Limitations of the MUTCD When Applied to Bicyclists

Have you ever wondered where the design for bike signs or bike routes came from?  No?  I am not surprised.  It is Bike Month and I thought I would share a few thoughts on signage or “Traffic Control Devices” and “Bicycle Facilities” from a design perspective.

In the United States, engineers and urban planners rely on the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways or “MUTCD” for a shortened reference.  The Current Tenth Edition was issued in 2009 with two Revisions dated May 2012.  Last month the Federal Highway Administration issued a Notice of Proposed Amendments.  Once those amendments are finalized, the Eleventh Edition of the MUTCD will be issued.

The MUTCD drills down into the smallest detail of size, shape and look of “Warning Signs and Plaques” related to bicycles:


The MUTCD is the Bible for traffic control engineers and civil engineers who design “Roadways”, “Rural Highways”, “Designated Bicycle Routes”, “Bicycle Lanes”, “Bikeways”, and “Bicycle Facilities.”  All of these are defined terms within the MUTCD.  It also includes or relates other design documents like The Uniform Vehicle Code and Model Traffic Ordinance and Guide for Development of Bicycle Facilities:


The purpose of the MUTCD is right in its title – Uniformity.  Uniformity is good.  Red means stop and green means go.  Right?  Of course.  It is easy to analyze signage and placement.  The MUTCD provides definite proscribed standards for the look and location of signs.  The MUTCD and its incorporated documents can only provide guidance on the tougher issues of retrofitting Bicycle Facilities in an urban environment, for example.  And that guidance promotes a very conservative approach in designers of new and retrofitted Bicycle Facilities.  If a designer takes the most conservative approach, he or she is insulated themselves and their clients or employers from legal liability for injuries and death that may (or may not) have resulted from a design decision.  And once those design decisions are executed, it is very difficult, not to mention expensive, to reverse or change course.  Road improvements are expensive and modifications can lead to traffic delays, congestion, and irritated citizens.

Our friends at America Walks sponsored a very informative Webinar on the limitations of the MUTCD which aired on April 26, 2021.  The panel discussion which begins at 39:30 is very helpful to the average bicyclist in understanding the limitations of the MUTCD: