AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, is a non-profit, non-partisan association representing highway and transportation departments in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. AASHTO’s Executive Director, John Horsley, and Program Director for Engineering, Jim McDonnell, joined PPS’s Gary Toth and Mina Keyes for a discussion about how to foster better connections between designers in state, county and city DOTs and bike-ped advocates.
John, a native of the Northwest, has been Executive Director of AASHTO since 1999. Before that he was Associate Deputy Secretary of Transportation (1993 to 1999) where he was USDOT’s advocate for intermodal policies and quality of life initiatives. John was elected to five terms as County Commissioner in Kitsap County, a community just west of Seattle. He is a graduate of Harvard, an Army veteran, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Congressional aide.
Jim McDonnell started his career at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, where he served for nine years, the last five as a senior transportation engineer developing the state’s long-range transportation plan. Between NCDOT and AASHTO, he worked for TransCore/SAIC doing transportation planning and traffic engineering studies for a number of state transportation departments. A registered professional engineer in North Carolina, McDonnell has a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from Duke University and he completed master’s degree coursework at North Carolina State University. At AASHTO, in addition to providing support to the highway and research committees, Jim has been associated with a number of special teams and projects including the development of the US Bicycle Routes System and the National Partnership for Highway Quality.
While there are some solid programs out there, in general biking and walking still seem to be on the periphery of a transportation establishment that was groomed to provide high speed travel. Do you see that changing in the 21st century?
JH: There is growing support for bicycling and walking at the community level, for instance the Safe Routes to Schools program funded by Congressman Jim Oberstar… there are communities around the country that have learned that if they can get more students to walk and bike to school, they can reduce busing costs. We also see the recreational use of bicycling increasing. The grassroots demand is increasing.
The problem I see in addressing bicycling and walking is that since 2008 the bottom has dropped out of the tax base for counties, cities and states. Now they can just barely provide the basics for their existing transportation system with respect to maintenance and preservation, let alone adding facilities.
You indicated that there is leadership for walking and bicycling at the community level. What about the state DOTs?
JH: If you look at the history of the Transportation Enhancements Program, it has been remarkable how much bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure has been funded. Every dollar of the $6.2 billion allocated for bicycle and pedestrian facilities over the last 10 years has been invested by the states. States like California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington have each spent more than $200 million on bike-ped projects. Smaller states have invested a lot as well. Most of that came from the Enhancements Program.
Those numbers are impressive, but will the cutbacks in the most recent federal transportation bill (MAP-21) affect bike-ped investment?
JH: Let me share a couple of numbers on the program to put things in perspective. The average bike-ped funding over the course of SAFETEA-LU from 2005 to 2010 came to $854 million a year (if you add it all up and divide by five). In the new bill, the transportation alternatives program will get about $814 million a year, and until all of the details are fleshed out, it is unclear how deep of a cut it is. Since states are now allowed to opt out of 50% of the funding, the challenge will be to develop a strategy to convince DOTs that that 50% will indeed be better spent on biking and walking than the other important uses that they could spend funding on. This goes back to the point I made earlier that governments at all levels are facing challenges in funding basic program needs. Every facet of transportation: preservation, capacity, biking, walking will all have to compete for funding.”
Did the Transportation Enhancements Program mandate that all of its funding go to bike-ped uses?
JH: Bicycling and walking, as I recall, got a little more than 50% of the TE funds. Scenic beautification, rail-trails, and historic preservation also received significant funding.
JH: Make friends with staff at the state DOTs. The fact is, state DOTs plan, design and build, I would say about 1/3 of the infrastructure in the country. The development of bicycling infrastructure, especially for long distances, is not going to happen unless the DOTs think their communities want it.
JM: A lot of advocates already know their bike-ped coordinators well. In addition, many State DOT bike-ped coordinators rely on volunteer help within local communities to do their jobs more effectively. Advocates understand the local wants and needs of their communities and can be a resource of information to the State DOTs.
Can you elaborate a little more on what you mean by “make friends”? Do you see room for improvement?
JH: I’ll start by sharing what is going on in Missouri. Kevin Keith, Secretary of MoDOT, has been leading bike rides because he believes the bicycling constituency is important. There are some advocacy groups that think that they can make progress by beating up on state DOTs, but that will get you absolutely nowhere. Finding ways to collaborate and cooperate is the way to go.
So, do you see more and more state DOTs recognizing that bike-ped is an important constituency?
