Episode 329 (Unedited) Transcript: MUTCD

April 14, 2021

This week we’re joined by former Seattle Mayor And Executive Director of America Walks Mike McGinn. Mike chats with us about the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and why now is the time to speak up in order to make important changes.

For the full unedited for now transcript, join us after the jump!

Jeff Wood (1m 31s):
Well, Mayor McGinn, welcome to the show!

Mike McGinn (1m 36s):
Thank you for having me.

Jeff Wood (1m 38s):
Is it standard to call you mayor now? How has that how’s that?

Mike McGinn (1m 40s):
I think, I think that’s cheating a little bit. Okay. Mike works just fine. I will say though, that whenever you call a former mayor, mayor, they all feel good. So go for it. If you want to make me feel good.

Jeff Wood (1m 51s):
Yeah. I was wondering, cause you know, there’s always those protocols for past mayors, past presidents, past directors, things like coaches, even if you’re not a coach anymore, you’re always known as coach. So, you know,

Mike McGinn (2m 1s):
I just think it’s one of those things that it’s funny though. I’ve been away from it since 2013 and with this new job at a miracle walks, you know, I, I look back at that four year period of mayor as just an interlude in a career of advocacy.

Jeff Wood (2m 15s):
Yeah. What did you learn about the stuff that you’re working on now when you were mayor?

Mike McGinn (2m 19s):
Now that’s a long podcast. Now that’s a long podcast that we could do. If I could share anything, it would be this politics runs on emotions. It doesn’t run on logic. I sure wish it ran on logic because logically we should really change our streets to make a much safer. We should do something about climate change. We should do something about racial justice in this country, all of those things, but it runs on a different emotional level. And I say that as somebody who came at it with like, but hold it, our policies are right. Why can’t we enact them? And I would say that from my experience in the mayor’s office, you gotta try to figure out what’s the emotional core of what you’re trying to achieve. What are the fears and obstacles to it on an emotional level from the other side.

Mike McGinn (3m 2s):
And you’ve got to somehow or another be able to tap into the right emotions to move an issue along. And that, I think that’s a, you know, that’s not science and I’m not sure it’s art, it’s something that’s politics, I guess.

Jeff Wood (3m 14s):
Yeah. And people’s homes and neighborhoods and places where they live are very emotional, be tied to themselves. Right.

Mike McGinn (3m 21s):
Right. Of course, of course. And we don’t go out and conduct scientific experiments ourselves. We rely on other people to tell us things. We don’t go out and read all the technical journals about what is, or is not the most safe thing. And I don’t want to diminish the role of logic and rationality and evidence and argument. It’s important, but it’s not singular in the discussion. It’s interacting with people’s sense of who they are and how the world is supposed to work. And if you can’t somehow or another connect with that to motivate people to change, then you’re really going to have an uphill battle. So I guess that’s what I would say was probably one of my biggest lessons from being mayor.

Mike McGinn (4m 3s):
So the world runs on emotion. I would say the other thing is that there’s lots of people with power and you know, if you want to beat power, you have to have power. So you really gotta figure out how to build and organize and create the types of coalition to generate change. Because all of that stuff that I was talking about emotion was about how do you move people in the middle? When an issue gets hard enough, there’s someone on the other side and they’re not changing their minds and they’re doing everything they can to move the people in the middle in their direction. So whether that’s, you know, oil companies that want to keep drilling for oil, whether that’s the highway builders who want to keep building highways, you know, you’re not going to convince the folks who really really believe in the opposite and it’s ultimately you have to build power in order to achieve your goals.

Mike McGinn (4m 49s):
And one of the ways you build power is by connecting with people where they are and what they believe in and what they care about. And it occurs over hundreds and hundreds and thousands of conversations. It’s I wish we had Koch brothers money to run ads. They do, but we don’t. So we have to do it in a grassroots kind of way over the conversation at a time. But it’s about connecting with people and helping folks see the pathway and organizing. And ultimately that’s where change occurs. And if it works simply logic and rationality and good policy, man, we would, we’d be killing it right now instead would be huge challenges.

