NACTO Comes to Boston

A crowd of people and Bluebikes gathers near Boylston Street
Dozens of planners and engineers gathered at the Bluebikes station on Boylston Street on Thursday morning in preparation for bike tours for the NACTO Designing Cities conference.

For the next three days, the Boston region will host hundreds of transportation engineers, planners, and transit officials from dozens of cities worldwide for the annual conference of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

While the transportation engineering profession generally has a reputation for neglecting anyone who isn’t inside a motor vehicle, NACTO’s members are working to change that culture, and the gathering at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center is bringing professionals from all over the world together to share ideas, strategies, and success stories.

At the opening plenary Wednesday afternoon, Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne spoke of the various commutes to work she has done over the years without a car, including biking to Dorchester from West Somerville, and having to take two buses and cross a six lane highway to reach her job back in the 1980’s.

“I’m really intimate with the streets – I’ve had to work or ride on every single line here in the city. I know the transition points, where you have to be,” she said.

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui spoke about equity and how participants of Cambridge’s guaranteed income pilot, Cambridge Recurring Income for Succcess and Emporwerment, sometimes spent a large portion of the money they received on transportation costs.

“We’re really excited about the work that has happened around fare free…we’d love to collaborate with the MBTA and Boston in making some of our lines fare free,” she said.

Over the past decade, NACTO has emerged as a valuable counterpoint to the much larger American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), an organization that’s responsible for the dominant professional guidelines and standards for the engineers who design roadways across the United States.

Those guidelines – which historically have favored wider, faster roadways and neglected anyone who isn’t in a car – are a big part of the reason why we’re stuck today with a deadly, environmentally disastrous, and unaffordable transportation system.

AASHTO also has a history of lobbying against transit funding in Congress, blaming victims for crashes on roadways that their engineers have designed, and cheerleading for highway widenings.

A little over a decade ago, NACTO responded to the car-centric engineering culture by publishing its first design guidelines of its own.

The Urban Bikeway Design Guide offered engineers advice for building new protected bike lanes, programming bike traffic signals, installing signage, and making other considerations for bike transportation on city streets, at a time when AASHTO was still refusing to incorporate any standards for safe biking facilities in its own publications.

When that guide was published in 2011, there were very few physically-protected bike lanes anywhere in the United States; in the decade since, they have proliferated in hundreds of cities (including in Boston, which had no physically-protected on-street bike lanes in 2011).

NACTO has also published several other design guides in the years since then, including manuals on transit-priority streets and a guide to quick-build street designs for the Covid-19 pandemic.

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