David Vega-Barachowitz is the Sustainable Initiatives Program Manager for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), a non-profit organization comprised of 15 of the largest municipal departments of transportation in the US, including those of New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago and Houston. NACTO was founded in 1996 to respond to the perception that large cities lacked a voice in the national transportation conversation, which is primarily conducted between the US Department of Transportation and the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO). In addition to raising the profile of city transportation officials in federal decision-making, NACTO founders want to create more meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships between urban centers.
In 2009, NACTO launched its Cities for Cycling project, through which the organization studies and champions best practices in bikeway design, and began crafting an urban-oriented manual to guide cities who want to invest in bike-friendly roadway infrastructure and traffic engineering. The NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide puts forth solutions for incorporating bicycle transportation options into the urban streetscape, based on a comprehensive understanding of the many bureaucratic restrictions and practical needs that dictate the design of our streets. In the face of design standards based on interstate highway travel, liability concerns, battles between State and City and competition between numerous stakeholders for use and right of way, this effort to overhaul our established ideas of how streets should work promises to be a struggle. And the folks at NACTO are dedicated to the challenge. In the following piece, Vega-Barachowitz looks at the example of the “cycle track” — a bikeway that is physically separated from motor traffic and is distinct from the sidewalk (such as the 9th Avenue bikeway here in New York) — to explain why our transportation networks are the way they are and how they should evolve. –V.S.
In the taxonomy of city streets, the cycle track is the platypus. Sandwiched between the sidewalk and the parking lane — neither a trail, a sidewalk, nor a travel lane — it defies the conventional spectra of classification and challenges where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.
In spite of their curious and (as of now) sporadic cameos on American city streets, cycle tracks have long tradition in Northern Europe, and have more recently emerged on streets from Seoul to Seville. Since 2007, when New York City cut the ribbon on its inaugural Ninth Avenue cycle track, the movement for separated bikeways has accelerated in the United States; and culminated in 2011, with the publication of the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ (NACTO) Urban Bikeway Design Guide, a catalogue of innovative bikeway design concepts for US cities.
The NACTO Guide heralds a new era of thinking about our streets and public spaces, discovering in the asphalt tundra of the American metropolis an unlikely well of creative potential. Along with a growing cadre of city street design manuals, the guide beckons the twilight of the motor century and upholds the growing sentiment that the antidote to traffic congestion is neither highway nor tunnel, but an imaginative repurposing and reallocation of the street itself. Today, as an emerging generation of designers and engineers rise to challenge the traditional rubric and protocol of traffic engineering, the first highly visible struggle will be that of the cycle track.
What follows contextualizes the cycle track in the lineage of transportation in the United States. Three persistent themes stand out: the tension between rural and urban transportation policy; the question of dedicating versus sharing road space; and the interpretation and limitations of conventional design standards and criteria.
This brief history will hopefully accelerate the launching of a new paradigm in urban transportation and street design, and thus engender more aggressive and creative streetscape interventions in the progress of design process and theory. This movement reinforces and reflects the recent cross-disciplinary shift from object to ground and from freestanding built form to landscape (set forth by architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton in 1990). It inverts the opportunity for design intervention from the built fabric of floors and facades to the dynamic spines and landscapes that weave around them and shape their context. City street design, though perhaps the least glamorous subfield in the dialogues surrounding landscape urbanism (or ecological urbanism), just might be its most highly contentious and politically volatile element — and therefore one of its most interesting.
The Gospel of Good Roads
The first separated bikeway in the United States was constructed along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn during the bicycle fad of the 1890s. The bicycle craze produced many follies, including a short-lived, elevated, bicycle toll road between Pasadena and Los Angeles named the California Cycleway. Though the impact of the bicycle at the turn of the century was truncated by the emergence of the private automobile, an early group of bicycle advocates, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), successfully lobbied Congress for smooth, well-connected country roads at the height of the bicyclist era.
Catering to the populist sentiments of the day, LAW published a series of tracts in Good Roads Magazine, including one called The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer. The gospel, along with other materials issued by the League, called upon Congress to build a system of well-paved roads connecting towns and villages. Their literature appealed to farmers whose livelihood was compromised by inadequate road conditions and sought to leverage more effectively the railroads upon which they relied to get their goods to market. Though the energy behind the movement came primarily from groups of cyclists in cities, their political appeal to the peasant farmer struck a sympathetic chord with congressmen distrustful of city bosses and railroad tycoons.
The agrarian sympathies of a federal government reeling from a financial crisis sparked by railroad speculation set in motion the inequitable balance in transportation policy and funding geared away from cities towards rural areas. This bias persists to this day. Beginning with the establishment of the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) in the Department of Agriculture in 1893, the government set a precedent for road and highway construction as a rural program based on rural needs and rural access — a decade before the advent of the automobile. As a consequence, from the early 20th century onward, the Bureau of Public Roads and its successor agency the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) charted a course that would spell the dissolution of railroads and urban transportation systems in favor of federally funded toll-free highways dominated by state interests and agencies.1
The establishment of the landmark Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916 carried with it a provision that enabled each state to establish a highway department to handle grants and funds allocated from the federal government. The highway departments, assembled from an already forceful and emergent group of regional highway lobbies (backed by national automobile associations), formed the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in 1914 — a group which, over the course of the 20th century, “developed into ‘one of the most important, least known political groups in the country…part lobby, part professional association, part quasi-political agency. No effective national highway policy could be enacted without its agreement.’”2
Evolving Guidelines and Standards for Roads and Bikeways
AASHO’s lead role in the federal highway program was underscored by their publication in the 1920s and 1930s of a series of road design standards, which eventually came to be known as the Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets and the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The former, a set of guidelines commonly known as the AASHTO Green Book (AASHO was renamed AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, in 1973), is often referred to as the “bible” for traffic engineers. The MUTCD is a federally mandated set of codes intended to create standardized roadway signs and markings. The Green Book guides a road’s geometric proportions, such the minimum width of a travel lane (typically 10 feet, though engineers prefer 11-12 foot lanes), while the MUTCD mandates its signage and markings, such as the appropriate dimensions of a stop sign or a striped buffer.
The antidote to traffic congestion is neither highway nor tunnel, but an imaginative repurposing and reallocation of the street itself.As cars became ever more prevalent on America’s roadways, the Green Book, guided by state highway engineers, continually added “safety” buffers to their street design standards to account for the growing frequency of accidents and driver errors. After 1966, based on the presumed inevitability of driver error,3 traffic engineers “became principally concerned with how to engineer [a] second line of defense, shifting the profession’s focus away from driver behavior and towards vehicles and roadside hardware.”4 Trees were routinely chopped down to improve sight distances on historic streets, sidewalks were narrowed to improve a car’s crumple zone, and intersection curb radii were altered to insure that trucks and other large vehicles could make smooth turns.
Ever more prohibitive traffic engineering standards regulated and regimented the city streetscape in the name of safety, even as these standards simultaneously eroded the urban realm and transformed ordinary commercial thoroughfares into high speed / high traffic urban arterials. Since only state-designated collector or arterial routes were eligible to receive federal funding, cities had an incentive to designate more of their city streets as state routes, and in doing so conform to AASHTO standards that compromised pedestrians, street life and commerce in favor of vehicle throughput.5,6
Why AASHTO Excluded the Cycle Track
Among AASHTO’s supplemental publications released in the ensuing decades of the Interstate era was the 1975 AASHTO Guide to the Development of Bicycle Facilities. Demand for a better design policy for bicyclists emerged during the bike boom of the late 1960s and peaked in 1974, the year when, for the first time in decades, more bicycles were sold than cars.
Surging interest in the bicycle, then as now, sparked a reconsideration of the bicycle’s place in the roadway — specifically under what circumstances bicyclists ought to ride with or apart from traffic. At this juncture, despite a wealth of strategies being deployed in Europe, including the cycle track, the American standard fell curiously under the spell of John Forester, the champion of the vehicular cycling movement and author of Effective Cycling. Vehicular cyclists espouse the principle that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.
In the early 1970s, Forester successfully fought (and continues to fight) against the inclusion of cycle tracks in the AASHTO Bike Guide. Though the vehicular cycling principle has many adamant advocates, the outright embrace of a behavioral approach to cycling coincided with a tacit rejection of the behavioral approach to traffic safety. In other words, as the engineering profession began to safeguard the built environment for terrible drivers and faster cars, a dominant group of bicyclists rejected the principle of separation in favor of “bicycle driving.”
At a point in history when the primary engineering solution was to segment users by grade and function, Forester may have seemed like a luminary. In practice, while cycling rates had a resurgence elsewhere, in the US, they stalled.
The Ninth Avenue Revolution
From the bike boom of the 1970s until today, efforts to make bicycling a mainstream form of transportation (rather than a child’s toy or an exercise regimen) have often focused on policy and education rather than engineering or roadway design. The few cycle track experiments that did take place were either situated outside of a large urban context, in left-leaning college towns like Madison, WI or Davis, CA; or quickly succumbed to political winds, such as New York Mayor Ed Koch’s infamous Midtown cycle tracks in the 1980s. A small but vocal group of engineers from the vehicular cycling community vehemently objected to changes to the AASHTO and MUTCD standards, propagating the philosophically sound but practically unrealistic “Share the Road” dogma that bicyclists should be accorded all of the rights and responsibilities of motorists.
Today’s call for cycle tracks differs, in part, because these interventions have been integrated into a bolder and more comprehensive reawakening and reconsideration of streets as public spaces for people. In 2007, when New York City constructed the city’s first protected bike lane pilot project on Ninth Avenue and transformed Times Square from a tumultuous interchange into a public commons, the city not only created a safe space for cyclists and pedestrians, they set a new precedent in the design of city streets. Cycle track projects, along with a host of bold engineering and communications strategies, have helped to revive the notion of the street as a place not solely for cars, but a front yard in which commercial and pedestrian activities may thrive.
In most cities, changes to city streets, beyond repaving or filling potholes, occur in geologic time. Transportation agencies and public works departments are (understandably) reluctant to attract bad press and political controversy by eliminating traffic lanes, and in much of the country, have little to gain from widening sidewalks or adding bike lanes. Moreover, innovation has often been discouraged by the threat of liability, as innovative cities and engineers fall back on prevailing standards (AASHTO guidance) rather than the immunity of good engineering judgment.7 In the 1970s, John Forester coerced the state of California and the federal government to withdraw proposals for cycle tracks by citing a lack of safety research and suing the city of Palo Alto for having mandatory sidepath8 laws — injecting a sword into the tender belly of the system.9 A steadfast reliance on research and the threat of liability created an untenable cycle, which New York City, by building the cycle track as a pilot project in 2007, may have finally broken.
The current movement to build cycle tracks and other innovative designs reflects a paradigm shift in the urban political-engineering-planning framework under which cities typically operate. City transportation agencies and public works departments are transforming themselves into public space departments to cater to a new generation, and are in turn finding that the dialogue of controversial new steps — such as an ambitious bike network expansion —helps them to transcend the business-as-usual approach to city streets and to forge new partnerships with community groups, businesses and advocates. When New York City built its first cycle tracks (as part of its larger complete street design initiative), it made the cycle track into an object of political capital, setting off a domino effect that now involves cities from Memphis to San Jose.
The quiet revolution of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide
The story of the cycle track does not end with the trials and successes of New York. In fact, despite the turmoil of the Prospect Park West Bike Lane in the winter of 2011, the imperative for cycle tracks has garnered even more momentum nationwide, with cities all around the United States prepared to lay their first miles of protected bikeways in 2012 and 2013. While controversy has a way of heightening interest and visibility, the publication in March 2011 of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide set forth for the first time an accepted, long overdue national standard off of which cities could base their designs.
While the cycle track is what makes the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide pioneering, the manual actually includes guidance for bicycle signals, bike boxes, buffered bike lanes, and a host of other new traffic engineering strategies now being deployed across the country. The designs in the guide draw on the European experience as well as existing projects and precedents in the United States. Following the official release in March 2011, NACTO undertook an unprecedented endorsement campaign for the document, drawing the support of countless city transportation officials, as well as US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. These developments have set the stage for a thorough reconsideration of roadway design standards in cities across the country, and reflect the long-recognized fissure between the reality of urban design and the tenets of state highway design.
Whether or not federal transportation policy and state highway design evolve to achieve a more representative balance between state and local interests remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the recent emergence of the cycle track and the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide sets a positive precedent for the future of urban streets and spaces. The modern solution to traffic congestion is no longer a multi-billion dollar highway or tunnel, but a recalibration of investment away from traffic and towards people, and away from highways and towards transit and public plazas. It is through the reinvention and re-imagination of this ubiquitous public asset, the street, that the American city may discover its latent potential. While cycle tracks may be an ephemeral protagonist in this evolving drama (as their late 19th century counterparts were for the Good Roads movement), this subtle traffic operation sets the stage for a more ambitious reconquest of the street — its place, purpose and future in the American city.
 Railroads, ironically, were one of the early supporters of highway expansion, as they saw road building as a means to increase their catchment areas for passengers and goods. The notion that interstate highways might supplant rail travel had not been taken into serious consideration.
 Owen Gutfreund. 20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2004), 19-20.
 Malcom Gladwell. “Wrong turn: How the fight to make America’s roadways safer went off course.” The New Yorker (2001, June 11), 50-61.
 Eric Dumbaugh. “Safe Streets, Livable Streets.” Journal of the American Planning Association: Vol. 71: No. 3, Summer 2005, 287.
 John Urgo, Meredith Wilensky, and Steven Weissman, Moving Beyond Prevailing Street Design Standards: Assessing Legal and Liability Barriers to More Efficient Street Design and Function, Berkeley Center for Resource Efficient Communities, 2010, 6.
 Fear of liability risks in roadway design and engineering plays a key role in this story. Designing outside of prevailing standards exposes engineers to liability risks and has created a design culture which discourages ingenuity or experimentation.
 Moving Beyond Prevailing Street Design Standards, 21.
 Sidepath is the technical term for cycle track used by AASHTO.
 For an early history of American bikeway standards, see John Forester’s Bicycle Transportation: A Handbook for Cycling Transportation Engineers, 128-131.