Sign Dilemma - When More Is Not Better

February 19, 2013

Michigan is ready to roll on signing U.S. Bicycle Route 20. With interim approval of the green/white version of the  M1-9 sign, the signing will be accomplished through a combination of  Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) signing sections that follow the state highways, local counties and municipalities signing some sections and the DALMAC grant affording volunteer Kerry Irons to work with the remaining road authorities to pay for, and install signs on additional sections. The signing project is complex due to the number of agencies and the varied ways the signs will be paid for and maintained. Working through this has been just one of many complex issues involved with signing USBR 20. We all agree it's worth it, but it's also imperative that we get the most bang for the buck. 

Let's back up for just a moment. The U.S. Bicycle Route System, as an  AASHTO project, follows many of the same guidelines and rules as any transportation project. For signing, the guiding document supplied by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is the  Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUCTD). 

For those of you who haven't been studying up on your traffic jargon, traffic control devices are pretty much anything and everything that controls the behavior of road users,  think road signs, stop lights, road striping, bike lanes -- you get the point. The manual serves two primary purposes. First, the manual ensures DOTs are using the same or "uniform" signs from state to state. You can imagine how learning a new set of signs as you move through each state could be. Second, because of the extensive testing that FHWA conducts, devices are proven safe and effective. This ensures the most readable methods for marking roads are used in a unvarying manner, and it helps keep us safe as we cruise down the road.

Under current MUCTD interpretation, a set of three route guidance signs are necessary for a turn at an intersection on a highway: a preemptive sign letting you know the route is turning at the next intersection, a sign at the intersection, and a confirmation sign after the intersection. This completely makes sense for motorized vehicles. With the rapid rate of travel on highways, drivers need plenty of time to safely negotiate  a turn. Traveling cyclists, often traveling anywhere from 10-15 mph under the weight of a heavy load, or even quicker cyclists traveling at 20 mph, don't necessarily need the preemptive sign, especially if they are making a right turn. Cyclists can clearly see the signs as they approach the intersection (and most are likely anticipating the turn, especially if using a map), rendering the need for the preemptive sign unnecessary. However, when approaching a left turn, wherein the cyclist may have to negotiate crossing lane(s) of traffic, a preemptive sign is a good way to communicate to cyclists to prepare. This is exactly the stance the FHWA MUTCD team took when MDOT asked for guidance on signing USBR 20. So why is this a big deal?

The FHWA interpretation of the MUCTD allows the state to develop guidance based upon engineering judgement and allows them to determine when only two signs per intersection on U.S. Bike Routes can be used. This significantly cuts the cost of signing in Michigan and other states working on signing their USBRs. In the long-run, this decision will save states tens of thousands of dollars and lowers the hurdle states face when finding funding for USBRS signs. Sometimes more is not better. Sometimes its simply more expensive.

Top image courtesy of  Scott Anderson.


BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM (USBRS) is posted by Ginny Sullivan, USBRS coordinator at Adventure Cycling, and features news and updates related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System. The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the  American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the  East Coast Greenway Alliance, and  Mississippi River Trail, Inc.


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