State DOTs Push Protective Measures During Pedestrian Safety Month

The U.S. Department of Transportation established October as the first-ever National Pedestrian Safety Month and, concurrently, many state departments of transportation are highlighting their efforts to improve pedestrian safety.

[Photo courtesy of the Oregon DOT.]

For example, the California Department of Transportation is enhancing pedestrian safety measures at high-risk locations based on traffic collision data, using what it calls a “first-of-its-kind” pedestrian safety toolbox that includes 47 countermeasures. Those include:

  • Signal timing enhancement and extended pedestrian crossing times.
  • Intersection and roadway design changes, such as adding sidewalks, curb extensions, and roundabouts or raised intersections that provide enhanced pedestrian safety in high traffic locations.
  • New pedestrian signs and markings, including high-visibility crosswalks, advanced stop and yield markings, or “yield to pedestrian” signs.
  • Caltrans is already implementing those safety measures and expects to identify further safety improvements by September 2021.

The agency noted that in California, pedestrians are 37 times more likely to be injured in a collision than any other roadway user. On top of that, between 2008 and 2017, the department said pedestrian-related incidents accounted for 19 percent of all collisions resulting in death or serious injury.

“At least two pedestrians or cyclists lose their lives on California’s transportation system each day — a number we refuse to accept or normalize,” stressed Toks Omishakin, director of Caltrans, in a statement. “Safety remains our top priority and the department will work diligently until the trend is reversed.”

Director Omashakin.
Photo courtesy of Caltrans

In addition, the California Transportation Commission recently approved $100 million for projects that promote active transportation options, including the addition of 310 miles of new and repaired bike lanes; installing and repairing nearly 50 miles of sidewalk; installing nearly 3,000 new crosswalks; making 178 transit stop improvements, such as installing and improving bus shelters.

The California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) is also providing more than $8 million in funding for programs dedicated to the safe and equal access to roads for pedestrians, including:

  • Complete Streets Safety Assessments to assist local agencies statewide in identifying and implementing infrastructure improvements to pedestrian safety and accessibility.
  • Community Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Training programs that encourage local residents in underserved communities to develop a community action plan to improve walking and biking safety.
  • Coordinate Walking Tours and education outreach with health care providers and senior centers. Focus on high-collision areas for older adult pedestrians and measures to improve safe travel for older adults.
  • Develop “walking school buses” with groups that walk with students to school and educate students on traffic rules and best safety practices.

“Behavior change goes hand-in-hand with infrastructure improvements,” noted Barbara Rooney, director of OTS. “Safe habits by drivers and pedestrians complement a transportation system that is designed with pedestrian travel in mind.”

Meanwhile, the Utah Department of Transportation and Zero Fatalities donated 3,500 reflective drawstring backpacks to homeless service providers throughout Salt Lake County to help those experiencing homelessness stay visible to drivers during the fall, which is typically the most dangerous time of year for pedestrians.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation kicked off its 2020 Watch for Me NC awareness campaign in late September with a new twist: distributing safety tips in English and Spanish for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians within food delivery orders.

At the same time, North Carolina law enforcement officers are getting special training for enforcing bicycle and pedestrian safety laws as part of the program, which officially launched in 2012 to promote pedestrian safety. There are now 30 participating partner communities across the state, the North Carolina DOT said.

“It’s great to be partnering with so many communities to proactively deliver safety messages to help raise awareness and reduce fatalities among pedestrians and bicyclists in our state,” explained Heather Hildebrandt, interim director of the department’s Integrated Mobility Division, in a statement.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is using the focus on pedestrian safety to bring attention to “White Cane Safety Day,” which falls on October 15. Established by Congress in 1964, “White Can Safety Day” aims to be “a day of awareness, education, and celebration of white canes and guide dogs for independent and safe travel” for blind pedestrians.

