The first thing you need to know is a too-long acronym, one that sits—almost literally—in the center of every US street: MUTCD. It stands for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, which is the guiding light for the nation’s transportation engineers. Why are stop signs always red octagons? MUTCD. Why do traffic lights use the same colors; and highway signs use the same font (Highway Gothic); and “Do Not Pass” signs come in the same size on all single lane roads (24 inches by 30 inches)? MUTCD.
The manual is a set of standards issued and maintained by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), part of the US Department of Transportation. It is updated infrequently—the most recent edition was published in 2009—and changes come only with lots of thought, care, science, and lobbying from transportation and engineering groups.
MUTCD is due for an update in the next few years. Until then, the highway administration sometimes issues “interim approvals” of changes. This month, it approved a change that sounds minor but could have an outsize effect on US urban traffic patterns: Cities can now use red-colored pavement to separate transit lanes from lanes open to other sorts of traffic.
Red transit-only lanes aren’t new. Several US cities, including New York, Austin, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, have used the pavement color as a relatively inexpensive way to speed transit service in trafficky areas. But prior to this new approval, each city using federal dollars to complete those projects had to wade through layers of bureaucratic red—yes, red—tape. Often, city governments had to ask state governments to apply to the FHWA for an “experimental” approval, which might take weeks, months, or even years.
If you don’t live in a city that’s put down red lanes in the past few years, you might not know the kind of woe the color has caused. In San Francisco, for example, business owners have argued that restricting some lanes to buses makes it harder for customers to access their stores. Locals in San Francisco, New York, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, have sued over the issue, slowing city projects designed to keep buses moving more quickly.
The interim change in the design manual should make it much quicker for cities to obtain approval to use red lanes—and make government officials less nervous about them. “If you go outside the [manual], it puts jurisdictions in a potential liability situation when one goes wrong,” says Jeff Paniati, the CEO and executive director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which pushed the FHWA to make the change. “Interim approval gives jurisdictions more protection to defend themselves. It shows we didn't invent this ourselves.” While local transportation departments don’t legally have to follow the manual, noncompliance with MUTCD is often cited in civil lawsuits.
The federal government’s decision on red pavement should especially benefit small cities, Paniati says, which don’t always have the resources to pull off more “experimental” transportation projects.
For transit advocates, that’s a very good thing. A summary of research published this year by UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies suggests that bus-only lanes speed riders’ door-to-door travel times by 5 to 15 percent and that faster rides can increase bus ridership by 2 to 9 percent. In cities choking in traffic and the emissions spikes that it brings, those are modest but impressive improvements. Brian Zumhagen, a spokesperson for New York City’s transportation department, said the agency was “very pleased” with the change.
“Simple solutions, like red paint, can make big impacts in the daily lives of millions of people by better connecting them to jobs and opportunities,” Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which also lobbied for the manual change, said in a statement.
Red lanes aren’t silver bullets. Paniati, the Institute for Transportation Engineers CEO, emphasizes that enforcement is a big part of the bus-only lane concept. (Someone’s got to show those private drivers that red means business.) Experts also emphasize that bus ridership will improve only if agencies actually add bus service—empty red lanes do few riders good. Transit lanes can also become something of a local tinderbox. As the UCLA report delicately puts it, “Like many transit projects, the community affected is not necessarily the community that stands to benefit from the project’s improvements, which can present a political challenge.”
Still, Paniati says, bus lanes are a strategy, and now one with federal approval. “Everyone should see this as a new tool in their toolbox,” he says.