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Architecture + Branding: Explicit visual cues not to be supplanted by new weigh station technology

1-Rise of the road use tax

The decade after the Second World War (WWII), which gave rise to the Baby Boom generation, along with technological innovations and rising wages and employment, resulted in unprecedented growth in consumer demand, and consequently, freight. This demand for additional freight was felt by all transportation modes, and saw the growth of heavy truck traffic. With consumers in North America adopting automobile use at a much more rapid pace, and truck traffic increasing, the road networks saw increased use.

Traffic gridlock, as seen from behind Tractor trailers on Highway 40 near St-Lazare, Quebec

As an initiative to make road travel safer for all concerned and reduce accidents, laws specifically written to address heavier commercial vehicles started to surface in different jurisdictions to enforce height, weight, length, and width of commercial vehicles. Enforcing these requirements would give rise to weigh stations, checkpoints to be located along established and emerging road-based shipping routes.

Semi-tractor trailer with dump trailer (source: wikipedia.org)

In many jurisdictions, heavier commercial vehicles were required to pay road use taxes  based on weight, which highlighted the need to weigh this particular class of vehicles.

However, the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) created an integrated system to replace road use taxes (source: wikipedia.org). Although taxes may still be paid at weigh stations, tax enforcement, vehicle inspections, safety violation detection and operational compliance, are bigger components of their mandate (source: wikipedia.org). In effect, promoting motorist safety and assisting in the prevention of the premature degradation and deterioration of the road network has overshadowed tax collection.

2-Approach with caution

Almost exclusively located along major road-based shipping routes or highways, most weigh stations, or permanent truck scales, are still in use to enforce weight restrictions. Although temporary “portable” scales may also be used, either for remote locations, special purposes, or as a supplement to existing scales during a peak period or season, most weigh stations are fixed to a defined location.

Typical locations are in relative proximity to jurisdictional borders, such as State, Province or Country. Additionally, many weigh stations are located at choke points, preferably with few alternate routes accessible to prompt would-be evaders, or the freight origination or destination points (source: wikipedia.org).

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source: maps.google.ca)

For automobile motorists, the haphazard locations of the weigh stations, dotting the route along the highway, may serve to break up the monotony of a lengthy trek without much concern. However, for heavy equipment operators, freight movers and truckers, these seemingly unobtrusive stops are more problematic.

As some jurisdictions require every commercial vehicle to stop at the weigh station, possible back-ups and issues regarding heavy trucks re-entering the flow of traffic need to be addressed. As such, circulation into weigh stations is typically designed to flow in the direction of traffic, thus attempting to minimize traffic flow disruptions.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (source: maps.google.ca)

There exists some recent examples of median scales, which are placed between the opposing lanes of traffic, accessible from either direction of traffic, resulting in heavy vehicles exiting and re-entering the roadway from the left lane (source: wikipedia.org).

Notwithstanding emerging median scales, favouring one side, generally the right hand side of highways in North America, weigh stations tend to operate wholly with unidirectional travel, stressing one-way in/one-way out traffic. Unfortunately, this does entail that traffic in the opposing direction must complete a U-Turn when required to stop at weigh stations.

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source: maps.google.ca)

Designated signage, at a distance that preferably would allow for safe merging, alerts motorists to the presence of a weigh station ahead, as well as instructions regarding whether stopping requirements are in effect. Coming up to the weight station, featuring an approach lane of varying length, truck traffic is diverted off the main route onto the lane. Depending on volume, trucks may need to line up, perhaps out into highway lanes, depending on the queuing space allotted.

When finally reaching the head of the line, the inspection and weigh station comes clearly into full panoramic view.

3-Punching above its weight class

When seen at speed along the highway lanes, weigh stations seem rather small, with motorists spotting them up ahead and perhaps once again as they pass by with little attention paid. Their built footprint so small, they do not elicit a long visual pause, but rather a blip, along the route.

True to form, even at close range, many of these enforcement posts are physically quite miniscule compared to massive task they are called on to perform. In this instance, small but mighty is a very real idiom.

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source: maps.google.ca)

Sparse, stoic, utilitarian and set in rather unglamorous or remote surroundings, the architectural design direction would seldom be labelled as colourful or cheery. In fact, it compounds and reinforces the rather sombre and serious nature of the exercise.  Task driven with a focus on administration, enforcement and compliance, the architecture for the building is secondary, derived entirely from the functional needs.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (source: maps.google.ca)

Efficiently sized, the outpost itself is but one component within a significantly larger site intended to accommodate several tractor trailers, complete with adequate space and requisite equipment for safety inspections, along with administrative tasks.

4-Establishing authority

One of the most striking architectural features is an expansive glass area, customarily wrapping the approach side. This massive unobstructed scene affords the weigh station operators an unparalleled, 180 degree or greater, view from within, to visually scan vehicles approaching. Implicitly aware that cameras or other surveillance equipment are in use at these legal enforcement points, the glass wrapped façade asserts explicitly that few things will be out-of-sight.

Superseding the basic needs of natural lighting or ventilation, the design sets an imposing, if not oppressive tone, stressing visual control, whereby users are keenly aware that every movement is potentially and purposely being viewed, documented, interpreted and analyzed. Amplifying this aura of authority is electing to make use of one-way looking glass, thus promoting probable feelings of powerlessness and apprehension from some queued users.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (as seen from Westbound lanes)

Numerous weigh stations in current use are constructed as single storey structures, allowing easy and rapid access to the exterior for staff from within, as well as for transaction activities by incoming users. However, by situating the access point at the furthest most point from the approach, each incoming user must forcibly travel the span of the glazed expanse, sensing peering views the full length. Not without intent but by design, the authoritative aura is again reinforced and made unambiguous with every footstep.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (as seen from Westbound lanes)

The imposing thematic can be noted in the use of other building materials, electing to make use of materials that communicate strength, durability and stability, such as concrete, stone, brick and CMU block (concrete masonry units). Moreover, the use of some lighter materials such as steel can sometimes be present, but the preponderance of high mass/heavier weight materials is evident.

Weigh Station at Westbound direction, near Alexandria, Ontario (as seen from Eastbound lanes)

In cases where weigh stations are spread out into two-storey structures, the lower portion tends to make ever more use of solid materials, limiting openings and adopting an almost bunker like aesthetic, furthering the authoritative mantra. The upper portion takes on a rather delicate, light and airy aesthetic, clad almost exclusively in glass. Nonetheless, the massive glass expanse accentuates the feeling of being watched, ever more attentively from above, as it is set solidly on a seemingly quasi-impenetrable base.


5-The weigh forward

From their initial scope of commercial vehicle weight and road-tax collection to their current mandate which includes enforcement and public safety, weigh stations have expanded in size, stature and scope.

Weigh Station, Indiana, circa 1950s (source: in.gov/isp/2649.thm)

The advent and adoption of newer technologies, such as Weigh-in-Motion (WIM) scales, electronic bypass systems (PrePass, NORPASS, or simply A.V.I.) are increasing efficiency, and revolutionizing the process and, by extension, progressively altering the role of weigh stations (source: wikipedia.org).   

The primary need to establish an authoritative presence combined with a continuous line of sight for those entrusted with enforcing public safety regulation will continue to influence and be reflected in the built environment design decisions. Therefore, the architectural identity and tells that define weigh stations will continue to be evident and trace a reference to the past, even as the scope of services offered may continue to be redefined into the future.

Two lane stretch of Highway 17, near Hawkesbury, Ontario, heading Westbound, night time view 

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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