The Year Ahead in Transportation – Yeah It’s a Lot, but We’re up for It!

The intersection of three streets is pictured from above including three dimensional street paint, bollards, and rubber curbs to narrow the road around a similar roundabout. A crosswalk is pictured in similarly bright new paint.

By Mike McGinn

Where do we stand on transportation policy in 2024? Beth Osborne of Transportation for America and Corrine Kisner of National Organization of City Transportation Officials gave America Walks a rundown of 2023 and then what to expect in 2024 in The Year Ahead in Transportation.

Still too much money going to the wrong infrastructure

Beth first laid out some facts. While there is a tremendous amount of new money for infrastructure, there is still $4 dollars of road spending for every $1 dollar of transit spending. And while there is a lot of excitement about new programs like Reconnecting Communities and Safe Streets for All, these are minor slices compared to the total spent. Indeed 70% of road funds goes to the states as “formula funding” which is heavily used for highway expansion.

Slide displaying where funding from the Infrastructure Law (IIJA) is being spent.

She urged people to look at the Safe Streets for All grants. Congress made a mistake and allocated 40% of that for planning, when demand is much higher for construction grants. However, USDOT will accept “demonstration projects” as a kind of planning grant – so get your pop-ups and quick build projects into the queue as they have a high likelihood of being funded. They are a great way to engage community and show what a safe street can look like. (Check out this example America Walks led in Little Rock, Arkansas).

The facts around traffic safety remain grim. Most states are not meeting their goals to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries. And it is unlikely that this trend will change if states retain a priority of moving cars rather than safe and healthy communities. Transportation for America will be updating its Dangerous by Design Report this year, as well as creating new resources for advocates to use in holding state decision makers to their stated safety goals.

It’s not too soon to plan to get ready for the next federal reauthorization bill

Which takes us to the next federal transportation reauthorization, which is coming at us in the next 2-3 years. Yes, we are halfway through the 5 year cycle that Congress follows to decide upon how federal money can and should be spent by state DOTs. The last reauthorization substantially retained the status quo, so the next transportation reauthorization will be critical to changing the transportation paradigm.  

Beth pointed out the deep divide between Congress and the public about how money should be spent. Recent polling shows that 60% of U.S. residents say that new highway lanes either make traffic worse, or have no effect at all on improving traffic. The public prioritizes repairing existing roads, and investing in transit, bike lanes and sidewalks. The public’s lowest priority is highway expansion.

Slide displaying a bar chart of "which of the following approaches would be the best and worst long-term solutions to reducing traffic in your area?". 22% said repairing existing roads; 18% say providing more public transportation of all modes; 17% building mixed use communities; 15% adding sidewalks; 10% adding highway lanes; 10% making streets more bike friendly; 8% building new highways

NACTO – the people-centered transportation planners

Corinne started by emphasizing that NACTO’s primary motivations are climate, safety and equity, and she is gratified by the number of cities joining NACTO. (Note – America Walks thinks NACTO is a fabulous force for change in the transportation engineering profession and we often partner with them to promote alternatives to car-centric planning.)

She called our attention to recent changes in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. While not the comprehensive reform required, it does move us closer to what is needed. Two good things:

  • It supplants the 85th percentile rule with a more context sensitive approach. In other words, basing speed limits on adjacent uses, rather than the 85th percentile of actual speeds.
  • It contains explicit permission to install crosswalks, instead of setting restrictions on when crosswalks could be installed.

Corinne noted that it is still too difficult to get a traffic signal under the Manual, and that the bike provisions need a lot more work. NACTO is working to put out a new Bikeway Design Guide in autumn 2024, which they hope can influence the next MUTCD and inspire cities to go to the next level in bike infrastructure.

Also noted was an update to Public Right of Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG), the first update in 20 years. These guidelines will likely be adopted as mandatory rules by USDOT and the Department of Justice, therefore requiring much more accessible streets than we have today. 

Measuring emissions from transportation – there oughta be a rule

One of the hottest current issues she brought up is the USDOT Greenhouse Gas Emissions rule. It would require states to measure emissions from transportation and set a target to reduce them. Many states already do so, but many other states are objecting. With transportation now the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, it is essential for state DOT’s to play their part. Stay tuned to these pages to learn more as this issue develops.

Corinne then focused on the need to regulate vehicles to make them safer and noted the likely USDOT regulatory rulemaking in the coming year. Autonomous vehicles also require a clear national framework for regulation and safety testing. (Note, America Walks is also prioritizing safer vehicles – learn more here).

With all these various issues in play, where should one start?

In the post presentation conversation, Beth said “start with the trends.” Don’t let decision makers point to isolated efforts, no matter how good they sound, if the actual outcomes are getting worse. Hold them accountable to outcomes, which may require significant changes to status quo activities. Corinne urged a focus on local change – to demonstrate demand through tangible results. If done in enough places that creates a groundswell for change at state and federal levels. “It can seem so overwhelming – it’s an acronym soup” but focus on activities that can generate these feedback loops. 

For the lively conversation that followed – check out the whole video!

Beth’s Slideshow