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Signs and Markings

MUTCD | MUTCD and Bicycling | New Signs and Markings | Updating the Manual

Wherever you travel in the United States, and whatever mode of travel you choose, you are guided by and are expected to abide by a common set of roadway signs and markings. Stop signs all look alike. Lane markings follow a consistent pattern. Signals operate in the same way. Some signs are regulatory or mandatory, while others are advisory. Certain signs warn you of conditions that may affect your journey. Each type of sign or marking has a common shape and color depending on its function. All of this helps to ensure that traffic flows safely and efficiently whether you are driving on the New Jersey Turnpike or walking across a local residential road.

When you ride a bicycle, you are typically required to follow the same set of signs and markings as you would if you were driving a car, but there are some signs and markings that relate specifically to bicycling. Signs denoting bike lanes or the intersection of a shared use path with a roadway may have specific instructions or significance for bicyclists.

All of the roadway signs, markings, and signals you encounter as you travel across the country are governed by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a detailed manual that is managed by the Federal Highway Administration.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

The MUTCD "contains all national design, application, and placement standards for traffic control devices. The purpose of these devices, which includes signs, signals, and pavement markings, is to promote highway safety, efficiency, and uniformity so that traffic can move efficiently on the Nation's streets and highways."

The Federal Highway Administration has an extensive web site on the MUTCD that includes answers to many commonly asked questions about the Manual, including one that confirms its status: "all traffic control devices nationwide must conform to the MUTCD. There are no exceptions."

In addition to the national MUTCD, many States supplement the national manual with additional optional signs and markings. As an example, the Oregon DOT has a chapter in it's bicycle plan detailing which signs and markings should be used in conjunction with bicycle facilities. bikewalk/planimag/II8a.htm

What is in the MUTCD related to Bicycling?

The Federal Highway Administration adopted the current edition of the MUTCD in 2000 after extensive revision. Part 9 of the Manual describes signs, signals, and markings for bicycle facilities (including shared use paths). Part 9 of the Manual can be found on-line at This section was significantly expanded and improved over the previous, 1988, edition.

Some of the most critical elements of Part 9 are:

    • The definitions used in the Manual and the signs and markings are consistent with the 1999 AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities
    • Smaller sign sizes for use on shared use paths (trails)
    • The bicycle lane sign no longer includes the diamond symbol
    • The bicycle crossing warning sign may be used in conjunction a "Share the Road" plaque
    • The bicycle crossing warning sign may have a fluorescent yellow-green background color
    • All new graphics showing appropriate placement and use of signs and markings
    • Guidance on the appropriate use of Stop and Yield signs at trail/roadway intersections

Much of the new information in the Manual was developed and recommended by the bicycle technical sub-committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD). The NCUTCD advises the Federal Highway Administration on the content of the Manual.

Additional information on signs and markings that relate to bicycling can be found throughout the Manual. For example, Part 2 of the Manual addresses Guide signs, including warning signs and regulatory signs (such as Stop signs). Part 6 covers Work Zones and although there isn't any advice specifically on signing bicyclists through work zones, there most likely will be in future editions. Also, the principles of work zones signs for other uses may be applied to bicycle-specific signs - for instance, work zone signs use an orange background, and thus any signs created for bicycle detours should also use an orange background.

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New Signs and Markings

Inevitably, people and agencies are constantly coming up with new ideas and needs for signs and markings that are not currently covered in the MUTCD, or even the proposed changes that are under consideration. For example, the use of colored pavement markings for bicycle lanes is not addressed by the Manual or proposed changes but many local traffic agencies are interested in implementing such facilities.

FHWA does have a mechanism for sanctioning experiments with new signs and markings that must be adhered to if a change to the MUTCD is eventually going to be approved.

The FHWA website says that:

"All requests for experimentation should originate with the State/local highway agency or toll operator responsible for managing the roadway on which the experiment will take place. That organization forwards the request to the FHWA, which must approve the experiment before it begins. Requests may also be forwarded directly to the FHWA Division Office in the State or the FHWA Headquarters Office. All requests must include:

  1. A statement of the nature of the problem.
  2. Describe the proposed change, how it was developed, how it deviates from the standard, and why it is an improvement over the existing standard.
  3. Any illustration(s) that enhance understanding of the device or its use.
  4. Supporting data that explains how the experimental device was developed, if it has been tried, the adequacy of its performance, and the process by which the device was chosen or applied.
  5. An agreement to restore the experimental site to a condition that complies with the provisions of the MUTCD within 3 months following completion of the experiment. The agreement must also provide that the sponsoring agency will terminate the experiment at any time if it determines that experiment directly or indirectly causes significant safety hazards. If the experiment demonstrates an improvement, the device or application may remain in place as a request is made to update the MUTCD and an official rulemaking action occurs.
  6. An agreement to provide semiannual progress reports for the duration of the experimentation and to provide a copy of the final results to the Office of Transportation Operations (HOTO) within three months of the conclusion of the experiment. HOTO may terminate approval of the experimentation if these reports are not provided on schedule.

A successful experiment is one where the public understands the research results, it does not cause adverse conditions, and the device or application generally performs as intended. The "experimenter" must evaluate conditions both before and after installation of the experimental device and describe the measurements of effectiveness (MOEs) of the safety benefits and traffic benefits (e.g., better visibility, reduced congestion)."

Among the innovative signs and markings related to bicycling that are not yet included in the manual or proposed changes to the manual and which may or may not be going through the official experimentation process are:

Colored bike lanes

Colored bike lanes have been a feature of bicycle infrastructure in the Netherlands (red), Denmark (blue), France (green) and many other countries for many years. In the United Kingdom, both red and green pigments are used to delineate bike lanes and bike boxes (see below). However, in this country their use has been limited to a few experiments in just a handful of locations. The most extensive trial took place in Portland, Ore., where a number of critical intersections had blue bike lanes marked through them and the results were carefully monitored. The results of the study can be found by clicking on this link.

One of the issues to be determined before colored bike lanes are accepted int the MUTCD will be the choice of color. Blue, probably the most visible of the colors, is often associated with facilities for people with disabilities while green and red are less visible, especially in the rain or at dusk.

Advanced stop lines or bike boxes

Once again, a common feature of bicycle networks in other countries, bike boxes or advanced stop lines are only just being experimented with in the United States. The box enables bicyclists to get to the front of traffic at signalized intersections so that they may better clear the intersection and make left turns than they might otherwise be able. They also have the added benefit of distancing motorists from crosswalks, thus providing a more pleasant crossing place for pedestrians.

The challenge with this feature, especially while it remains uncommon, will be finding ways to clarify exactly how motorists and bicyclists should operate when using this facility through a careful mix of signs and markings.

Denver arrow

The city of Denver has pioneered the use of a special symbol that denotes where a bicyclist should ride (usually in conjunction with a wider outside lane of 14 or 15 feet) without delineating a striped bike lane. Other cities have copied the marking, but it is still too early for consideration in the MUTCD.

Bicycle signal heads

Similarly, the city of Davis, Calif., has pioneered the use of bicycle signal heads - although these are quite common in most European countries - at signalized intersections with bicycle only phases and movements. This type of signal head has yet to be approved for inclusion in the national MUTCD, although the state of California has approved its use.

Updating the Manual

The 2000 edition of the MUTCD was formatted to allow for easier and more regular updating. FHWA intends to update the Manual as often as every year, if necessary. To make changes, the FHWA issues a Notice of Proposed Amendment to the MUTCD, takes comments on the proposals and then issues a final rule prior to publication. The MUTCD website has more detailed information on this process and is also the best place to watch for announcements of proposed changes.


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