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Proposed FHWA rule would ban bicycling on many U.S. roadways (Updated)

Posted by on December 17th, 2020 at 1:25 pm

Excuse me?! (Source: Federal Highway Administration)

[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.

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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 jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Todd Waddell
Guest
Todd Waddell

As my wife said, we best get some spray paint and start adding in some bike lanes.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Use bright orange. When questioned by police, say you work for Spectrum or Time-Warner cable (a company notorious for unanswered phones) and are marking utility lines (even if it is a foggy morning at 2:30 am.)

Jason
Guest
Jason

Wouldn’t ‘orange’ muddle the perception of the line? Bike lanes are white paint, so if you make them orange, motorist will feel justified to ignore them.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Are you saying motorists pay attention to them now? I wasn’t aware of that. Thank you for the information.

Mark
Guest
Mark

This should, of course, be taken seriously. But, don’t discount the fact that it may be just another example of the extraordinary incompetence of this administration.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I see the opposite. This is malice. Stupid malice, however. This won’t go through.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Ask your car-head friends about this proposed change. I’ll bet you’ll hear near unanimous support of this change from them, that they worry about you, that you and your bike riding friends really need to avoid these roads for your own safety (even when you have no other options). At least that’s what I get from my car-head friends.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Ask them why those roads are so unsafe in the first place 🙂

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

I do. They typically reply that they believe the roads are safe, that it is distracted and/or impaired drivers who cause (car) crashes, but not the road design itself. They would of course never dream of riding bikes along such streets – they drive to a park to bike, that bicycling and walking are recreational sports. Not coincidentally they’ll drive even a few blocks to get milk, never walk or bike. Out here it’s over 90% of adults of all races and incomes who are car-heads, even most people who have no insurance and/or licenses to drive. Portland is the exception, not the rule, which is why I expect even the Biden administration to approve of this change.

(By the by, I’m bicycle dependent and against this guidance change, but as an advocate I have to deal with various uncomfortable political realities, most importantly of which is that there is no discernible difference between most Republican and Democratic lawmakers on highways – the vast majority are pro-highway.)

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

This is what I also see. The vast majority of people drive distances of about 1/4 mile or more, and I’ve known people who literally drive across the street — i.e. not even 1/2 block.

Friends, family, and even a surprising number of people have ride have expressed genuine concern to me.

The consistent representation of the roads as a killing fields for cyclists, the mantra that bikes require separate facilities, and the idea that bikes don’t belong on the roads are one and the same.

The logical extension of all these ideas is that bikes are toys for recreation, and building/using cycling infrastructure as destination recreation only reinforces this notion.

If you want to counter this notion, then quit spreading it. Cyclists getting hit on the roads isn’t even in the top 50 causes of death in the US (motor vehicle accidents are 14th, the top 13 are health conditions except 7 which is accidental poisoning) https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_09-508.pdf

If you want more support for infrastructure, show how it’s fun, safe, and practical right now. Because it is — I wouldn’t ride otherwise. If you don’t believe that, why do you ride and why would you think anyone would want to?

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

For clarity, “you” wasn’t directed at any poster but a term used to address anyone reading the post

was carless
Guest
was carless

I just polled my family, they are 100% for banning all pedestrians and cyclists in the United States, everywhere. Except for playgrounds.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

We must drive and park as close as we can to all possible, even when those destinations are specifically for recreation and/or exercise.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Yup, and the parking garage or on-street parking spot needs to be within 50 feet of my workplace/house/doctor’s appointment.

was carless
Guest
was carless

This administration has done virtually everything out of malice and greed. This was intentional. petty, they got caught and backpedaled like they did on just about everything else.

First they deny doing it, then they say it was a mistake, then they accuse someone else of doing it.

Every human on the planet should be aware of this gaslighting behavior of Trump and Friends by now.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

Ahhh, yes. But the American people freely elected Trump and Friends, and nearly reelected him even this time around.

wheelwing
Guest
wheelwing

Insupportable! That’s not even proper subject-verb agreement!!!

squareman
Subscriber

The is a serious WTF moment, but it comes as no surprise with the other bad legacy items Elaine Chao introduces as Cheeto’s SOT. https://usa.streetsblog.org/2020/11/10/the-five-worst-legacies-of-the-chao-years-and-how-to-undo-them/

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

Don’t worry Mayor Pete will fix it!

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

This is horrible and overturns 100 years of state and federal DoT standards…plus 30 years of local standards before states had DoTs…so 130+ years of practice!

Read Mr. Mionske’s book Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist, for more on the history of WHY cyclists have key legal access to our public roadways & highways (vs say skateboarders) and thus the importance of fighting this change.

The sad thing is – for whatever sad reason – the Obama administration’s DOT should have done their due diligence and done a more recent update during their final year at bat…thus giving less opportunity (and procedural value) to the Trump DoT crew to mess with things since 2009. [Soon after 2009 the NACTO design guides took off…perhaps this shows how much less value the MUTCD has for urban communities now?]

https://www.bicyclelaw.com/publications/bicycling-and-the-law/

Charles Ross
Guest
Charles Ross

This change would mean that several National Bike Routes, including the Pacific Coast Bikeway would, in portions, not be legal to pedal a bike on.

Kcommentee
Guest
Kcommentee

Truly, nearly any road outside of ‘urban areas’ would be outlawed from biking on. I can’t imagine rural communities that thrive on tourism would be down for this. It’s extremely hard to imagine this going through.

cl94
Guest
cl94

It’s a very obvious typo. The preceding paragraphs contradict the bolded text. Expect this to come out in review. Documents are in here. https://beta.regulations.gov/docket/FHWA-2020-0001

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

I don’t see any obvious contradiction. Are you saying because it discusses bicycles as vehicles?