Jeff Wood (5m 23s):
Well, now you’re at America walks, what is America walks for folks that might not be familiar with the organization?

Mike McGinn (5m 28s):
You know, we’re, we’re a national organization that supports local advocates who are trying to make their communities more accessible, inclusive, and equitable, make them more walkable, but it’s bigger than just walking. You know, it’s, I tend to think about our organization is about supporting people who are trying to build community and protect the dignity of every human being in those communities. Because it’s so common to all of us, to be in people centered places. We would like that. And it’s good for us. And that’s what try to support. We support it through our training programs. We have a walking college, you can come learn how to organize as well as learn about the issues as well.

Mike McGinn (6m 9s):
We do webinars and trainings. In that regard, we ended up community change grants and we try to be a voice for this movement at a national level. And that’s where the manual of uniform traffic control devices, the mut CD comes in. It’s a really important document. It’s up for review. We know how much it prevents local advocates from building the communities they want. So we’ve really leaned into this in coalition with a lot of other great organizations and people.

Jeff Wood (6m 37s):
Yeah. I wanted to talk to you about the mut CD. It’s easy to say those letters really quickly, but it’s the manual on uniform traffic control devices, right? What is it for folks that might not know? Why is it important? What is it doing? That’s making some people’s lives miserable. So what’s the background on this?

Mike McGinn (6m 56s):
It’s the most important pedestrian safety document you’ve never heard about is what we’ve been calling it or the manual undermining terrific community design is the other phrase we use. You know, it’s not a surprising thing that there would be a manual so that, you know, no matter what city you go to, the stop sign looks the same. So it appears to have a fairly innocuous perspective on it. But basically the federal highway administration through regulations adopts the D the manual. I’ll just call it the manual. It adopts the manual. And it’s used by engineers locally while the federal highway administration adopts it, it’s actually, there’s a national committee on uniform, traffic control devices composed primarily of engineers, traffic, engineers, who drafted and sent it to the FH CWA for review and approval.

Mike McGinn (7m 46s):
And the problem with it is when you look at a street and you go, why do our streets look this way? Why do they, why do they prioritize car speeds so much? Why are there so few crosswalks, the answer is to a large degree. It is this manual. There are other influences as well, but this is a significant one because the underlying assumption of the manual is about, you know, moving cars through the space. It prioritizes automobile movement and speed over pedestrian safety and movement. So specifically I’ll pick out one, the speed limit. It recommends setting the speed limit at the 85th percentile of the speed that the cars were moving.

Mike McGinn (8m 27s):
So, you know, 15% of the people are automatically speeders. And then it sets that, that 85th percentile, well, that doesn’t make sense, right? That doesn’t look at the context of the road that doesn’t look at the adjoining uses it. Doesn’t look at the number of accidents that might occur there, or the number of injuries and collisions that occur there. So that’s just not a good tool, but it’s based on how fast people want to move. And since the roads are also designed, there’s another manual, by the way, that says how lane wides are. There’s an Asheville manual that manual, you know, suggest broad lanes and multiple lanes in certain places. So now you’re just out of a situation where to cross from one side of the road to the other year, taking your life into your hands.

Mike McGinn (9m 9s):
That’s another issue. Crosswalks. If you want to cross walk, you have to show that the certain number of people are already crossing the street, or you have to have a certain number of deaths in a timeframe where you don’t get it. That’s kind of like saying, you know, if you’re looking at that really busy intersection, nobody’s going to cross it. It’s not safe. You know? So it’s kind of like saying, Hey, we’ll build you a bridge. As soon as we kind of enough people swimming across the river, right? Like it doesn’t get the incentives right there at all. And in fact, Don Costa luck or progressive transportation engineer from Idaho, and he’s got his own consulting firm. He did a video of a place where he tried to get across walk in Idaho.

