Signs and Markings

This cyclist's proper lane position is guided from the shared lane marking.

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 pavement markings. STOP signs all look alike and are the same color. Lane markings follow a consistent pattern. Traffic signals operate in the same way. Some signs are regulatory or mandatory, while others are advisory or are informative. 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 in California.

When you ride a bicycle in the street, you are typically required to follow the same rules of the road, and bicycle riders have the same set of signs and markings as you would if you were driving a motor vehicle. However, 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 its bicycle plan detailing which signs and markings should be used in conjunction with bicycle facilities. http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/BIKEPED/docs/bp_plan_2_ii.pdf

What is in the MUTCD related to bicycling?

The Federal Highway Administration adopted the current edition of the MUTCD in 2003. 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 http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/HTM/2003/part9/part9-toc.htm. This section was significantly expanded and improved over the 1988 edition with some additional updates over the millennium (2000) 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
  • New guidance on accommodating bicyclists in temporary traffic control areas (Section 6G.05)
  • Prohibition on through bike lanes to the right of turn lanes (Section 9C.04), and prohibiting bike lanes with circulating roadways or roundabouts (Section 9C.04)
  • On-street bike lanes with multiple right turn lanes are discouraged, and posts or other raised markers should not be used to separate bike lanes from other travel lanes (Section 9C.04).
  • Bike lane symbol guidance: diamond symbols cannot be used for bike lanes, but there are two symbols that can be used to mark bike lanes-a bike without a rider and a bike symbol with a helmeted rider. Directional pavement arrows are optional in the marked lane to discourage wrong way riding and to help educate bicyclists on the rules of the road for riding in the street. BIKE LANE word legends are also optional for marking bike lanes (see figure 9C-6 in the MUTCD). Per Section 9C-04 of the MUTCD, there is no need for bike lane symbols, but if used, they the symbols shall be placed immediately after intersections and at other locations, as needed.
  • 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 MUTCD Manual. For example, Part 2 of the Manual addresses Guide signs, Warning signs, and Regulatory signs (such as STOP signs). Part 6 covers Work Zones. 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.

New signs and markings for bike facilities

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:

  • A statement of the nature of the problem, including data that justifies the need for a new device or application.
  • Describe the proposed change, how it was developed, how it deviates from the standard, and why it is an improvement over the existing standard.
  • Any illustration(s) that enhance understanding of the device or its use.
  • 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.
  • Legally binding 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.
  • 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, OR, 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 here.

One of the issues to be determined before colored bike lanes are accepted in 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 (or colored bike lanes at conflict zones)

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.

Shared lane marking (or sharrow)

The city of Denver 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, including San Francisco and Portland. This marking has been submitted to the FHWA for inclusion in the next edition of the MUTCD. It is being evaluated as part of an ongoing FHWA project to examine low cost pedestrian and bicycle treatments.

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 and 2003 editions of the MUTCD were 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 has more detailed information on this process and is also the best place to watch for announcements of proposed changes. While agencies such as ATSSA, ITE and AASHTO are printing copies of the MUTCD, the FHWA is not making a printed Manual, and the electronic on-line version represents the most current and up-to-date version.