The Oregon DOT noted in a statement that crashes between pedestrians and motor vehicles are far more likely to take place at night when it is often harder to see people walking. Between 2015 and 2017, 77 percent of such fatal crashes occurred at night. The agency added that the number of crashes involving pedestrians in Oregon increased from 849 in 2013 to 984 in 2018, the year for which the latest such data available. Concurrently, the number of pedestrians killed in a motor vehicle crash has increased from 52 in 2013 to 79 in 2018. The top driver error involved in those crashes? Failing to yield right of way to a pedestrian, the Oregon DOT said.

ETAP Podcast: Caltrans’ Toks Omishakin

In this episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast, host Bernie Wagenblast interviews Toks Omishakin (at left in photo above), director of the California Department of Transportation or Caltrans.

Omishakin – who chairs the Council on Active Transportation for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials – is considered a national leader in policies that promote safe and equitable “active transportation opportunities,” especially biking and walking.

“When you think about transportation in this country, the one thing that has remained constant is that people walk and bike to get to a variety of places,” he explained on the podcast. “In fact, 30 percent all trips in this country are of one mile or less, with 50 percent three miles or less. So it is clear that there are many opportunities to walk and bike, but have to build the facilities and infrastructure to support those trips.”

Omishakin also pointed out that, “if I could go back in time,” he would not term biking and walking as “active transportation” but rather “transportation essentials” to reflect their modal importance.

“They are a central part of how people live and get about in their communities across the country,” Omishakin said. “Look at the areas of the country where people do not own a car. In New York City, 50 percent of residents do not own a car. In Washington D.C. the rate is 40 percent. In Philadelphia, it is 30 percent. Yet this is not all about big cities. In Akron, Ohio, 15 percent of residents do not own a car. In Mobile, Alabama, 10 percent do not own a car. In Pasadena, California, it is 12 percent.”

Director Toks Omishakin
Photo courtesy of Caltrans

That is why he believes it is critical that the “multimodal focus” of AASHTO and other transportation organizations gets incorporated into key transportation system design guides.

“I’ve been in transportation for 20 years, and whether it is a city, state, or federal transportation agency I’ve encountered, the ‘green books’ on the shelves of their engineers represent the ‘holy grail’ of their decision-making,” he explained. “That’s why the meat, if you will, of what AASHTO’s Active Transportation Council will be focused on in the months and years to come is the incorporation of active transportation within those guidance documents. This is a chance to influence transportation more than ever before. I am really excited by this opportunity.”

Click here to listen to the entire podcast.

Creating Advisory Bike Lanes in the Nation’s Capital

Change is in motion in the nation’s capital to see if two different modes of mobility can co-exist – at least on portions of five residential streets in Washington, D.C.

[Photo courtesy of the District of Columbia DOT]

The District Department of Transportation is launching project to study if bicycles and cars can truly share the road, in part by converting a section of E Street SE into an “advisory bike lane,” which features dedicated bicycle lanes near the curbs that bookend one wide vehicular lane split by a centerline. Car drivers avoid oncoming vehicles by easing to their right into the bike lanes while yielding to the bicyclists.

Advisory bike lanes – deployed for decades in Europe and Canada – tend to work best on low-volume roads that are too narrow for bike lanes but have more than enough width for two travel lanes.

Though usage of advisory bikes lanes in the United States remains rare, many transportation agencies – including state departments of transportation – are experimenting more frequently with them. The city of Portland, Oregon, for example, installed one of the first advisory bike lanes in the country several years ago, as have Minneapolis and Alexandria, Virginia.

DDOT officials suspect increased bicycle usage and the drive for lower carbon-emission vehicles could make advisory bike lanes a popular tool for its planners.

“This was part community-driven and part departmentally driven,” explained DDOT’s Will Handsfield, a bicycle program specialist. “As part of our work as planners and engineers, we try to keep our finger on the pulse of things.”

Photo courtesy of the District of Columbia DOT

The pulse was rapid in a few neighborhoods, where residents were complaining about speeding cars and the lack of bicycle lanes, which are more in demand since the pandemic.

