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New Changes for Designing Low-Volume Roads

While staying up-to-date on standards, manuals, guidelines, policies, and specifications can be challenging, the Hoyle, Tanner design teams have welcomed the Second Edition Guidelines for Geometric Design of Low-Volume Roads (Guidelines) recently published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The updated guidelines expand the definition of low-volume which provides greater flexibility to Hoyle, Tanner’s engineers to design the appropriate solution for the challenges our clients face. We’re going to cover some basics of the Guidelines and why it is so welcomed.

In the first edition (2001), low-volume roads were considered to have traffic volumes of 400 vehicles per day (vpd) or less. With the newest release (2019), the Guidelines expand coverage to roads with traffic volumes of 2,000 vpd or less. What does 400 vpd look like? For perspective: If you were to walk down a street, you’d expect to see one vehicle approximately every 3 ½ minutes at 400 vpd. If the same road experienced 2,000 vpd, you’d expect to see one vehicle approximately every 45 seconds.

According to the Guidelines, 80% of the roads in the U.S. are low-volume roads.

To determine if that 80% was applicable to our clients, we reviewed available traffic counts for an “average” New Hampshire town and found a conservative 70% of their road miles met the new definition of low-volume.

The Guidelines still remain focused on very low-volume roads (≤ 400 vpd) but the inclusion of roads with volumes of ≤ 2,000 vpd is greeted with open arms. This provides our design teams an additional resource on more projects; before the latest release we could not use the Guidelines on most of our projects as traffic volumes typically exceeded 400 vpd. However, a majority of past projects had traffic volumes that did not exceed 2,000 vpd.

What’s the benefit to our clients and designers

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The Guidelines apply to both new construction and evaluating existing roadways. Here are a few things designers can consider for the construction of a new low-volume road:

Reduce pavement width allocated to vehicles, narrow the road. The obvious benefit to narrower roads is reduced construction cost. Another benefit is a decrease in environmental impacts. Thinking a little bit further beyond the edge of road, the savings from a narrower road could be invested in pedestrian and bicycle accommodations.

Reduce the design speed, allowing for the use of sharper horizontal curves. This could be used to avoid or minimize impacts to environmentally sensitive areas, an excessive cut, an excessive fill, or negative impacts to abutting properties. Doing any of these could not only reduce construction costs, but also potentially speed up the construction time and reduce the environmental permitting coordination.

Reduce the stopping sight distance, allowing for the use of sharper curves. Similar to reducing the design speed, however, this provides the designer flexibility for both the horizontal and vertical (profile) alignments. This could be used to avoid or minimize impacts to environmentally sensitive areas, an excessive cut, an excessive fill, or negative impacts to abutting properties. Doing any of these could not only reduce construction costs, but also potentially speed up the construction time and reduce the environmental permitting coordination.

Reduce the clear zone, and thus reduce or eliminate guardrail. A little side note, a clear zone is an area that allows a driver to stop safely, or regain control of a vehicle that has left the roadway. Since guardrail is a roadside hazard, costly to install, and costly to maintain when impacted, being able to reduce guardrail or eliminate it reduces construction maintenance costs and potential accidents involving it.

With this increased flexibility the Guidelines provide there is still engineering judgement to be used. For instance, it would be ill-advised to combine a narrow road with sharper curves and reduced stopping sight distance. Remember the intent of the Guideline is to reduce crash frequency and severity while prudently using public funds.

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What about all the existing roads to be maintained?

We have the ability to evaluate how the existing road is performing and if it meets the Guidelines. When something doesn’t meet the Guidelines, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be fixed.

For example, let’s consider a one-mile segment of low-volume rural road in good condition, and we’re looking to resurface it before it becomes worse. We go out to the site, take measurements and notes of existing conditions, and find the following:

  • The average road width is less than the Guideline recommendation.
  • There is a curve that is sharper than the Guidelines minimum radius, has no warning signs, appears multiple vehicles have left the paved surface within the curve but no reported accidents in the last 5 years.
  • There are multiple trees within the clear zone but no signs of impacts or reported accidents.

There are several ways to address each of the issues. Recalling the purpose of the Guidelines is to make improvements at locations where it can be expected to provide substantial crash reduction benefits the design team makes a recommendation. Maintain the existing road width except within the sharp curve, where the pavement is to be widened to the Guideline minimum and the trees within the clear zone are to remain.

Hoyle, Tanner’s transportation design engineers are experts in roadway design, pavement layout, roadway stormwater, and safety for vehicles and pedestrians alike. We research and commit ourselves to learning the newest design guidelines for a safer, healthier community for drivers, roadway designers, and pedestrians. Questions? Call (603) 669-5555 ext. 181 or email me to discuss the latest technology and guidelines in the transportation engineering industry.

Jeff Collins

About Jeff Collins

Jeff is a valuable team member of Hoyle, Tanner’s Transportation Service Group. He excels in developing solutions to problems, whether it be for a project or company process & procedure. He understands the importance of providing the appropriate solution to the problem and practices doing so on different transportation projects; interstate expansion, pavement preservation, roadway realignments, new development, and urban retrofits. When he’s not at work, he can be found learning patience from his three daughters, listening to various podcasts, reading a book, or spending time with his wife.