The Most Important Pedestrian Safety Document You’ve Never Heard Of

Here at America Walks we’re thrilled about the opportunities with a new administration – from funding sidewalks and transit, to removing urban highways, to better pedestrian safety plans. But there is one Federal Highway Administration document that is particularly critical to getting great local streets – a document you may have never heard about – the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Last updated over ten years ago, it sets the standards for getting a crosswalk, installing signals, setting local speed limits and more. The MUTCD is a legal document and engineers who follow its guidance are mostly shielded from liability. Unfortunately the guidance reflects an outdated auto-centric approach. If you have ever wondered why your local street prioritizes fast cars over pedestrians, it is probably in good part because of the Manual. It is so bad we’ve started calling it the Manual that Undermines Terrific Community Design.

A new draft is out for an update, the first in ten years, and if Pete Buttigieg is serious about a new era of transportation policy, he needs to drastically rework it.

If you’re a local advocate, you may already be aware of it. For example, if you want a crosswalk, perhaps you’ve been told “sorry, it does not meet the warrants.” The manual says cities and towns aren’t supposed to install a crosswalk with a traffic signal at a specific location unless 75 pedestrians are crossing there per hour (this is a location that doesn’t have a signalized crosswalk yet keep in mind) or — get this — five pedestrians have to be struck there in a single year for the manual to determine its worth slowing down drivers a little bit by adding a traffic signal. This most recent update changes these crosswalk rules to “guidance” but left all the language in place advising engineers against adding crosswalks. Or perhaps you wanted an innovative artistic crosswalk design. Nope, that’s against the Manual. The updated Manual will also allow cities and towns to install traffic lights without   “Walk” or “Don’t Walk” signals even in urban areas, leaving pedestrians to guess using the traffic signals when it’s their turn to cross.

And it’s not just advocates. Mayors and City Council Members are often stiff-armed by their local transportation departments and told that protecting the city from liability means following the Manual – even when the public is clamoring for safety improvements.

But here’s the deal. The Manual is not in fact making our streets safer. It imports inappropriate highway design principles into local streets. And it is not very well supported by data. For example there is no study showing colored crosswalks create safety problems, they are sacrificed on the mantle of “uniformity.” 
Indeed, the data is that pedestrians deaths are growing dramatically nationwide, and local streets optimized for auto throughput are a significant part of the problem. Here is a good place for the Biden Administration to meet its equity goals as the burden of unsafe streets falls most heavily on older people, neighborhoods of color and other marginalized groups like wheelchair users. 

At America Walks we are working with a broad coalition of reformers to influence the regulatory process for adoption of the new Manual. And if you are a local advocate, agency employee, or elected official who has had the Manual undermine terrific community design in your city or town, we need to hear from you.

Please tell us your MUTCD horror story by clicking here. Even better if you can send us pictures or videos of what you wanted, and what you ended up with, because of the outdated manual. It will inform our advocacy, and with your permission we will share the best stories on social media and with the Federal Highway Administration.  
And stay tuned, we will let you know the best way to communicate with FHWA on the draft update. Comments are being accepted through May 14, 2021. 

America Walks is here to support local advocates in getting safe, inclusive and accessible streets for everyone. Fixing the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices is a key step to that goal. 

This is a co-written call-to-action by Angie Schmitt and Mike McGinn. Angie Schmitt is one of the country’s best known writers and experts on the topic of sustainable transportation and was the long-time national editor at Streetsblog. Mike McGinn is the Executive Director of America Walks and got his start in local politics as a neighborhood activist pushing for walkability.  From there he founded a non-profit focused on sustainable and equitable growth, and then became mayor of Seattle.