Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is a breath of fresh air for many in the transportation world. He has captured headlines talking about removing highways and undoing racist highway and land use policies; riding his bike to cabinet meetings; and promoting broad definitions of both transportation and infrastructure. However, it’s one of his dullest actions that might just have the greatest long-term impact: extending the comment period for a Federal Register notice on proposed updates to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
Regular readers will know that the MUTCD establishes national standards, guidance, and options for traffic signs, signals, and markings on every public roadway in the country. It’s a huge, extraordinarily arcane document with an outsized influence on roadways, the built environment, and the safety and behavior of every one of us as we move around by foot, bike, chair, bus, car, van, or truck. It’s the reason Stop signs are octagonal and red with white type, green is reserved for bike lanes, and park signs are brown…everywhere in the United States. The manual is “owned” by the Federal Highway Administration; they receive considerable input and assistance from the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD).
The MUTCD is also the reason why a certain number of people must cross and/or die trying to cross the street before a pedestrian signal can be installed (or “warranted” in the language of the manual). There is a constant tension among the guardians of the Manual between creativity and consistency, between innovation and certainty, and between modernization and cautious inertia. On the rare occasions that the Manual is completely updated (it’s often amended one chapter or section at a time), these tensions rise to the surface – and we are at one of those moments.
The rulemaking process to update the Manual was announced late last year. A proposed revised version of the Manual was published in the Federal Register and a docket was established to take comments through March 15, 2021. However, speaking at the National Bike Summit earlier this year, Secretary Buttigieg light-heartedly soaked up the virtual applause as he confirmed that the deadline had been extended to May 14. Pressure to extend the deadline came because the marked-up version of the revised manual is 784 pages long – but also because many agencies, organizations, and transportation professionals were questioning the conventional wisdom upon which the manual is based and want to see a more fundamental overhaul of this critical document.
Toole Design staff use the MUTCD every day. There is huge value in having a common set of signs, signals, and markings that can be consistently used and relied upon across the United States. But there is also huge frustration at the limitations of a manual that is still firmly rooted in values and objectives that were established in the 1940s and 50’s – when the automobile was emerging as a dominant force in society and everything was geared towards ensuring unimpeded and rapid mobility for people in cars.
As a result, the company is pursuing a twin track to the MUTCD update process – we are simultaneously recommending incremental changes to the chapter and verse of the Manual, while also joining the chorus of people and organizations demanding more fundamental change. Bill Schultheiss, PE will be saying more about the latter approach in the weeks ahead.
In the meantime, you can see the detailed changes we have requested to the proposed manual here. Please feel free to use them to guide your own response, or that of your agency/organization, if you can’t wade through 784 pages yourself; there’s no ”like” button yet in the Federal Register (at least, I don’t think there is…) but if you like what we’re saying, you can always submit a simple comment to back up ours.
Toole Design staff have invested a great deal of time and energy into the incremental approach over the years. Craig Schoenberg PE and Katy Sawyer, PE have probably spent two hundred hours or more this year alone in National Committee meetings, drafting and revising comments, and submitting a final list of more than 130 specific comments on behalf of Toole Design. Craig and Katy are following Bill’s lead: he has served on technical committees and diligently attended January and June NCUTCD meetings for a decade (representing the League of American Bicyclists, who are members of the NCUTCD) – I’ve been to those meetings as well; they can be hard work!
The League, the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP), NACTO and a host of other organizations will also submit comments in the coming days. APBP and America Walks have been hosting informative webinars on the update process that are well worth a watch – they demonstrate again that it’s important to be part of the process AND to ask big and challenging questions about the real purpose and approach of a Manual that is such an important part of our work, and our lives – whether people know it or not.