Matthew Roth is a writer and

Though it may seem esoteric, one of the biggest impediments to designing streets for people is the over-reliance on design standards that have long privileged movement of vehicles over any other consideration on the streets.

That’s why advocates cheered when U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood published a policy paper recently that, at least in word, placed bicycles and pedestrians on equal footing with motorists.

“Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems,” read one line of the statement.

Yet, an advisory policy paper won’t change the streets overnight and that’s where reforming the design manuals and guidelines at state departments of transportation is imperative, work that groups like Congress for New Urbanism have made a priority at the national level.

Various cities in California that have tried to rebuild their streets to be safer for pedestrians and bicycle riders have often been met with resistance from traffic engineers and city attorneys who rely on Caltrans manuals and standards that are good for moving traffic, not always for protecting vulnerable users.

“The Caltrans Highway Design Manual [HDM] has been the bible for highway engineers for the past half century and has guided the development of California’s freeway system,” said Hans Larsen, Acting Director of San Jose’s Department of Transportation. “Unfortunately, the HDM has also become the default gospel for designing local streets by many city engineers.”

Larsen said the standards that make freeways good for carrying large quantities of vehicles at high speeds are not context appropriate on most streets in urban areas.

“Even today, the Caltrans HDM continues to promote such commandments as ‘a design speed as high as feasible should be used’ and ‘the basic lane width shall be 12 feet,'” he said.

All this may be slowly changing, however, as Caltrans has adopted a Complete Streets policy and has recently set out a timeline for reforming its standards to better reflect the needs of urban areas.

Caltrans spokesperson Matt Rocco explained that the agency has adopted a long checklist of reforms, the Complete Streets Implementation Action Plan [PDF], including the number one item, a revision to the HDM to incorporate multi-modal design and safety standards. Rocco said he would be surprised if the revisions to the HDM weren’t presented to the public for review before the end of the year.

One proposal for Van Ness BRT lanes, designs that are not standards in the Caltrans HDM. Image: San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Some Bay Area congestion mitigation agencies that have been repeatedly rebuffed by Caltrans engineers over Bus Rapid Transit or pedestrian and bicycle projects are skeptical of the pace of change.

Tilly Chang, Deputy Director for Planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), the local congestion mitigation agency (CMA) and a major funder of innovative transportation projects in the county, said that just formulating general policy documents and checklists won’t lead to change.

“It doesn’t influence anything,” said Chang, unless it leads to a meaningful revision to the HDM.

Chang referred to the Van Ness BRT project and 19th Avenue as examples of recent struggles with Caltrans over design standards. Both are state-controlled highways, even thought they cut through the center of a dense city. On 19th Avenue the TA belabored a plan to stripe a parking line so that drivers would stop parking on the sidewalk; on Van Ness, Caltrans compelled the TA to compile research that demonstrates the safety and feasibility of BRT treatments like bus bulbs.

“I think they just don’t have a lot of pedestrian safety research. They are not a transit organization,” said Chang. Chang and her team have had to apply for design exemptions, a rigorous process of approvals for treatments that aren’t standard in the HDM.  

“When they look at safety, they look at vehicles,” she said.

In San Jose, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the local CMA, had to fight tooth and nail to convince Caltrans to allow them to narrow vehicular lanes and widen bike lanes and sidewalks on an overpass at Tully Road and Interstate 101. Everywhere else along the length of Tully Road, lanes are 11 feet wide, but at the overpass, Caltrans told VTA it was unsafe to have lanes narrower than 12 feet.

“In order to accommodate wider sidewalks and wider bike lanes, we had to take away other real estate,” said Casey Emoto, Deputy Director for Project Development at the VTA. Emoto explained that the VTA and the City of San Jose had to indemnify Caltrans against liability [PDF] before the agency would consent to the changes.

“I think the thing that hasn’t caught up to all this is the design standards,” said Emoto. “Until the design standards catch up to these, we’ll continue to have these kinds of problems.

Dave Campbell of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition said the biggest concern for cities is liability, which city attorneys attempt to minimize by relying on the accepted state standards from the HDM. “If [cities] do things that aren’t in the Caltrans manuals, they’ll be liable,” said Campbell. “Cities need to know that improvements they make for bike and pedestrian safety will be supported and endorsed by Caltrans.”

Change will take time, as Caltrans’ own documents readily admit. Simply writing complete streets guidelines into the HDM won’t result in green bike lanes sprouting up everywhere or bus bulbs and chicanes on state-controlled roads.

“The implementation of this action plan will face challenges, including changing the corporate culture, limited resources, and more,” conceded the authors of the Action Plan.

In addition, the issue of liability is one that Caltrans admitted won’t go away with the new HDM. “There’s always going to be tension between liability and providing a safe facility that is used by trucks and all vehicles,” said Rocco.

In the end, VTA and San Jose pushed hard enough for Caltrans to relent. The Tully Road overpass reconstruction will be advertised in April and likely be built by the end of summer, with 11 foot travel lanes, 6 foot bike lanes, and 10 foot sidewalks.

“We have local leaders being innovative and they are being thwarted by Caltrans, whose design manual is out of date,” said Corinne Winter, Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and a supporter of the changes at the Tully Road overpass. Winter said that San Jose was fortunate because the city and the VTA never relented on their plans for narrower lanes, but smaller cities don’t often have the planning staff or budget and default to Caltrans standards.

To deal with liability, some cities have asked Caltrans to relinquish control of shared state roads, which allows a municipality to make the final call on safety and design, but means they need to foot the bill. Assemblymember Jim Beall recently introduced a bill that would grant San Jose the control and maintenance of portions of Caltrans routes so the city could reduce lane widths, traffic calm the street, or widen sidewalks.

Larsen explained that relinquishment of the routes would allow the city to cast the problems and potential of the streets in a new light. By presenting his engineers with new problems to solve, like improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists, he expected his department could create safer streets and a more livable city.

“Don’t blame the engineers, just fix the direction they are given,” said Larsen. “That’s why modernizing the HDM is important.”