Car-Centered Culture at CalTrans
Bicycle and alternative transportation advocates often lament that state and local departments of transportation (DOTs) seem locked in a time-warp with regard to road design. Many DOTs continue to privilege the level of service (LOS) to automobiles, regardless of how it impacts the safety or ability of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. In short, they continue to design roads for cars, as they have since the 1950s, despite the fact that multimodal transportation solutions are essential if we are to address the interconnected problems of gridlock, road safety, public health, pollution, sprawl, and climate change.
Thus it was with some interest I read a new report assessing how well CalTrans is meeting the multimodal needs of California in the 21st century. The report’s authors, to put it bluntly, excoriated CalTrans, accusing the agency’s transportation policies of being woefully “out-of-date” and the department itself ossified by a “culture of fear” that looks with suspicion on innovation. The report accuses CalTrans of operating under “an anodyne mission that might have been written in the 1950s.” CalTrans, said the report’s authors, continues to privilege automotive LOS while ignoring other measures of multimodal road usage, and has failed to align its policies with California’s laws encouraging transportation design that reduces dependence on the automobile and GHGs. Indeed, the report noted that the word “sustainability” does not show up once in the department’s most recent guide (indeed, the word was apparently struck from the final version). Perhaps most damning was the picture painted of a culture in CalTrans not only resistant to change, but apparently hostile to it.
This reaches into every community, insofar as CalTrans’s Highway Design Manual is frequently followed by cities as a standard for roadway design. The current HDM does not incorporate modern best practices that enable cities to design roads to accommodate multiple road users, such as bicycles. The report notes that, according to CalTrans’s HDM lane widths are set too rigidly, often preventing innovative road designs that might better accommodate bicycles:
The “mandatory standards” for lane width and shoulder width are high—12-foot minimum lane widths are generally required, with 11‐foot lanes allowed in a few limited circumstances. In contrast, off high-speed limited access highways, current best practice nationally calls for lane widths of 10‐12 feet, depending on the context. (p. 30)
The report’s authors also note that CalTans standards prioritize high automobile speeds on such roads, despite the deleterious effects on other non-automobile road users:
The manual’s approach to motor vehicle design speed, which does much to determine the character of a road or street, favors high speeds without regard to their impact on other modes. (p. 31)
The report’s findings are significant for a number of reasons. First, wider lanes have been shown to induce motorists to drive faster, which increases road danger, and creates an intimidating environment for bicyclists and pedestrians. For example, on Sierra Madre Blvd., a divided road in Pasadena (under the jurisdiction of Pasadena DOT) with 12-foot wide lanes and a substandard (4 ft-wide) bike lane, the traffic speeds are posted at 40 mph. The wide lanes encourage high traffic speeds, making the road less safe and intimidating for bicyclists when drivers zoom by, despite the bike lane. It is no wonder more youth and families don’t ride their bicycles to nearby Pasadena High School and LaSalle High School or to nearby shops. The report also notes that CalTrans’s standards effectively discourage communities from installing protected bike lanes through innovative use of curbs, bollards, planters, or other barriers that would insulate bicyclists from high-speed automobiles.
Yet, on Sierra Madre Blvd., there is plenty of room on the roadway to widen the bike lanes, making them safer and encouraging more people to ride. Measuring the road width, I produced a mock-up of that section of road (top image, shown below), using the open website streetmix. Note that as currently configured, the bike lane forces the bicyclist into the “door zone” of parked cars on the right as with little room to protect her from the speeding traffic on the left. Not only that, the current road design actually provides a wide buffer along the center divider, and not the bike lane.
On the other hand, if the lane widths were reduced to 10 ft, or even 11 ft, as allowed by the most up-to-date transportation design manuals used in some other states, it would provide at least three additional feet that could be used to widen the bike lane and perhaps provide a painted buffer between cars and bikes, increasing safety and comfort for all (see same street view modified below). However, as long as California’s state standards prescribe 12-ft lane widths, local governments will be loath to change.
I ride the above route to school with my daughter every week, and I would like the street to be safe enough for all the high schoolers who live nearby to ride their bikes to school. It would reduce traffic, reduce pollution, reduce GHGs, and improve the health of the community. This road could easily be redesigned, with no inconvenience to motorists, other than perhaps slowing down 5 mph. But we need state and local DOTs in California to get their heads out of their a—–, uh, get with the program.
The independent reviewers recommend a significant change in the culture of CalTrans away from the auto-centered perspective that has dominated the department since the 1950s:
Modernization of Caltrans will require a difficult conversation about the conflict between mobility, as conventionally understood, and sustainability, which is not yet well understood by the department at all. Mobility [for CalTrans] has meant facilitating more and faster travel, particularly by automobile. While sustainability … means looking for ways to meet Californians’ needs without increasing auto travel and speeds. (pp. 39-40)
The report’s diagnosis certainly confirms my own frustrating experience with an out-of-date, auto-centered street infrastructure in most of the communities where I ride. But its diagnosis raises the hope that things may be changing.