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Balancing Needs and Goals within the Public Street Right-of-Way: Differing Perspectives

Balancing Needs and Goals within the Public Street Right-of-Way: Differing Perspectives

When planning improvements for public streets, there are often more expressed needs for the corridor than the right-of-way can accommodate. Prioritizing conflicting requests from internal and external stakeholders can be especially challenging. These needs can range from automobile and bike lanes, public transit service, pedestrian facilities, parking, public spaces, utilities and drainage, landscaping and more. 

While groups may advocate for different components, a collaborative approach will be more likely to result in a solution that is best for the corridor. Understanding the perspectives of these groups can provide insight to assist with this process.

If You Ask a Planner

A certified planner’s primary obligation is to serve the public interest, according to the American Institute of Certified Planners. Planners propose ideas early in the process to influence development and improvements, also known as visioning. They advocate for and work to satisfy the interests of both the public and the city to create an ideal corridor.

If You Ask City Administration

City administrators typically approach public street improvements with their existing policies and guidelines top of mind. In many cases, cities have several goals for a corridor. Plans developed and maintained by a city can include a bike plan, a transit plan, a downtown revitalization/economic development plan, a thoroughfare plan and more. When working with several independent plans, it is common to see discrepancies, which can create challenges.

If You Ask an Engineer

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public; and shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards. Engineers are typically bound by state law to act in such a way. However, this does not mean that the engineer should not approach the problem with an open mind and be open to evaluating creative and innovative solutions. When it comes to public street improvements, often it is an engineer’s role to develop various options that balance competing plans and expressed interests within the given right-of-way without violating accepted engineering practice and standards.

Commonly, the expressed needs and goals don’t align and cannot coexist when working with limited right-of-way. In an ideal scenario where a city’s goals are met and space is available, a public street may look like this:

Unfortunately, often there are limits and the allotted space may not allow the goals of every stakeholder to be met. Realistically, corridors often have severe width restrictions as illustrated below: 

In this scenario, engineers should collaborate with planners and agency officials to develop a tradeoff analysis to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario. Here are some examples of options that could be considered within the available right-of-way:

Option 1

Advantages: Calmer traffic due to 10-foot lanes and turning lane, and on-street parking to meet economic development plan.

Disadvantages: No dedicated street car or bike lanes to meet City’s public transit and bike plans.

Option 2 

Advantages: Bike lanes to meet City’s bike plan in addition to calmer traffic. 

Disadvantages: No on-street parking to meet economic development plan.

Option 3

Advantages: Two southbound lanes and a left turn lane to accommodate peak evening traffic.

Disadvantages: No bike lanes or on-street parking and not enough capacity for morning peak traffic.

When All Three Collaborate

Ultimately, transportation planners and engineers should work together to educate and inform agency leaders so that they can decide on a safe solution that meets the greatest public interests. Consideration should be given to cost, property impacts, environmental impacts and other factors. 

If planners, engineers and agency officials work diligently and collaboratively, we can together deliver street improvements that truly improve quality of life within the communities we serve.

Steve Thieken, PE, PTOE, AICP, Director, Columbus Transportation Division

Steve Thieken, PE, PTOE, AICP 
Director, Columbus Transportation Division

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