“We asked DDOT to come up with something for an east-west bike path and to slow down the traffic,” explained Corey Holman, an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner; a post that serves as a liaison between residents and local Washington D.C. officials. “Will came up with a plan that creates opportunities for people to slow down, maintains parking and gives us a new bike route. I think that’s the value of this.”

The one-third mile segment of E Street SE from 11th Street to Potomac Avenue provides an “ideal candidate” to create an advisory bike lane, DDOT noted. At 35 to 40 feet wide, it is too narrow to accommodate on-street parking and dedicated bicycle lanes, while street-side parking spots left two 13-foot travel lanes that encouraged drivers to speed through the residential neighborhood.

The advisory bike lane on E Street SE has only been open since around Labor Day, but Holman said initial neighborhood reaction has been positive. He credited DDOT with “coming up with answers that no one else thought of. DDOT is good at letting their people on the front lines use their creativity to come up with their own solutions.” DDOT plans to study the performance of its new advisory bike lane installations, monitor how well drivers and bicyclists adjust to the new configurations, then share reports of its observations with the Federal Highway Administration to provide information to other communities considering implementation of such lanes.

Amtrak Expands Carry-On Bike Program with State DOT Help

National passenger railroad Amtrak recently expanded its carry-on bike program for most Northeast Regionaldepartures; allowing customers to store their bike inside of the passenger coach in a designated space.

[Above photo by Amtrak]

In addition, Amtrak said it is now offering its carry-on bike program in conjunction with its various Northeastern partners on state-supported trains – partners that include the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Connecticut Department of Transportation.

“Bringing your bicycle onboard a train is part of the journey, as it allows our customers to explore the cities they are visiting,” explained Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief marketing and commercial officer, in a statement. “To coincide with the increased popularity of biking in this country, we also wanted to provide our customers with the option of bringing their bike on more trains.”

Using newly installed luggage racks that convert to bike racks, the expanded bike program will allow Amtrak to provide storage space for up to two bikes per departure. The expansion of the program means Keystone Service and Northeast Regional customers can bring their bikes –including standard full-sized bicycles – for an additional $20 and store them inside the passenger coach in a designated space, though specific reservations are required.

“Allowing riders the versatility to bring their bikes on the train is very important to PennDOT,” explained Jennie Granger, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation in a separate statement. “Increased transit options will change the way people get around their cities while creating cost savings, improved health and wellness benefits, and more environmentally conscious choices.” Amtrak added that more than 232,953 bikes have traveled around the country since it launched the carry-on program in October 2015. The program has also generated more than $1 million in revenue since its inception.

Maryland DOT Gears up for First-Ever ‘Walktober’

As part of the statewide focus on walking, walkable communities, and pedestrian safety, the Maryland Department of Transportation is partnering with state and local agencies, nonprofits, and communities to host ‘Walktober’ – a month-long series of activities and four virtual webinars to be held in October.

[Above photo via Wikimedia Commons]

Those four webinars – or ‘walkinars’ – are 90 minutes long and are being held online encourage safe practices as Maryland continues its COVID-19 recovery. Scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. eastern time on October 1, 15, 22 and 29, the ‘walkinars’ are tailored to pedestrian enthusiasts, advocates, planners and residents.

Panelists will share resources to help build, strengthen, and sustain partnerships, and share new tools and technologies being used across the country to promote pedestrian access and safety. The series is open to all and provides the American Institute of Certified Planners with 1.5 certification maintenance credits per session to maintain certification.

“Walking is not only our state exercise, but it’s been an important strategy for Marylanders dealing with the challenges of COVID-19,” said Governor Larry Hogan (R) in a statement. “While many people have been teleworking and following ‘safer-at-home’ advice, they’ve rediscovered walking for health, recreation, and overall well-being.”

“The walkability of our communities is a critical component to Maryland’s transportation mission,” said Greg Slater, Maryland DOT secretary. “Events such as Walktober, where we’re bringing different voices to the table, encouraging action and heightening awareness, are important as we work together to improve safety and deliver innovative solutions across Maryland.”

