Will AB 1193 Bring New Designs to Outmoded Streets?

Copenhagen's lanes can't be missed! (Photo by Loozrboy via Flickr)Why is it that cities across Northern Europe can make cycling safe, yet an advantaged city like Beverly Hills can’t seem to undertake the most elementary street improvements to protect those who ride? It’s cultural: in the United States, most policymakers don’t view cycling as a means of transportation. But even if we did embrace cycling, we’ll be challenged to engineer our streets to European safety standards simply because today’s state design guidelines preclude the kind of innovations that we see there. California Assembly bill 1193 would allow local DOTs to sidestep outmoded designs and liberate funding for experimental treatments. Will it get us safer streets? 

Here in the United States our reliance on motor transportation comes with a steep price: we consume more carbon fuels and emit more greenhouse gases per capita than anywhere else on Earth. Transportation accounts for a significant part of our environmental footprint. Yet we’re slow to recognize the change that we can make to move about urban areas more efficiently. While the State of California has developed meaningful policy guidance and land use laws that will slow the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, laws on the books today do little to prod local departments of transportation to make streets safe for cycling. If we are to reduce the entirely avoidable crashes that put cyclists in harm’s way far too often, we can start by encouraging better street design.

Yet local governments are obligated to follow outmoded guidance developed by Caltrans, the state department of transportation. You see, our ingrained bias in favor of motorized transport has effectively precluded the development of standards that accommodate streets to all travelers regardless of mode. What we need are best-practice standards on the books here that will facilitate the engineering innovations we see as successful elsewhere. Given this institutionalized barrier, we’ve got to look to Sacramento for long-overdue leadership.

AB 1193 would remove some of the policy barriers to using the cutting-edge treatments that we see elsewhere by enabling local public agencies to embrace and deploy them on a par with accepted designs. Here’s the background from the California Bicycle Coalition’s Better Bikeways Initiative:

California Streets and Highways Code that currently mandates that local agencies must abide by Caltrans’ Highway Design Manual for bicycle design on local roads. This mandate regarding bicycle facility design differs from the treatment of all other roadway design, where the Highway Design Manual only applies to highways and state routes. The special treatment for bicycle design was put in place several decades ago to provide guidance in the early days of bike design. Given the wider range of design standards available today, the former reasoning for the provision no longer applies.

Last year’s AB 819 required Caltrans to develop an experimental process for cycle tracks and other non-approved designs. But the Assembly watered down that bill. Now AB 1193 would give local agencies the authority to approve exceptions to the Highway Design Manual on their own. AB 1193 in fact targets the tangible aspect of our pro-motoring bias by expanding opportunities for new designs. It allows local agencies greater latitude and effectively unshackles the collective imagination of the local transportation engineers responsible for safe streets.

Opening the door to new treatments is important because they are one key to making our streets safe. Innovations like buffered bike lanes, segregated lanes, and passenger-side lanes (that run between the curb and parked cars) promise to transform the cycling experience, but they are just making it stateside in cities like New York, San Francisco, and now Long Beach. From the proposed legislation:

Existing law requires the Department of Transportation, in cooperation with county and city governments, to establish minimum safety design criteria for the planning and construction of bikeways, and requires the department to establish uniform specifications and symbols regarding bicycle travel and bicycle traffic related matters….The department shall establish procedures to permit exceptions to the requirements of subdivision (a) for purposes of research, experimentation, testing, evaluation, or verification. The department shall not deny funding to a project because it is excepted pursuant to this subdivision. (Excerpt AB 1193)

The funding aspect is critical because we’ll never be able to implement these new facilities if they’re not eligible for funding or otherwise discriminated against in the funding process.

At present, no hearing is scheduled on the bill. But we encourage you to contact a state assemblymember on the committee about moving this bill on to the Assembly. Here are the committee contacts:

  • Katcho Achadjian, Chair, Republican – dist. 35 (San Luis Obispo)
  • Marc Levine, Vice Chair, Democrat – dist. 10 (Marin County)
  • Luis A. Alejo, Democrat – dist. 30 (Central coast 101 corridor (King City))
  • Steven Bradford, Democrat – dist. 62 (Marina Del Rey, Inglewood & Hawthorne)
  • Richard S. Gordon, Democrat – dist. 24 (Southern peninsula & Silicon Valley)
  • Melissa A. Melendez, Republican – dist. 67 (Riverside County)
  • Kevin Mullin, Democrat – dist. 22 (SF Peninsula)
  • Anthony Rendon, Democrat – dist. 63 (710 corridor communities of Linwood & Lakewood)
  • Marie Waldron, Republican – dist. 75 (Oceanside Northern San Diego suburbs)

Be sure to support this bill when it comes before the full state Assembly. (We’ll give you the heads-up.)

Wrap-Up

Advocates, transportation consultants and enlightened public-sector engineers all know that making progress means battling the community-side forces that resist change. Those include our own neighbors who stand up to oppose a bike lane; policymakers without the exposure to new ways of thinking about mobility; and business alliances and Chambers of Commerce that push for car parking yet fail to see that greater foot traffic without the vehicular traffic provides the greatest net benefit.

Then there are the institutions that stand in the way, like local departments of transportation that fail to recognize or embrace the infrastructure that makes streets safe for those who choose to ride a bicycle. Perhaps the greatest is Caltrans itself. Like all public-sector organizations, it is riven with bureaucratic silos. Leadership is constitutionally risk-averse. And its ranks seem to have internalized an intemperance for innovation.

Yet unseen by most who use our streets is the institutionalized design guidance that has shaped the streets today. These form books will continue to dictate the form of our most extensive public space well into the future, of course. Should we continue to rely on the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO – “The voice of transportation”) Highway Safety Manual, or turn engineers use the more bike-friendly National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Bikeway Design Guide? It’s hardly professionals-only arcana: at last fall’s Pro Walk / Pro Bike Conference in Long Beach, the ongoing tension between conventional approaches and forward-looking change bubbled to the surface in a keynote plenary session.

The Netherlands knows how to do bikeways right (photo by Daniel Farrell.
The Netherlands knows how to do bikeways right (photo by Daniel Farrell.

AB 1193 is at least a step in the right direction. Liberating our hidebound local transportation agencies from outmoded state street design guidance is but the first step in unleashing the imagination of our transportation engineers. How would we ever achieve the near-miraculous facilities that we see overseas?

Other challenges await, of course, from resistance in the community to entrenched resistance to change in those same local agencies. But make no mistake: change is coming to our streets in spite of intransigence and with or without AB 1193. But it would be nice to see state legislators and local officials recognize that change is needed nonetheless.