[FHWA has issued a statement saying this was an “inadvertent” mistake. See major update at end of story.]
A proposed change to the federal traffic engineering guidebook would prohibit bicycle riders from thousands of miles of U.S. roadways.
“I think we need to treat this seriously and as real.”
— Ken McLeod, League of American Bicyclists
The shocking news comes with a major update to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) published by the Federal Highway Administration on Friday and posted to the Federal Register on Monday. Buried among hundreds of pages of text is a small change that would have vast ramifications.
The MUTCD, which “defines the standards used by road managers nationwide to install and maintain traffic control devices on all public streets, highways, bikeways, and private roads open to public travel”, currently includes the passage:
The absence of a marked bicycle lane or any of the other traffic control devices discussed in this Chapter on a particular roadway shall not be construed to mean that bicyclists are not permitted to travel on that roadway.
A marked-up version of the manual updates (PDF) crosses out, “shall not be construed to” and leaves the passage to read:
The absence of a marked bicycle lane or any of the other traffic control devices discussed in this Chapter on a particular roadway mean that bicyclists are not permitted to travel on that roadway.
This change, which has proposed under the Trump administration but will be finalized in the Biden administration — has set off shockwaves in the bicycle advocacy world. It was first pointed out on Twitter this afternoon by League of American Bicyclists Policy Director Ken McLeod.
Reached on the phone from his office in Washington D.C. a few minutes ago, McLeod said the change is so surprising it “seems like a mistake”. “But at same time,” he added, “Why we you trust that it’s a typo? I think we need to treat this seriously and as real.”
Even if it were a mistake, if it wasn’t caught by McLeod it would have likely ended up as binding federal law. The MUTCD is supposed to be updated every 3-4 years, but it’s taken 10 years for this update to happen. That led McLeod to say, if this was done in error, “It could take a long time to fix.”
While it’s unlikely such a small passage in an arcane federal engineering guidebook would lead to law enforcement officials cited bicycle riders for using roadways without designated bike lanes or other special markings, McLeod said it would severely impact people who were injured or killed on roadways and sought compensation or justice from the legal system. Lawyers for local governments would use the passage to absolve their clients of any responsibility.
Another source close to the MUTCD update process and who sits on multiple technical advisory committees confirmed the change. He said the fact that it’s written as a “standard” (as opposed to just “guidance”) gives it the strongest possible legal footing. That source also said they think the change is “nuts” “bizarre” and “Trumpian”. “If this is a mistake and I were the contractor responsible for it, I would be embarrassed,” they said.
For now it sounds like the League of American Bicyclists plans to take it very seriously. They’ll urge their nationwide network of members and partner organizations to comment on the changes. The FHWA is accepting comments through March 15, 2021.
UPDATE, 12/18 at 8:22 am] The FHWA issued a correction late Thursday afternoon saying the change was “inadvertent” and that, “it is not FHWA’s intent to prohibit bicycle traffic from streets that do not have traffic control devices specific to bicycles.”
Here’s more from their statement:
“The supporting documents provided for informational purposes in the public docket inadvertently deleted the operative mandatory phrase, “shall not,” that is necessary to effect the Standard provision in proposed Section 9A.01. This inadvertent deletion occurred with an editorial change and is not intended to alter substantively the meaning of the existing Standard.”
League of American Bicyclists Policy Director Ken McLeod shared with BikePortland this morning that, “It is great that they were quick to respond and that this appears to be a mistake. Hopefully this brings attention to a very important document that has a big impact on how streets are designed. This is a once in a decade update and now is the time for changes that prioritize people over cars.”
The correction is expected to be updated to the Federal Register soon.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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