Feds on fire: Foxx’s USDOT institutionalizes change and inspires more

September 25, 2014

Martha Roskowski, PeopleForBikes vice president for local innovation

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx welcomes six new cities to the Green Lane Project in April.

The spirit of innovation, can-do and speedy implementation that is sweeping through towns and cities may not have made it to Congress. But it’s clearly arrived at USDOT headquarters a few blocks away.

Anthony Foxx knocked my socks off in Pittsburgh this month.

I had a pinch-me-is-it-real moment at Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference, listening to Secretary Anthony Foxx introduce the USDOT’s new Safer People, Safer Streets Action Plan. The 12-page document is short on details but long on potential, with the bonus of a hand outstretched to partners to help flesh it out and implement it. The breadth and scope of new efforts to increase walking and biking and reduce walking and biking fatalities is encouraging. Here’s how his new initiatives break down, and why they actually matter.

1) Infrastructure

Look at what he’s saying about infrastructure. For decades, advancing bicycle and pedestrian safety at USDOT has relied mostly on education and enforcement to reduce crashes. But as Secretary Foxx noted, ?teaching pedestrians and bicyclists to make good choices doesn’t work if our streets are not safe for them.?

His decision on this is powerful. It’s welcome. And, of course, it’s true.

Street design has a profound impact on walking and biking safety. If we build streets where the visual cues — wide lanes, sweeping turns, big driveways, little streetside activity — say it’s okay to drive fast, then a single speed limit sign or even a forest of them don’t slow drivers down. Instead, if we build streets that clearly tell drivers to expect people crossing the street, expect kids on bikes, expect people getting on and off of buses, and expect to drive more carefully, we will help people to drive appropriately, reducing the likelihood of crashes happening and the severity of those that do.

The biggest factor in whether a walker or rider will die in a crash is the speed of the vehicle that hits them. So, slowing speeds on streets within our communities makes sense. And as modern traffic engineering has discovered, redesigning many streets for slower speeds doesn’t even increase congestion or travel times, because turn lanes and improved signal timing can improve traffic flow as well as reducing crashes.

Linking infrastructure to safety is brilliant. We are masterful at building interstates that are safe for fast driving: we see it in the falling of deaths of vehicle drivers and passengers. We build wide lanes, sweeping turns and forgiving exit ramps. These design features are perfect for motor-vehicle-only highways. But now it is time to turn our design expertise to building streets that work for all users, balancing the needs of people driving with those walking, biking and taking transit.

?Intuitive infrastructure breeds good behavior? is one of my favorite quotes by the eminently quotable Seleta Reynolds, the new director of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. And it applies to people whether they’re in cars or on bikes. When the City of Chicago opened the protected bike lane on Dearborn Ave in Chicago, they saw rider compliance at traffic signals jump from 31 percent to 81 percent because the signals worked for people on bikes. By adjusting the signal patterns so that bikes had a safe passage, separate from turning vehicles, it aligned infrastructure with behavior. When the street system makes sense, all street users behave better.

USDOT’s focus on rapid implementation is welcome, too. It often takes five, 10, 15 years to get major transportation projects on the ground. But when every two hours, another person walking on our streets dies in a traffic crash, we can’t wait that long. Low-cost strategies like road diets, protected bike lanes and improved pedestrian crossings can be implemented quickly, retrofitting existing streets without major construction. Paint, signs, and plastic posts may not be our long-term elegant design solutions, but they can transform our streets in months, not years.

2) Road diets

The FHWA The Road Diet Guide: Road Diets will be one of FHWA’s 2015 Everyday Counts Initiatives, in which FHWA works with state, local and industry partners to deploy new innovation.

While it’s counterintuitive, reducing vehicle lanes can help traffic flow: transforming a four-lane street into a single lane in each direction with a turn lane can smooth traffic flow and reduce crashes as turning vehicles no longer block a through lane. And since these are built on the existing street, between the existing curbs, they can be relatively inexpensive and on the ground quickly, often completed with simple striping and new signs. And they create room for protected bike lanes or parking, which both provide buffers between moving traffic and people on the sidewalks.

While the FHWA had already published suggestions on what type of streets are good candidates for road diets, the new guide could be a big step forward from saying ?yes, you can? to ?here’s how to do it.?

3) Partnerships

PeopleForBikes staffers Zach Vanderkooy, Tim Blumenthal and the author of this post, Martha Roskowski, with Foxx in April.

I was also struck by the agency’s embrace of collaboration and partnership.

Throughout the fall of 2014 we will be engaging local officials, safety organizations, State, regional and local planners and engineers, and advocacy groups in helping us plan innovative ways to spread the word about these resources and develop a comprehensive approach to bicycle an pedestrian safety.

