Better biking takes center stage in call for California transportation ‘overhaul’

January 31, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


San Francisco's Market Street.

A respectful but blistering new report on the challenges of the California Department of Transportation holds promise for a bike-design breakthrough in the country’s largest state, experts say.

Within the next four months, according to the report commissioned last May by Gov. Jerry Brown, the state should end its “archaic” control over bike facilities on local streets and fully endorse the NACTO bike design guide that recommends tools like protected bike lanes, on-street color and dedicated bike signals in urban areas.

The bike changes were was one of four immediate actions recommended in the report by the State Smart Transportation Initiative.

Too frequently, SSTI said, the state’s municipalities have tried “to implement modern design, only to be thwarted by the state and its dated, rigid design policies.”

In the somewhat longer term, Caltrans should perform a “complete overhaul” of its design manuals to allow more flexible street design that supports Californians’ trend toward driving their cars less, even as the state’s economy has grown.


The longtime link between economic grown and increased driving has been broken in California since the early 1990s. Source: SSTI report. 

Caltrans director welcomes recommendations

The recommendations were “greeted enthusiastically by Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, who said the report’s suggestions dovetailed nicely with the 'reforms already underway,’” AllGov.com reported Friday.

Other experts added their approval.

“When Caltrans first put in the requirement that cities follow their Highway Design Manual for bikeways, even on local streets, it was for good reason,” said Seleta Reynolds of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency. “The state of the practice around designing for bikes was just developing, and it was a reliable way to make sure that people wouldn’t build sub-standard facilities. These days, though, that need no longer exists.”

Sean Co, an active transportation planner for the Bay Area’s metropolitan planning organization, said he hoped the report would help give Caltrans the sense of mission and meaning it enjoyed in the 1960s.

“My dad used to work for Caltrans and he said in the early days they had a clear mission to build the state highway network,” Co said. ”The report indicates that they are struggling to find what their current mission should be. I think they should focus on being a mobility department that includes all modes of transportation.”

Rising hope for reform

As the report noted, the country’s largest state transportation agency has already seen “reams of reports and recommendations that purport to address new policy demands” and that “many well-meaning initiatives have simply withered.”

But with California cities and transportation, business and environmental advocates increasingly focused on moving Caltrans in a new direction — for example, the California Bicycle Coalition already has a bill in the works to remove bike facilities from state oversight — reform advocates inside and outside of government are hopeful.

Indeed, one of the report’s final recommendations about Caltrans reform wasn’t actually for Caltrans. It was that everyone else in California needed to give Caltrans a hand.

“Because even the best managers at Caltrans tend to be a product of that culture—and because significant hurdles to change come from outside the department—it appears that modernizing is unlikely to occur simply through Caltrans’ own work, but will require action by CalSTA, the legislature, and other agencies and stakeholders.”

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

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