Mike McGinn (9m 50s):
And, you know, they were short a couple of people and it was a high-speed multi-lane dangerous road. And the reason people were crossing the street, there was because there was a convenience store that sold food and a neighborhood that didn’t have a market. So that was their best market. And the crosswalks, you know, on either direction were very far away. Couldn’t get the crosswalk. People are going to have to die before they get across walk there. It was basically what the mut CD says. That’s what the manual sets. So just the incentives are all wrong and the assumptions are all wrong in it. And so we’ve, you know, come forward at a miracle walks to ask them to reframe it, rewrite it, put pedestrian safety at the core of it.

Jeff Wood (10m 33s):
They weren’t super happy when you’ve been asking them to change it. Right. I mean, they, they are pushing back some of them anyways, some of the folks on the board or kind of pushing back on changes that safety advocates.

Mike McGinn (10m 44s):
Yeah. So the manual, you know, just reflects an older attitude about what roads are for, you know, roads are for, you know, the throughput of cars at higher speeds. And that attitude is held onto, by apparently it’s being held onto by this national committee of engineers. That’s been drafting it and you know, this is an issue. And one of the things I’ve been struck by is that, you know, I was wondering, is this issue going to matter to local advocates? And what we’re finding is yes, it does. And I think the reason it does is because so many of them have had the same experience that I did as a local advocate.

Mike McGinn (11m 26s):
You, you go to the local deity, you say, Hey, can we get a stop sign? Could we get a cross-walk, could we do something to slow the cars on the street? And we are told by, you know, the traffic engineer at the city or the state, perhaps, sorry, we can’t do it. Doesn’t meet the manual. So I think a lot of people have had this experience. I had it, you know, being told, no, sorry, I can’t do it. It doesn’t meet the manual. I remember at the time I was going, what I mean, what do you mean? So, because so many people have had this experience, we were actually getting a pretty strong public response. So what we’re seeing here is, you know, people like to portray these types of documents as does the engineers who drafted it, you know, as you know, driven by science, you know, based on tons of hard work and rigorous analysis of data, but underlying it are certain assumptions and their assumptions about the purposes of roads.

Mike McGinn (12m 26s):
And those are values. Those are political values, they’re human values, they’re community values that underlie it. And those values are running. Head-on into a very different set of values. And these are values that say that, you know, the people walking by the side of the street or crossing the street or in a wheelchair or a senior or blind, or a kid on a bike that they should be prioritized and values and priorities. You asked me at the beginning, one of the things I learned as mayor, some things aren’t susceptible to just a rigorous analysis by data as if there’s a scientific answer at the end of it, it’s ultimately, what do you value more? And if you value human life, and if you value community, if you value accessibility and inclusion for seniors and the disabled and kids, then the car should go slower and the crosswalk should be narrower and there should be more curve boats, and there should be more protected bike lanes.

Mike McGinn (13m 24s):
That’s a values judgment. So I’m not, I’m not into delegating our values to a bunch of engineers, importing highway design into our local communities. They don’t own our values. We own our values. So let’s change the manual and get our values into it.

Jeff Wood (13m 42s):
I mean, that’s a really good point. Also, there’s this kind of technological change upon the horizon, whether that’s modes of transportation, whether that’s the way that engines are powered, why is it important to focus on getting these changes now, before that major change happens from a national world technology standpoint?

Mike McGinn (14m 1s):
Sure. And it is important to note that the last revision of the manual was 10 years ago. And we can just see the way in which public understanding and public demand for the types of communities we’re talking about has just been growing and growing over the years. And in fact, the COVID pandemic and the lockdowns to really driven Palm to a lot of people, just how important it is to have local streets, to gather in as well as to exercise and as well as to conduct business. And, you know, as we’ve seen with so many of the open streets in cities and towns across the country, I presume you’re referring to the fact that what we see coming on the horizon are autonomous vehicles or at least so it’s claimed,

Jeff Wood (14m 41s):
It’s claimed that they’re coming with

Mike McGinn (14m 44s):
A lot of challenges to autonomous vehicles, fully autonomous vehicles. In fact, there are some things that we maybe automatic pedestrian detection and braking is something that we could adopt, you know, for all cars before they’re fully autonomous. And I say, maybe I actually mean, yes, they should adopt those. And so that creates another issue. And I think we haven’t really struggled with this issue yet as a community, you know, as a nation with the autonomous vehicle challenge. And it comes back to that same set of underlying assumptions. I talked about one of the ways that the autonomous vehicle are portrayed is that we will get both the dramatic increase in mobility, right? These cars will just kind of zip around.

