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Modernizing Federal Standards: Making the MUTCD Work for Cities

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Did you know that one federal document dictates what nearly every street looks like in the US?

It’s called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (AKA, the MUTCD), and like many obscure regulations, it’s riddled with fundamental problems.

Right now, FHWA is in the process of updating the MUTCD for the first time in more than 10 years. Unfortunately, the currently-proposed update continues to tinker at the margins without fundamentally fixing this flawed regulation. NACTO and a coalition of cities and organizations are calling for FHWA to instead commit to a comprehensive overhaul of the MUTCD (pdf), which was last rewritten in 1971.

The Context:

The United States has a traffic safety crisis more severe than that of any other industrialized country. 35,000+ people die on our roadways every year, double the rate of Canada, and quadruple that of Europe. The costs of this are not borne equally; Black people were struck and killed by drivers at an 82% higher rate than White, non-Hispanic Americans.

Our streets are unsafe because of how they are designed. While all levels of government are responsible, the crisis stems in no small part from the Federal standards used to build our streets. The MUTCD, which governs all road markings, stop signs, and traffic lights in the US, prioritizes moving private vehicles fast above all other goals–like safety, climate, and access for people walking, biking, in a wheelchair, or on a bus.

Under today’s MUTCD, someone crossing a street is less important than the fast-flowing movement of cars. Often, even multiple people dying at an intersection is not enough for the MUTCD to recommend installing a walk signal.

Because of the flawed rules in the MUTCD, American streets are unsafe and unwelcoming, limiting possibilities to create the vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that people want.

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The MUTCD limits progress and safety–and is full of absurd restrictions

The MUTCD is charged with standardizing signs and markings on US roads to promote safer conditions. Yet, after decades of tweaking the manual, rather than fundamentally fixing it, the MUTCD is now full of seemingly arbitrary and functionally dangerous rules.

As proposed, Federal standards would prohibit colorful crosswalks in the name of safety, but still endorse the 85th percentile for setting speed limits, even if engineers consider it too fast to be safe. The manual is contradictory, stifles the implementation of innovative new designs cities have developed on their streets, and is actively harming people using American streets.

Here are just some of the absurd contradictions in the MUTCD:

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How did we get here?

So why is the MUTCD full of so many seemingly arbitrary, functionally dangerous rules? First, the manual restricts the use of any new street design not thoroughly studied by academia, even when there is overwhelming real-world evidence for its application. And second, the manual uses engineering mandates to prioritize the steady flow of private motor vehicle traffic over the safety of people walking, biking, rolling, and taking transit.

What was initially a document to standardize signage on rural roads has evolved, awkwardly, to govern every street in the US. Every day, people in our cities and suburbs suffer the consequences, sometimes tragically, because of it. Urban streets serve a variety of functions and many users. The uniformity and rigidity of the MUTCD is valuable on high-speed highways and for critical features like stop signs and uniform traffic lights (green/yellow/red), but in its current form is unworkable in the complex, vibrant contexts of city streets.

The MUTCD is currently updated through a cumbersome, opaque process, with individual comments made line by line and section by section, rather than with a holistic look at whether the document is meeting the goals set out for it. Every time the MUTCD opens for comments, red ink spills across each page, and each time it’s clear that a new approach is needed.

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The fix? FHWA must reframe and rewrite the MUTCD

The MUTCD was last comprehensively rewritten in 1971. In the 50 years since then, American cities have demonstrated that our streets serve many purposes, and that streets can be great places to walk, bike, take transit, and socialize. A new Manual can reflect the realities and aspirations of what our streets can be. 

The MUTCD should reflect the true breadth and depth of experiences along American roads. By opening a dialogue with more diverse and representative voices–rather than the windshield perspective it currently promotes–FHWA holds the key to creating conditions for a more livable future. A new MUTCD would more closely align with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities and the Biden Administration.

With a new MUTCD, cities will no longer have to jump through hoops to use the cost-effective, sustainable street design elements that make streets great places to be. 

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Here’s what you can do to push for safer streets

Add your comments in favor of a fundamental rethink to the regulations dictating American streets:

1. Collect your thoughts. Use either of these templates, and please make sure to add at least a few of your own words (so the system registers it as unique). Examples help of course, but the most important thing is that you, your city, and your organization submit a letter or a comment:

2. Submit your letter to the Federal Register. You can either upload or copy & paste your comments. Earlier is better, but the federally-mandated deadline is May 14, 2021.

3. Share your submission with us. We are collecting comments from governments, practitioners, and members of the public who reach out to FHWA. Please let us know what you sent by writing to [email protected].

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