyclists and pedestrians. The Boston Complete Streets initiative aims to improve that a little bit at a time by retrofitting older streets with certain bike-friendly features, like bike lanes and sharrows, as well as reducing speed limits, narrowing roads and creating more sidewalks, crosswalks and comfortable bus stops.

But meanwhile, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) – sometimes referred to as “the Bible” of American street engineering, still don’t recommend these kinds of designs that promote bicycle safety. What this means is traffic engineers across the country are slow to follow designs we know have been proven to reduce bicycle crashes resulting in injuries and deaths. For example, protected bike lanes are known to lower the risk of a bicycle-versus-car accident because creating a barrier between bicycles and cars means there is less of a chance the two will collide. Yet even this very basic point is not included in the MUTCD. 

Engineers who develop this manual and others don’t seem eager to change. In fact, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the committee responsible for publishing the MUTCD, has set up a task force to investigate street signs that may not conform to the rules in the MUTCD. The group says the changes such as those endorsed by Complete streets are not yet proven and “need more study.”

In the meantime, we know that the number of traffic crashes has spiked, topping more than 40,000 last year after many years of decline. Bicycle crashes too have been on the rise, increasing 12.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, the latest year for which national figures are available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

When questioned on whether certain provisions need to change, a committee representative responded that the current manual has “stood the test of time.” This was specifically in response to a a study from a Boston engineer whose research showed the way current signal timings at intersections make motor vehicle movement a priority – at the expense of safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The League of American Bicyclists in years past has called on the committee to rethink the way it approaches bicycle infrastructure. The group noted the snail’s pace of acceptance for things like protected bicycle lanes, which the committee still considers to be “experimental.”

The committee representative noted that although the manual is typically a few years behind when it is published, certain interim updates are being incorporated. One example is the concept of contraflow bicycle lanes, which are buffered bicycle lanes that move opposite of traffic.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a Boston bicycle accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at 617-777-7777.

Additional Resources:

When Will America’s Street Design Bible Enter the 21st Century? March 14, 2017, By Angie Schmitt, StreetsBlog USA

More Blog Entries:

Scientist Dies in Bicycle Crash With Light Rail in TX, March 2, 2017, Boston Bicycle Injury Lawyer Blog

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