Caltrans Commits an Extra $100 million to Bicycle/Pedestrian Projects

The California Department of Transportation plan to invest an extra $100 million into active transportation projects aims to build more non-motorized links between neighboring communities that, for years, have been connected mainly by freeway exit ramps.

[Above photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.]

Some of the funds will be used for stand-alone active transportation projects, while some will go toward introducing walking and biking infrastructure into existing highway projects. Caltrans noted it already has identified 22 projects that now will have additional walking and biking improvements.

The plans “represents a critical step in our effort to build and enhance a transportation system for all users and make our communities more livable and vibrant places,” explained Toks Omishakin, director of Caltrans, in a statement.

Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bike Coalition (CBC), added that the story behind this “active transportation” investment effort by Caltrans is just as significant as the $100 million the agency is offering to facilitate more walking and biking activity.

Caltrans “already had their set of projects for the next two years approved, and they were ready to go with their package,” Snyder noted. “Then this new director comes in and says, ‘I think we can do better for bicycling and walking.’”

Chris Clark, Caltrans media relations manager, said Snyder’s account is “100 percent accurate. In truth, Toks wanted more than $100 million.”

Photo courtesy of Caltrans

Omishakin, who was appointed director of Caltrans in September 2019 and is widely recognized as an active transportation advocate, told his staff to “value engineer” $4.2 billion of transportation projects in order to get an extra $100 million for bicycling and walking.

“That’s a very significant step,” CBC’s Snyder said.

The exact project identification process will take place at the local level, with each of California’s 12 districts holding public engagement sessions to help develop the District Active Transportation Plans and guide which projects will be constructed.

“They have made a strong statement, and I am impressed,” Snyder added. “What I can’t say yet is that they’re significantly changing the culture in the mid-levels of the agency, where important decisions get made. They have to be willing to prioritize the convenience of walking and biking over the convenience of highways.”

Caltrans’ Clark said he understands Snyder’s reticence, but he stressed that Omishakin has made it very clear “that active transportation is a top priority for the department.”

Other state departments of transportation are also increasing their support for more bicycle and pedestrian options in a number of ways.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation, for one, issued more than $2 million worth of Transportation Alternatives or TA grants to help fund a variety of urban and rural active transportation improvement projects across the state in July.

And in July 2019, the Ohio Department of Transportation noted that ongoing trends in safety, demographics, and demand spurred it to develop its first-ever policy plan for walking and biking – a plan the agency hopes to craft with public input gleaned from a series of stakeholder meetings and online surveys.

report issued by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in October 2019 highlighted that there is an overall monetary benefit from investing in projects that shifting short trips from driving to walking and biking via connected active-transportation infrastructure. The organization argued that funding such a “shift” could help generate a return on investment of $73 billion to $138 billion per year in the United States – if such active transportation infrastructure is connected to public transit systems.

However, the organization emphasized in a statement that shifting short car trips in both urban and rural areas to non-motorized ones “will take policy, behavior, and perception change, which can only occur if connected networks of safe and protected walking and bicycling facilities are built all across the nation.”

AASHTO Active Transportation Council Holding Free Webinar

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Council on Active Transportation will host a free 90-minute long virtual peer exchange spotlighting state department of transportation efforts to support bicycling and pedestrian mobility needs.

[Above photo courtesy of Caltrans.]

To be held August 12 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EDT, the webinar’s state DOT speakers present for 12 to 15 minutes on a range of active transportation topics – including speed management, decision-making collaboration, decision-making, data collection, and safety – then participate in a question and answer session with attendees.

To register for this free webinar, click here.

Toks Omishakin – executive director of the California Department of Transportation and chair of AASHTO’s Council on Active Transportation – will provide opening remarks for this webinar. His agency recently adopted an updated bicycle and pedestrian action plan that aims to reduce dependence on driving, promote safety, and reconnect communities that have been divided by freeways and high-speed roads. Caltrans said it developed that updated action plan in consultation with the California Walk/Bike Technical Advisory Committee with the goal of increasing bicycling, walking and transit trips.