JH: Let me share an anecdote. Two years ago, the President directed federal agencies to seek suggestions on regulations that were outdated or outmoded. AASHTO suggested that the requirement that DOTs write up justifications for not including bike-ped facilities on every project be eliminated, as it was becoming a paperwork nightmare. As a result of this suggestion, State DOT CEOs were buried in emails, tweets, all levels of communications ripping them apart, saying “What is AASHTO thinking? Tell them to shape up!” Within days, I received at least a dozen calls from CEOs asking AASHTO to retract that suggestion, so we took it off the table. Instead, we sought to work through the issue with bike-ped leaders such as Andy Clarke of the League of American Bicyclists. AASHTO and the DOTs have learned the importance of the bike-ped constituency and won’t take them lightly again.
Do you think there are places where biking and walking can achieve meaningful mode shares, such as downtown Portland which anticipates achieving 10% of commuting trips soon?
JH: We see numbers of that scale in many cities around Europe, but it is a rarity to see numbers of that scale in the U.S. This is probably a result of the lack of density and a scarcity of facilities. I went to the Velo Mondiale conference in Amsterdam in 2000, which was the first time I saw the network of bike paths they have in urban Amsterdam… they have facilities all over the place that make bikes a viable alternative. We are still a long way away from that here.
JM: We shouldn’t just focus on infrastructure, though. In Washington, DC, for example, the Capital Bikeshare program is an effort that seems to have contributed more to bicycling in the city—and for a lot less money—than making improvements to the infrastructure itself. I have seen an increasing number of the red Bikeshare bicycles being ridden throughout the city by commuters and others, which demonstrates to me that there is latent demand… We have to be creative to find the best ways to accommodate people and to provide them with a choice, including supporting the entrepreneurial spirit that ignited the bikeshare program in the first place
JH: The DC Bikeshare program was the brainchild of Gabe Klein, the previous director of transportation in DC; Gabe is now the Director of Transportation for the City of Chicago.
You have long recognized and promoted the importance of land use in making transportation “work.” How does that transfer to biking and walking? And what is the role of Placemaking?
JH: Studies show that we can’t sustain the current pattern in this country of low density and sprawling development, while continuing to provide transportation infrastructure that can keep up with the demand. I was working on this 20 years ago when I was a county official, to concentrate development in existing centers. If we can get the land use regulators, developers and transportation folks to work together collaboratively, they’ll naturally come up with community design that is bike-ped and transit friendly. Unfortunately, every time data comes out, we find that our communities are still growing in the same old way; we still have a lot of work to do.
Moving forward, if we create greater density and a grid pattern for our streets, there will be more and more room for bicycling and walking as an alternative. This allows you to get to your destinations more readily as opposed to the cul de sac approach, which makes it difficult to get anywhere without a car.
Would you say that all of the needed collaborative efforts are part of the role of Placemaking?
JH: The beauty of what PPS does is that you guys add heart and soul to the design. The activities that result when you have a sense of place—when you have communities designed around a sense of place—create vibrant centers that draw people to live there, recreate there, shop there. This is the heart and soul of communities: creating a sense of place that encourages people to walk.
How do you see biking and walking infrastructure playing out in rural states, particularly in rural centers?
JH: Let’s take a state like Vermont, which is not only one of the most beautiful states around, it’s also one that takes quality of life very seriously. Their state DOT takes walking and bicycling seriously—they work with their villages to create centers. In other states, you are seeing villages embracing walking and bicycling as part of creating and maintaining a rural sense of community, for example, in Missoula, Montana.
Rural economies that used to depend on mining and agriculture are turning to a new economy: recreation. The amenities that rural communities provide for bicycling, walking, and fishing are critical. Of the $500 to $700 billion that is spent on recreation, a good deal of it is spent in rural America.
As we watch this whole process of advocating for more livable places playing out, there seems to be some confusion about what this is all about. Could this be a communication/framing issue?
JH: Unfortunately, in some quarters, the livability initiative is sometimes perceived as a conspiracy to restrict people from being able to use their cars. If the message is not stated clearly, rural places like South Dakota might think that such programs will ensure that rural America does not get any transportation funding. The message comes across as elitist and has had a tendency to alienate rural America from the livability movement. As we move forward, we have to take care that folks who are passionate about bicycling and walking don’t come across as dismissing good highway and street design as legitimate and necessary for a healthy rural economy.
With that said, things are changing within transportation. When I worked in the Clinton Administration, transportation had little to do with human beings. This led us to develop initiatives like the Transportation and Community and System Preservation Program. The recent AASHTO publication, The Road to Livability, shows a baker’s dozen ways that good infrastructure investment, including bicycling and walking, contributes to livability.