Mike McGinn (15m 26s):
There’ll be they’re on demand because of their great technology. They’ll see each other and they’ll see people on the street and be able to move through the community faster and more reliably than a car. And then we’re also told that there’ll be safer. And it’s not to say that there aren’t ways to do things that might give you a incremental gain in mobility and an incremental gain and safety at the same time. But the reality is that speed and throughput of cars, or you know, that the mobility of the vehicle is almost always pitted against safety of people on foot or in a wheelchair or on a bicycle or otherwise. And that’s just omnipresent on a street. So the street have four lanes or two lanes, one lane each way, a local street, somebody would argue, we need the four lanes to move all the cars that four lane street is much more dangerous for a pedestrian.

Mike McGinn (16m 17s):
That’s the trade-off we’re talking about. If you put in lower speed limits and design that streets or cards would go slower, there would be some drivers who would feel frustrated that it wasn’t fast enough, but that’s an auto mobility versus safety. Trade-off we have the same trade-off with autonomous vehicles. And despite the claims of wonderful safety detecting pedestrians and bicyclists and a complex urban environment is very, very difficult for these vehicles. So if the goal is to design for safety, one example of how we do that as the freeway, right? We remove all the people from it completely, and you can’t bike on that freeway.

Mike McGinn (17m 1s):
Like it’s all cars, wide lanes, easy curves, you know, clear zone on either side. So no one gets hurt, right? That increases the safety of the driver. But you have to abolish people from the scene to get that level of safety. We’re not abolishing people from, from our communities, right in that space. What you need to do is you need to really slow down the cars and you really need to slow them down enough so that they can interact with people. You know, they can see people, they can stop. If there is a collision, hopefully it it’s at a low enough speed that there isn’t the same injury that you see elsewhere. And what are we going to adopt for autonomous vehicles?

Mike McGinn (17m 45s):
Are we going to say in cities, what we’re going to do is we’re going to clear the space for them so that they can move faster. You know, are we going to require pedestrians and bicyclists to have, you know, some type of a beacon on them to be spotted by the cars? Or are we going to say, no, we’re going to really demand safety for the AVS, for these autonomous vehicles and require that they be able to detect and stop and do what they need to do. And like I said, those ultimately aren’t engineering decisions. Those are values-based decisions about what we want in a community, which isn’t to say there might not be a role, right? Maybe you can have a dedicated line for an autonomous shuttle.

Mike McGinn (18m 26s):
That’s running somewhere where you keep people out of the space. You know, as much as we keep the people out of the space of the train or the street car, if it’s in a dedicated lane, like there may be that maybe that could work, let’s find out, but let’s not just jump into this whole autonomous vehicle thing with the, some belief that there’s this gee whiz technology that will both allow them to zip around and keep everybody perfectly safe. That’s not a realistic trade on an urban street. You got to pick one of the other folks and given the toll on human lives for safety.

Jeff Wood (18m 60s):
Yeah. I would agree with that. Okay. So you said 10 years ago was the last time that they’ve updated the manual. Does it have a cycle? Does it come every 10 years? Or why is now an important time for focusing on the change?

Mike McGinn (19m 13s):
You know, I’m not as versed in this. I don’t think it’s on a firm schedule. I think it’s just kind of when it came around and there’s been a demand to make some changes, I think there’s also been a demand to try to make it a more flexible document and make it easier to adopt changes and not have to wait for kind of a long timeframe for the demand for changes to occur. So I don’t think that’s a, it’s not enshrined in the law that it’s once every 10 years, I just think that’s circumstances. But given that it’s taken so long, it seems pretty important to get this one right before we put it in, you know, finalize that. So that’s why we’re urging people speak up now.

