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.
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