Traffic Trials

Traffic Trials

The decision to develop a transportation master plan for a school or university is seldom made summarily. It most often is a gradual process determined by changes that might have been imperceptible in the beginning, but have combined to create problems that no longer can be ignored.

Many circumstances can bring to light the need for a transportation master plan. In some instances, uncoordinated development of a campus has resulted in a sprawling effect that makes it difficult or hazardous to move from one point to another. The need to add new space and the question of where to situate buildings can prompt administrators to take a fresh look at the entire campus layout. On rare occasions, a serious traffic accident compels a school to alter traffic patterns to create a safer environment. Most often, however, the determination to formulate a comprehensive transporation plan is prompted by circumstances that have been developing gradually, such as increasing traffic volume, growing congestion, inadequate parking and other quality-of-life issues.

A transportation plan is an element of an overall master plan for a campus, and the two must be treated as functions of one another. A new transportation system can significantly alter the efficiency of a campus layout and the manner in which a campus will be used. A master plan, both for traffic and for an entire campus, is about providing direction for an institution. It is not intended just to be a blueprint for the next 20 or 30 years; it is a living document that should be made flexible enough to accommodate changes resulting from new technology or the evolution of a school's educational mission.

Gathering data

Any attempt to plan for the future usually begins with a look to the past. Administrators should review previous studies carefully. In many instances, the reports will provide information on how an institution's growth has been fashioned, and which elements were given highest priority. A data-collection system should be formulated to supplement already gathered information. Schools should analyze traffic volumes, conduct an inventory of parking facilities, and evaluate transit systems. Data on traffic accidents will indicate which roadways might be less safe; noting the time of day accidents occur can provide guidance about which parts of campus need better lighting.

It is important that the views of numerous interested parties — administration, faculty, students, public officials and neighborhood groups — be solicited before the project gets underway. The plan may never get off the ground if it lacks consensus among those who use the facility. University or school administrators can guide the designer to those who should be consulted on technical matters that can affect the project. Direct conversations with them are critical to developing the manner in which the project will proceed.

Many stakeholders will have an interest in a project; this virtually guarantees a certain degree of conflict. What suits a pedestrian may inconvenience a motorist. Situating parking facilities in remote areas may make a campus more beautiful, but will force motorists to walk long distances. In some situations, a shuttle bus might be required.

Because such conflicts are inevitable, it is vital that all interested parties voice their opinions at the early stages of planning. It is easier to reach consensus if one understands why certain concessions are being made. The initial plan must be as complete as possible, but it should be flexible enough to allow for change during construction and after project completion.

Carrying out the plan

When it comes to carrying out a traffic plan, nothing is as effective as good graphics and animation. One computer program offers three-dimensional animation that shows vehicle operations clearly and automatically shifts vehicles within the network if new access is introduced. The use of such a model allows designers to test alternatives and actually see a plan in operation. If those making the decision are not technically oriented, it may be difficult for them to understand why one alternative is likely to work better than another. But the model allows them to see why alternative A is better than alternative B with little or no technical explanation.

There are many ways of controlling traffic flow on a school campus: traffic might be rerouted, roads can be relocated, and new amenities can be devised to create a walking atmosphere on campus rather than one devoted to vehicular traffic. The solution depends on the specific objective of each project. In some cases, developing an entirely new access point to the campus will be sufficient to alleviate congestion at an existing entry or exit point.

Ebb and flow

The two most universal elements in a campus traffic master plan are reducing vehicular speed and improving traffic flow. Paradoxically, the two are not opposing considerations; reducing speed actually can help smooth the flow. Speeding vehicles are a safety hazard that require pedestrians to exercise caution when crossing a roadway; they also force other vehicles to slow down or come to a stop before proceeding across an intersection.

Twenty years ago, traffic engineers were reluctant to institute traffic-calming measures. They were particularly wary of speed bumps, considering them a safety hazard. Today, that has changed. Speed “hump” designs exist for speeds of 25 and 30 miles per hour. Raised intersections are even more common, as universities seek programs that have a large impact at a relatively low cost. There are also other ways of calming traffic. Streets can be designated for different types of vehicles, perhaps barring trucks on some streets and buses on others; additional controls, such as traffic signals and stop signs can be added; streets can be narrowed and sidewalks widened; planting buffers can be used to separate pedestrians from vehicles. Roadway curvature also can be introduced, though care always must be taken to address safety concerns.

Of course, the best way to control vehicular traffic is to keep vehicles off campus. Remote or peripheral parking with a convenient transit link can achieve that objective. For a university with a few small lots, a bus loop might be all that is needed. If the lots are large and they can be connected to a substantial commuter population (faculty, staff, students and area employees), it might be worth considering a fixed-rail system. Light rail can be effective for universities, but only in the most densely populated urban areas.

Environmental issues of one type or another almost always need to be addressed. A road through wetland areas introduces one set of challenges; a new road that might increase traffic through a residential neighborhood presents another. If a transportation plan involves a campus expansion, it is more likely that an environmental impact statement, or at least an environmental assessment, will be required.

Regardless of what transportation issues are involved or how specific they may be, a comprehensive master plan is always preferable to trying to solve the problems piecemeal. Few issues can be resolved in isolation. If a stadium or a fieldhouse is torn down and built elsewhere on campus, the old and the new locations will be affected in other ways. The other essential for a master plan is flexibility, for the one sure thing in forecasting the future is that circumstances are certain to change.

Harknett, PE, is a principal with Stantec, New York City.

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