Mike McGinn (19m 53s):
And here’s another thing, right? This thing was drafted. It’s anchored in the past, we have a secretary of transportation who says he’s focused on the future and it’s really an early test. And by the way, I know the infrastructure bill is huge. There’s going to be a transportation reauthorization bill. All of those will be tests as well, but over there, Biden’s got to get to 50 votes Biden and Buddha judge have to get to 50 votes over here with the M UTC D is a regulation. This is under the control of secretary Pete here. So this is a chance for him to really step forward and set a stamp on this and just say, these are the community values we’re going to prioritize.

Mike McGinn (20m 38s):
And I’m the use the power I have. I’m not going to have to go knock on doors, try to convince some Republican or some conservative Democrat to put safety first. He can do that with this document. And so, you know, we’re excited about that. So lot of changes are long overdue, but you know, secretary Pete used to be mayor peed and he really made changes to South bend. And he really demonstrated that he got a lot of these issues around safety. And he’s certainly saying the right things and focusing on the right things about how we can make our streets, not just safer, but more equitable. I mean, it’s not an accident that the worst streets go through black and Brown neighborhoods.

Mike McGinn (21m 18s):
It’s not an accident that the injury and death rate for, you know, communities of color is higher than it is in white communities. There’s issues of power. There are issues of discrimination. There’s issues of disinvestment, this manual, which affects every city and town in the country. You know, the engineers feel obligated to listen to it. Otherwise they expose themselves to legal liability. They fear this is a really powerful tool for secretary Pete to achieve the values that he’s been working to achieve in his new role as USDA secretary.

Jeff Wood (21m 56s):
So you all have a letter writing campaign to get changes. How can folks get involved and be a part of it?

Mike McGinn (22m 2s):
They can go to America, walks.org, and they can find our action alert on our site and send in a comment. And we have a template. We have suggested comments, but people are of course encouraged to write their own comments. We’re also asking people if they’ve had an experience, you know, like the one I had and like the one Don Costa lecture, share it with us. We’d like to get some photos, maybe get some video of it, share it with the public at large so that we can really show them how the manual disrupts communities and makes them less safe and how it could be different as well. If we had a different approach

Jeff Wood (22m 40s):
And Mike worker folks find you online, if they want to reach out or do you want to be found?

Mike McGinn (22m 46s):
That’s good. No, I’m out there. I’m out there. I’m still hanging on to a mayor. McGahn as my Twitter handle. I haven’t figured out a better one yet, but I’ll, I’ll get there sooner or later, but you can find me at mayor again on Twitter. You can find a miracle walks on Facebook, please sign up for our newsletter, come to our webinars. We’d love to have you engage with us. I can’t tell you. I’ve been doing, I’ve been in this job, you know, six or eight months or so. And I was an advocate in my community. I started a nonprofit that worked on creating, you know, a city that, that was really green and inclusive and vibrant in the city of Seattle. I ran for mayor. I became mayor. I tried to stop them from rebuilding a waterfront highway.

Mike McGinn (23m 29s):
We built more bike lanes. We worked on making streets, complete streets. I did all of that type of work and, you know, lost a close reelection in 2013. It’s just an absolute gift to be able to have this job where I get to support local advocates are trying to do the same thing in their communities. And who knows, maybe some of them will try to get a sidewalk in their neighborhood and ended up running for mayor. That’s what happened to me. So I want to encourage those folks. So get involved with the miracle walks. We got your backs. If you’re trying to make something happen in your community, we want to help you one way or another, and we want you to be part of our movement. Awesome.

Jeff Wood (24m 5s):
Well, Mike, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Mike McGinn (24m 7s):
Thank you.

Jeff Wood (24m 12s):
And thanks for joining us. The talking head waste podcast is a project of the overhead wire on the [email protected] Sign up for a free trial of the overhead wire daily or 14 year old daily cities news list by clicking the link at the top, right of the overhead wire.com. And please, please, please put the podcast going pitch on.com/the overhead wire many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, overcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. And you can always find a traditional home at USA dot Street’s blog.org. See you next time at talking headways.

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