While public policies and design standards lead to improved road designs, engineers frequently cite the same standards as the reason a particular bicycle facility design request cannot be considered. Although not always obvious, design standards or guidelines usually have a degree of flexibility. There is never just one design solution. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has produced an easy-to-read manual, Flexibility in Highway Design, on the topic. A public road project is designed based on assumptions, future projections, and desired outcomes. Advocates can ask for the actual values or assumptions used (for example design speed, road classification) and may find some room for discussion and debate.
All VDOT construction projects start with the assumption that some bicycling accommodation will be provided unless an exception has been granted. The VDOT Policy for Integrating Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodations lists six conditions where an exception is possible. These include such factors as disproportionate cost, compromised safety and environmental impacts. Even if the project meets the criteria for an exception, the project manager must still determine whether any practical enhancements may be provided to improve the environment for bicyclists. Even for facilities that may meet the requirements for an exception, special circumstances may dictate that an accommodation must be provided.
Many projects are so minor that they do not go through the usual design process. These projects could still provide an opportunity to add bicycle facilities. For example, when a road is repaved, the pavement can be reassigned and restriped to create wide outside lanes. The road could also be considered for a road diet. Replacing a small bridge or culvert is a critical opportunity to request bicycle accommodations. These structures often cause dangerous pinch points for bicyclists and may not be replaced again for decades. Asking local officials about upcoming small replacement or maintenance projects is important as they may not have been advertised publicly.
Land-use and subdivision design are regulated at the county or city level and many communities have been developed in a suburban cul-de-sac style. VDOT recently adopted far-reaching requirements for a greater degree of interconnectivity before considering acceptance of new streets into their system. Greater internal connectivity can generally provide safer alternatives for bicyclists compared to higher-speed arterials. Similar regulations may be adopted around the country in the next few years.
Liability concerns are always an issue when planning bicycle facilities. Courts have recognized that transportation professionals are often faced with the dilemma of making difficult decisions, deciding among
competing interests and balancing the safety of different users. Identifying potential risks, designing accordingly, and then evaluating the results as part of a systematic program is proving to be a more defensible approach than not providing accommodations. According to the FHWA University Course on Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation, "the best approach is to develop a strong proactive program to plan, design, build, maintain, and operate a fully balanced transportation system that responds to the needs of all potential users."
Errors can creep into projects, particularly if the base information is not correct or if time has elapsed since the project was initiated. Reviewing plans in the field and looking for existing worn paths can reveal forgotten connections or other important existing conditions. Tools such as Bing or Google Maps or Google Streetview can provide a good start in evaluating existing and overlooked conditions. Images can be printed for use in meetings and comment letters.
Non-standard features outside of U.S. standards can be considered by the FHWA as experimental treatments. The proposed design will need considerable local official support and must be backed by solid research. All requests for experimentation should originate with the state or local highway agency responsible for managing the location where the experiment will take place. Requests are submitted to the FHWA headquarters. Agencies seldom proceed with a non-standard bicycle facility design without conducting an official experiment through the FHWA.
Cities for Cycling is a recent joint initiative by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) to promote innovative nonstandard designs in cities. Examples are provided on their website (nacto.org) and include design and implementation information for the following experimental designs: