Social change through a bureaucratic manual

Producing a manual may not seem like an effective pathway to social change but it can help in certain areas, such as new standards for bicycling in American cities:

To codify their emerging practice, they turned to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO had been formed in 1996 as a forum for big-city transportation planners to swap ideas, but it had never published a design guide before. That became one of its top priorities after Sadik-Khan was named president of the organization. For several months beginning in 2010, a group of 40 consultants and city transportation planners reviewed bike-lane designs from around the world and across the United States.

The result was NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the first national design standard for protected bike lanes. Like other standards, it answers the questions of space, time, and information that are at the heart of street design. How wide should a protected bike lane be? At least five feet, but ideally seven. How does one mix bike lanes and bus stops? Send the lane behind the bus stop, with enough space for bus riders to comfortably board and get off the bus. What about when bike lanes and turn lanes meet? Give bikes their own exclusive signals, or create “mixing zones,” shared spaces where people in cars and on bikes take turns entering the space…

The publication of the NACTO bikeway guide didn’t directly result in the creation of any new bike lanes. But the planners and engineers who wrote it recognized that for each of them to further progress in their own city, they had to collaborate on standards that would enable progress in any city.

As it turns out, the Urban Bikeway Design Guide was just the beginning. NACTO later released the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, a broader effort to push back against America’s car-first road designs and define streets that support urban life, with narrow lanes that encourage reasonable driving speeds and traffic signals that give people plenty of time to cross the street. More recently, the organization has published guides on designing streets to speed up public transit, and incorporate storm-water infrastructure.

It sounds like the manual was the culmination of collective efforts in multiple cities as well as the form that would be recognized in that particular field (urban planning). But, it hints at larger issues involving social change: it can happen through a variety of materials and people. If I were to teach about social change in an Introduction to Sociology class, we might talk about (1) large-scale social movements or (2) significant shifts in large institutions (like the economy or politics). We acknowledge material changes here and there: think the revolution of the printing press, the arrival of social media or smartphones, the invention of air conditioning, etc. Yet, bureaucratic changes (except national laws) receive little attention even though such shifts can influence many people without even knowing. Take the bike lanes example from above: the average city resident may notice the shift but would probably attribute the change to either local officials or local interest groups (and both would be partly true). But, the manual behind the changes will only be known to experts in that field.

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