I’d argue that its emphasis on designing bike facilities for predictable behavior to increase “acceptable” [sic] of bicyclists is something someone who doesn’t want bikes on roads to say.

Steve Barger
Guest
Steve Barger

It helps your case that the resulting language is grammatically incorrect. If the true objective was to create the opposite meaning, why wouldn’t they have sticken the word “not” alone?

Thomas ff
Guest

Wherever I bike, there may be a bike lane part of the way, but there are general traffic lanes I must use. I use many small neighborhoods to reach destinations. With this rule, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere!

 
Guest
 

This is very obviously a typo, based on the incorrect grammar. Good that someone caught it though!

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

“would prohibit bicycle riders from thousands of miles of U.S. roadways.”

Just so we’re clear, this is a design manual. Correct me if I’m wrong: It wouldn’t have any effect on state traffic law that establishes what actually is legal or not.

I suppose it could affect liability, but I’m not convinced of that either. It should absolutely be fixed though.

Brian Ruscher
Guest
Brian Ruscher

States follow the feds almost religiously for liability reasons. I’d be surprised if this wouldn’t have adverse downstream affects on DOT progress in various states.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Actually, states ignore federal guidelines almost religiously. This another reminder that all your “federal highways” are actually state-controlled and maintained roadways, and it’s your state legislature that is the body that regulates the design of your roads – it’s amazing how different each state is, including allowing or banning bicycles on freeways.

was carless
Guest
was carless

States can just adopt the language into state law.

Hippodamus
Guest
Hippodamus

This is somewhat true. The MUTCD is a big deal. Groups like NACTO have come together to produce similar style engineering manuals that provide professional liability cover for your local traffic engineer, but absent another ‘authoritative’ source, many engineers are reluctant to try new things. That’s not always true, especially here in Oregon, but for many places, the local engineer who doesn’t care about cycling isn’t going to overrule the MUTCD and risk professional liability.

bob bee
Guest
bob bee

I’m not sure where you’re getting this idea from, David, but in my experience this is absolutely not true. During my time working as a staff transportation engineer for a local city I had the opportunity to interact with ODOT on a number of projects. There were precious few deviations from MUTCD whether the project was state or local, and any deviation required mountains of discussions, justification, and paperwork detailing the decision.

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

Jonathan – I shared your article on my Linkedin network and it quickly got the attention of the exec secretary of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD).

Momo
Guest
Momo

Someone call Earl Blumenauer! And Pete Buttigieg!

Momo
Guest
Momo

I do think this is an error/typo, based on how bizarre it is and the poor grammar resulting from just striking out that portion. It may have been a situation where someone wanted to strike and replace, but only did the strike part. Hopefully this can be a relatively easy fix.

qqq
Guest
qqq

“I do think this is an error/typo, based on how bizarre it is…”.

I don’t think this sentence works in 2020.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Given the garbage-dump quality of the Trump appointees, I would not be shocked to learn that the lower-level bureaucrat responsible for this change does not have anything beyond a high school level of education, and probably didn’t major in English. Furthermore, they were probably more focused on “owning the libs” and didn’t think too hard about the grammar of the resulting language.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

“A proposed change to the federal traffic engineering guidebook would prohibit bicycle riders from thousands of miles of U.S. roadways.”

Correction: There are no U.S.-owned nor operated roadways. The feds do not own any roadways except on certain military bases and in national parks, few of which would be affected by these guidelines. All those roads marked as US highways and interstates are actually state (or in many cases county and city) highways – the various non-federal jurisdictions own and try to maintains them to certain national standards as part of various national grids from the 1920s (US highways) and 1950s (Interstates), often using federal funding sources to supplement or even replace local funding. Actual results vary quite a bit. Most states have an absolute outright ban on bicycles on the freeways, but Oregon allows them except in certain urban areas. Bicycles are also banned on many freeway-like US highways, but again there are exceptions.

Caleb
Guest
Caleb

Thanks for the insight. I don’t think you’ve corrected anything, though. Seems to me “U.S. roadways” in your quoted sentence doesn’t refer to roads owned by the federal government, but instead to roadways in the U.S.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

sorry to pop your balloon, but IMHO, most bicycle ‘advocates’ are a smug lot who most ‘mainstream’ folks either don’t understand and/or can’t get behind.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Balloon still intact.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Usually, that’s because “mainstream folks” would have to poke their heads out of their own bubbles to understand, and check a tiny bit of their privilege to get behind. Acknowledging inequality tilted in your favor is something “mainstream folks” have a hard time with, and so paint anyone pointing it out to them as “smug”, “uppity”, “elite”, “childish”…

Ed
Guest
Ed

This latest post of yours confirms that rarely has someones post name “handle” on bike portland ever been so appropriate FDUP! We appreciate your honest self appraisal.

Matthew Moore
Guest
Matthew Moore

So do I need to call in?

Fred
Guest
Fred

Wow – I hadn’t realized that the guy in the truck who yelled at me for cycling on Taylor’s Ferry Rd is also drafting our laws.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

For sure, John Forester must be rolling over in his grave right now! This is a great win for all the separated path partisans!

Jason
Guest
Jason

What a roller-coaster the last 90 seconds has been for me! I was very invested in the outcome of this article. This just goes to show how fragile our freedoms are. Given that there are so many avenues that an individual freedom can be manipulated.

Ed
Guest
Ed

Yes please Jonathan, do let us know any follow up to this. I’d really like to think it was a “typo” but fear a more nefarious explanation.

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

Love the government’s “response”. “It was a mistake”. Sure, in a world where everything is triple checked and then checked again…and this just happened to sneak by?

Yeah…..