Vermont Seeking Applications for Bicycle/Pedestrian Infrastructure Projects

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) recently issued a grant solicitation for new infrastructure projects to improve statewide access and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The agency noted that in 2019, it awarded a total of $3.6 million for construction and planning projects throughout Vermont via its Bicycle and Pedestrian grant program.

“These projects make it possible for more people to walk and bike safely in Vermont communities,” noted Joe Flynn, Vermont’s transportation secretary, in a statement.

“Municipalities across Vermont understand that providing good facilities for walking and bicycling are key factors for livability that can stimulate economic development in our downtowns and improve public health,” he said. “In light of the current pandemic, providing safe ways for Vermonters to walk and bike is especially important. Supporting our downtowns is critical in helping jumpstart our economy.”

Flynn added that the goals for this VTrans grant program are to improve transportation options for commuters, visitors to the state, and recreational use. The agency also noted that Vermont ranks fourth in the nation for the percentage of commuters who bike or walk to work and fourth in per capita spending on bicycle/pedestrian projects, according to the 2018 benchmarking report on bicycling and walking in the United States issued by the League of American Bicyclists.

COVID-19 Spurring more Active Transportation Interest

As the novel coronavirus shuts down most personal interactions across the country, state departments of transportation are witnessing a transportation shift – rush hour is gone, passenger vehicles are gathering dust, and people are walking and biking.

States from Colorado and Indiana to Maine are reporting highway traffic decreases of 40 percent to 50 percent. Walking and biking increases are harder to quantify, but the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reported that active transportation trail usage was up nearly 200 percent for the week ending March 22 compared to the same time period in 2019.

Even after life gets back to “normal” and highway traffic resumes, active transportation likely will play a larger part in many state DOTs.

“It may inspire us all to think outside the box about transportation policy, planning and investments,” noted Matt Bruning, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

It didn’t take a global pandemic for officials in Ohio to recognize that walking and biking aren’t just recreational activities. An Ohio DOT survey released in January showed 78 percent of respondents are interested in or already use a bike to commute or to run errands, while 79 percent said they are interested in or already are walking to school, work and other destinations.

The survey is part of Walk.Bike.Ohio; an in-progress plan to develop statewide active transportation policies. The plan, scheduled to be completed by year’s end, “will drive our priorities, our decisions and our investments,” Bruning said.

While Ohio is now building a walking and biking policy framework, the California Department of Transportation’s Active Transportation Program or ATP has been in place since 2013. Since then, Caltrans has funded more than 800 urban and rural biking and walking projects. In fact, in the upcoming biennial budget cycle, about $440 million has been allocated to the ATP.

While not all state DOTs have California’s fiscal muscle, starting an active transportation program isn’t necessarily about the money, according to Laura Crawford, who coordinates biking projects for DOTs at the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA).

“The big barriers we see to states’ developing a program are usually the political climate and staff resources,” Crawford said. “If this is something a DOT is interested in doing, but they don’t have the staff resources, ACA can fill that role by managing volunteers.”

Crawford’s focus is on the U.S. Bicycle Route System, a series of national corridors for bicycles. She works with AASHTO’s Special Committee on U.S. Route Numbering, which provides consistency in route numbering similar to the interstate system. So far, more than 14,000 miles of routes have been established and signed in 27 states and Washington, D.C. The system’s growth is driven by state DOTs, each of which uses its own criteria to designate safe bicycle routes, Crawford said.

Kevin Mills, Rails-to-Trails’ vice president of policy, noted that the old attitudes of, “Well, we’ll build something for [active transportation] when we’ve got time to do it,” have changed.

“Really, that transformation is already underway and we’re seeing more state DOTs elevating active transportation as a real option,” Mills said. “When you think of the classic objectives DOTs have to meet the mobility needs of its citizens, this is a real bargain.”