Do Safety and Liability Stop at the Right-of-Way Line?

October 04, 2006

While the transportation field has made significant strides toward designing transportation facilities safe for all modes, limited attention has been focused beyond the right-of-way line—on developments. As a result, the operating efficiency and safety of on-site circulation systems often lacks compared to the roadways that serve the development. The difference between good and not-so-good on-site circulation is easily perceived by motorists, pedestrian, and bicyclists who access the site. You’ve probably gone to an institutional campus or shopping center and felt a higher level of anxiety than normal. As you drove through the site, you likely sensed conflicts coming at you in all directions. This sensation is an outcome of the original design—the development does not attract inattentive drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

If we take a closer look at the process that leads to this situation, we can get a better understanding of why these situations occur. Traditionally, the design and review of on-site circulation systems is overseen by architects and/or civil engineers whose primary focus is to both develop an aesthetically pleasing and functional development and ensure that the facility can be built and withstand the elements over time. This is not to say that architects and civil engineers are not concerned with site circulation and safety, rather their primary focus and expertise do not always naturally allow them to pick up on the subtleties that a transportation engineer or planner would focus on. Unfortunately, the transportation engineers and planners who work for the development team and review the development for an agency are typically focused on the off-site transportation system or are not asked to review the on-site circulation system. As a result, many developments have circulation and safety deficiencies that patrons must deal with daily. This has led to unnecessary property damage and injuries and, in some extreme cases, difficulty in maintaining fully-occupied developments.

To address these on-site circulation issues, and prevent future issues, high-end developers and local agencies are starting to focus more on the design issues that lead to improved circulation and safety. However, the success of these efforts requires transportation professionals employed by the developers and working for the review agencies to understand the development process. This is particularly true with the idea that “time is money” or, converted into engineering terms, “timing is everything.”

To ensure that the benefits of an on-site circulation review are maximized, comments must come prior to or during the pre-application conference. At this time, the on-site design work has not occurred and changes to circulation, parking, and site-access locations can typically be incorporated without creating a significant ripple effect. Incorporating these same changes just before or after the formal submittal requires multiple disciplines to redesign their elements of the project. This leads to increased time and cost, which can ultimately upend a project.

Those who design and/or review on-site circulation should identify the four primary on-site circulation systems: parking lot access/circulation, truck circulation and delivery routes, parking space access and maneuvering, and pedestrian and bicycle access and circulation.

Once identified, it is important to minimize the conflicts occurring between these routes. This process can be facilitated by asking these questions:

  1. Does the number of parking spaces meet the expected demand and the jurisdictional requirements?
  2. Do the site-access driveway(s) provide safe and efficient operations from a location design standpoint?

    – Do existing or forecasted vehicular queues create conflicts?
    – Does the number of ingress lanes match the number of feeder lanes?
    – Do the egress lanes provide adequate capacity for motorists leaving the facility?
    – Will the driveway throat distance accommodate the expected vehicular queues?
    – Will the driveway design accommodate the expected vehicle types?

  3. Are there on-site circulation issues?

    – Does the facility establish a hierarchy?
    – Can parking maneuvers occurring in the facility circulation travelways be eliminated or minimized?
    – Does the facility provide positive guidance?
    – Are adequate truck circulation paths provided?
    – Are all modes accommodated?

Answering these questions can lead to a significantly improved facility that functions for all modes and reduces the liability for all those involved in the design process and ongoing operation of a facility. This process can also be used for conducting on-site circulation and safety audits at existing facilities. In the end, a seamless transition between the public and private sides of the right-of-way line can be realized to provide an overall transportation system that is safer and more efficient for travelers of all modes.

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