Can you talk about the AASHTO Bike Guide and how it might (or might not) fit in for designers using the Green Book?
JM: The AASHTO bike guide was developed as a companion to the AASHTO Green Book and the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). There is alignment between these publications to ensure that the guides would complement each other and could be used in collaboration with each other.
The Green Book is not an easy book to follow. Depending on one’s skill on how to use it, it can be the source of good or evil from the community’s perspective. Is the Bike Guide written to help ensure that it is interpreted to achieve the best and balanced outcomes?
JM: The Green Book is written for transportation engineers. It’s a technical reference manual that provides the parameters within which an engineer can design a safe and effective facility. However, it is not a cookbook, and there is a significant amount of flexibility inherent in the ranges of values that can be used for various design decisions. It is intended to be flexible to accommodate the wide range of situations that a designer might face, and the preface and introductory chapters of the Green Book talk extensively about the flexibility that is promoted within the design guidelines.
The Bike Guide is an extension of the Green Book, as it contains additional detail specifically related to the design and operation of bicycle facilities and how they interact with on-road and off-road networks. The two guides are meant to be used in coordination with each other. This is the fourth edition of the Bike Guide, and it was created based on a lot of research conducted over the past several years, including surveys of the bike community on what they felt was needed in the update. Numerous NCHRP research projects contributed to the Guide, in addition to expert opinion from practitioners around the country. Staff from state DOTs, local governments, academia, and the bicycle community contributed.
We acknowledge that the Green Book has language in the preface encouraging flexibility. However, most designers use it like a cook book, and go right to the tables and skip reading the preface and introduction.
The Green Book and the Bike Guide both have a lot of useful information to give designers what they need to incorporate bicycle facilities appropriately into transportation projects, and provides them with the background knowledge needed to design correctly. For example, the Bike Guide includes fundamental information about the appropriate “design vehicle” for bike-ped facilities to ensure that they are designed for safe operation—it may or may not be a bike; it could be a rollerblader, it could be a bike pulling a trailer. In addition, we have more than doubled the size of the Bike Guide in the latest edition. It has a lot of information that designers and engineers will recognize from a design and safety perspective, such as calculations of the sight distance needed for a bicyclist to come to a stop safely. These guides provide the tools for engineers and designers, who are probably traditionally more used to designing roads, to really understand how they can incorporate bicycle facilities into their designs. And it is in a language that they will understand and feel comfortable with.
We are now doing a second print of the Bike Guide because it’s selling so well.
JM: The Bike Guide can be the connection between the advocates and the DOT engineers who have been doing traditional geometric design for years. It allows these two groups to talk to each other using a common language. It could also help advocates learn how to be better understood by the State DOT engineers by being able to talk to them in a language they’ll understand.
JH: Logically, if you have spent 99% of your time designing roads for gas and diesel powered vehicles that are much faster and much heavier, you are just not schooled in the principles that are extensively articulated in the Bike Guide. It is enormously helpful to designers to have this new area of knowledge expressed in terms that they’re familiar with and by an Association that they trust. From the perspective of our members, it would be doubly helpful if the Bike Guide became a common framework for use by the advocates in talking to those who are doing the designs at the county, state and city levels.
This is great, because the Green Book is difficult, even for designers to pick up and interpret what it is telling you to do. It really is not user friendly.
JH: Let me tell you a story from my past as a County Commissioner. I had a “green” waterfront community come to me and ask us to build a bike path along a seven mile stretch of road from an arterial and into the community. So I asked our Chief Engineer to lay out bike lanes on the road. The next thing I heard, the community was up in arms because the designers had staked out an alignment that would have eliminated a tree canopy that had been growing there for a hundred years, and that had defined the character of the road and the entrance into this glorious waterfront and recreational community. So a landscape architect stepped in and brokered an alignment that works for the community, the bicyclists, and the engineers. You need someone who understands both the flexibility of the Green Book and how you can achieve aesthetic, as well as geometric, objectives.
Do you have any closing thoughts for our audience?
JH: Develop relationships with state DOT professionals; this is the best way to achieve the goals of Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place. State DOT employees are hard working people who care as much about communities in their real lives as anyone else. Show the professionals good examples of wonderful sense of place to motivate them to achieve goals for the common good of the entire community.
Pro Walk/Pro Bike®: Pro Place is North America’s premier walking and bicycling conference, which occurs biannually. The next conference will occur in Pittsburgh, PA in September 2014. Join more than 1,000 planners, engineers, elected officials, health professionals, and advocates to gain the insights of national experts in the field, learn about practical solutions to getting bike and pedestrian infrastructure built, and meet peers from across the country.