Planners in Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, and many other cities were also eager to try out protected bike lanes. Collectively, they’d realized that many of what they considered worldwide best practices were essentially missing from the manuals that guide American traffic engineers and transportation planners. So they resolved to write their own.
To codify their emerging practice, they turned to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO had been formed in 1996 as a forum for big-city transportation planners to swap ideas, but it had never published a design guide before. That became one of its top priorities after Sadik-Khan was named president of the organization. For several months beginning in 2010, a group of 40 consultants and city transportation planners reviewed bike-lane designs from around the world and across the United States.
The result was NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the first national design standard for protected bike lanes. Like other standards, it answers the questions of space, time, and information that are at the heart of street design. How wide should a protected bike lane be? At least five feet, but ideally seven. How does one mix bike lanes and bus stops? Send the lane behind the bus stop, with enough space for bus riders to comfortably board and get off the bus. What about when bike lanes and turn lanes meet? Give bikes their own exclusive signals, or create “mixing zones,” shared spaces where people in cars and on bikes take turns entering the space.
Not everyone is satisfied with the NACTO guide’s answers to these questions. When transportation blogs mention the guide, often commenters will point out that the CROW manual, which governs street design in the Netherlands, is even more accommodating to cyclists, recommending wider bike lanes and more separation between bicycle and car traffic, especially at intersections.
But the NACTO guide also provides domestic legal and political cover. No longer were protected bicycle lanes radical experiments, the kind that might expose a government to a lawsuit. They became further normalized in 2013, when the Federal Highway Administration released a memo endorsing use of the NACTO guide. The departments of transportation in Massachusetts, Georgia, and six other states have also endorsed the guide.
While the NACTO guide may have represented an end run around older standards, it has also succeeded in pulling those standards up. In 2014, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (which recommends changes to the MUTCD) adopted several standards from the NACTO guide, such as bicycle-specific traffic signals. The next edition of AASHTO’s guide to developing bike facilities is likely to include protected bike lanes.
As the research predicted, better bike lanes have led to far more people biking. Over three-quarters of a million people ride a bike multiple times a month in New York, a 49 percent increase over 2009. Between 2005 and 2015, the share of commuters who bike to work more than doubled in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., according to an analysis of U.S. Census data.