The standard operating procedure of many big bureaucracies is to release documents that are complete and finalized: ?Here it is, hope you like it.? Actually, forget that second part. Just ?Here it is.? USDOT, by contrast, is calling on partners and stakeholders to help refine the work-in-progress. It takes courage and trust to engage with partners. It’s messier than just stamping a document final and sending it out. But in the end it’s a powerful strategy to create eager and energized partners across the country ready to implement. When you invite people to help craft a strategy, they will own it. And they might well make it better. Kudos to Secretary Foxx and his team for modeling leadership and innovation by embracing an iterative and engaging process.

4) Separated bike lane guidance

By the end of September (yes, this September, 2014), the FHWA arm of USDOT will release the Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide. I am pinching myself. In 2007, a gang of innovative upstarts in New York City DOT started systematically building protected bike lanes, carving out safe and comfortable places for ordinary people to ride bikes. A handful of other leading cities followed. All were cobbling together existing standards and guidance to design them. The leading cities then got together under the NACTO banner to assemble the pieces into the Urban Bikeway Design Guide in 2011. While the NACTO guide does a very good job of showing how to build the facilities, the importance of an FHWA stamp on a document cannot be overstated. While cities that want to build the facilities reach for the NACTO guide, liability-wary engineers have worried about the lack of federal approval and recalcitrant engineers have used it as an excuse. It’s much harder to say ?we can’t do these? with a big ?approved by the federal government? stamp on the design guide. One more big barrier comes tumbling down, and in only seven years which is lightning speed in the world of traffic engineering, which hadn?t changed much since we designed the interstate system 60 some years ago.

The entrance of the FHWA into publishing design guides is most welcome as a complement to the slower-moving world of AASHTO. This organization of State DOTs, the primary provider of national design guidance for the past 30 years, has been silent on the new bike lane designs and recently estimated it will be 3 to 5 years before they?ll put out new guidance on bike projects.

By their very nature, State DOTs primary focus is on the connections between cities, rather than the networks that serve the daily life within cities large and small. We welcome the contribution of the USDOT to helping to design for both the everyday movements of ordinary people around our communities as well as the long-distance transportation needs of our country.

I sat in a panel at PWPBPP with Linda Bailey from NACTO and Dan Goodman from FHWA. Dan was describing the new Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide. My wonky little heart was aflutter. Here was institutionalization in action. This crazy European idea of providing safe and comfortable places on busy streets for people on bikes had moved from a gleam in bike advocates eyes in 2007 to being firmly planted in national transportation guidance in seven short years. While that might seem like a long time, in the world of transportation design and engineering, that’s moving like lightning. Under Secretary Foxx’s direction, USDOT is not only encouraging innovation and flexibility in transportation agencies across the country, they’re modeling it themselves. Now that’s leadership.

5) Networks

Roskowski discusses the “Build it for Isabella” concept at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference this month.

Improving Connected Pedestrian and Bicycle Networks: The Department will promote the development of multimodal networks which include interconnected pedestrian/and or bicycle transportation facilities that allow people of all ages and abilities to safely and conveniently get where they want to go.

USDOT nailed it. Networks. I will yell it from the rooftops with pompoms. NETWORKS. If we’re really going to be able to walk and bike around our communities, we need networks that work. All of our lovely new protected bike lanes are only as good as their connections. The trip needs to be safe and comfortable from start to finish before people will do it by bike.

The shorthand version of an all-ages bike network: protected lanes on busy streets link to quiet side streets and separated greenway paths and rail-trails, with safe crossings all along the way. Our bicycle and pedestrian networks link our everyday worlds: home to work, school, friends, shopping, ice cream, errands and the public spaces we love. They connect us to buses, trains and planes for longer trips. They get us to our friend’s houses and knit our communities together with serendipitous interactions on the sidewalk or bike path. We need networks that work for Isabella, a 12 year old ready to explore her world.

With the recent addition of protected bike lanes to the U.S. design toolbox, we now know how to build all the pieces. Indeed, most communities have bits and pieces in place already, now it’s time to knit them together. In some areas, it’s more bits than pieces. ?Recent data indicates that residents of low-income and minority neighborhoods are disproportionately represented in bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities, and low-income neighborhoods often have fewer sidewalks and other safe neighborhoods,? says the Action Plan. For some people, the biggest barrier to getting a job is getting TO the job, making the completion of safe and continuous networks an economic imperative as well as a safety issue.

While USDOT doesn’t elaborate much on their plans for networks, we would propose a focus on rapid implementation of a ?connect the dots? approach to missing links in the system, with a strong element of data and analysis to understand and unlock the potential of our systems.

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

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