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Traffic Loads
Traffic is the most important factor in pavement design. The consideration of traffic shall include both the loading magnitude
and configuration and the number of load repetitions.
One of the primary functions of a pavement is load distribution, therefore, in order to adequately design a pavement,
something must be known about the expected loads it will encounter. Loads, that is the vehicle forces exerted on the
pavement (e.g., by trucks, heavy machinery, airplanes), can be characterized by the following parameters:

• Axle and tire loads

• Axle and tire configurations
• Repetition of loads
• Distribution of traffic across the pavement
• Vehicle speed

Loads, along with the environment, damage pavement over time. The simplest pavement structural model asserts that each
individual load inflicts a certain amount of unrecoverable damage. This damage is cumulative over the life of the pavement and
when it reaches some maximum value the pavement is considered to have reached the end of its useful service life.
Therefore, pavement structural design requires a quantification of all expected loads a pavement will encounter over its design
life. This quantification is usually done by the fixed vehicle approach:

Equivalent single axle loads (ESALs)

This approach converts wheel loads of various magnitudes and repetitions ("mixed traffic") to an equivalent number of
"standard" or "equivalent" loads.

Practically the thickness of pavement is considered to be governed by the number of repetitions of a standard vehicle or axle
load, usually the 18-kip (80 kN)) single-axle load. If the axle load is not 80 kN or consist of tandem or tridem axles, it must be
converted to an 80 kN single-axle load by an Equivalent Axle Load Factor (EALF).

The number of repetitions under each single or multiple axle loads must be multiplied by its EALF to obtain the equivalent effect
based on an 80 kN single-axle load. The sum of the equivalent effects of all axle loads during the design period results in an
Equivalent Single-Axle Load (ESAL), which is the single traffic parameter for design purposes.

Due to the great varieties of axle loads and traffic volumes and their intractable effects on pavement performance, most of the
design methods in use today are based on this fixed vehicle concept.

Tire Loads
Tire loads are the fundamental loads at the actual tire-pavement contact points. For most pavement analyses, it is assumed
that the tire load is uniformly applied over a circular area. Also, it is generally assumed that tire inflation and contact pressures
are the same (this is not exactly true, but adequate for approximations). The following equation relates the radius of tire
contact to tire inflation pressure and the total tire load:

pπ (a.1)

Where: a = radius of tire contact (m)

P = total load on the tire (kN)
p = tire inflation pressare (kPa)

Axle and Tire Configurations

While the tire contact pressure and area is of vital concern in pavement performance, the number of contact points per vehicle
and their spacing is also important. As tire loads get closer together their influence areas on the pavement begin to overlap, at
which point the design characteristic of concern is no longer the single isolated tire load but rather the combined effect of all
the interacting tire loads. Therefore, axle and tire arrangements are quite important.

Tire-axle combinations are typically described as (see Figure a.1):

• Single axle — single tire (truck steering axles, etc.)
• Single axle — dual tires
• Tandem axle — single tires
• Tandem axle — dual tires

Single Axle with Single Tires Single Axle with Dual Tires

Tandem Axles with Single Tires Tandem Axles with Dual Tires

Figure a.1. Tire-Axle Combinations

Repetitions of Wheel Loads

Although it is not too difficult to determine the wheel and axle loads for an individual vehicle, it becomes quite complicated to
determine the number and types of wheel/axle loads that a particular pavement will be subject to over its entire design life.

Furthermore, it is not the wheel load but rather the damage to the pavement caused by the wheel load that is of primary
concern. The Equivalent single axle load (ESAL) is a method for characterizing wheel load repetitions: based on AASHO Road
Test results, the approach is to convert wheel loads of various magnitudes and repetitions ("mixed traffic") to an equivalent
number of "standard" or "equivalent" loads.

The equivalent load normally designated ESAL is the 80 kN (18,000 lbs) equivalent single axle
Typically, designers must not only calculate ESALs for various vehicles but also must forecast the expected number of ESALs a
pavement will encounter over its entire design life. This information then helps determine the structural design. Highway design
in most states is based on the ESAL traffic input anticipated over a future 10 to 50 year period. This is done by forecasting the
traffic the pavement will be subjected to over its design life, then converting the traffic to a specific number of ESALs based on
its makeup.

A typical ESAL estimate consists of:

• Traffic count. A traffic count is used as a starting point for ESAL estimation. Most urban areas have some amount of
historical traffic count records. If not, simple traffic counts are relatively inexpensive and quick. In some cases,
designers may have to use extremely approximate estimates if no count data can be obtained.
• A count or estimate of the number of heavy vehicles. This usually requires some sort of vehicle classification within the
traffic count. The simplest classifications divide vehicles into two categories: (1) heavy trucks and (2) others.
• An estimated traffic (and heavy vehicle) growth rate over the design life of the pavement. A growth rate estimate is
required to convert a single year traffic count into the total traffic experienced over the pavement design life.
• Select appropriate Equivalent Axle Load Factor (EALF) to convert truck traffic to ESALs. Different regions may
experience different types of loads. For instance, the statewide EALF for Washington State is about 1.028
• An ESAL estimate. An ESAL estimate can be made based on the preceding steps.

Traffic Distribution
Along with load type and repetitions, the load distributions across a particular pavement must be estimated. For instance, on a
6-lane interstate highway (3 lanes in each direction) the total number of loads is probably not distributed exactly equally in both
directions. Often one direction carries more loads than the other. Furthermore, within that one direction, not all lanes carry
the same loading. Typically, the outer most lane carries the most trucks and therefore is subjected to the heaviest loading.
Therefore, pavement structural design should account for these types of unequal load distribution. Typically, this is accounted
for by selecting a "design lane" for a particular pavement. The loads expected in the design lane are either (1) directly counted
or (2) calculated from the cumulative two-direction loads by applying factors for directional distribution and lane distribution.
The 1993 AASHTO Guide offers the following basic equation:

w18 = DD x DL x w’18 (a.2)

Where: w18 = traffic (or loads) in the design lane

DD = a directional distribution factor, expressed as a ratio, that accounts for the distribution of loads by
direction (e.g., east-west, north-south). For instance, one direction may carry a majority of the heavy
truck loads and thus it would either be designed differently or, at a minimum, it would control the
structural design. Generally taken as 0.5 (50%) for most roadways unless more detailed information is
DL = a lane distribution factor, expressed as a ratio, that accounts for the distribution of loads when two or
more lanes are available in one direction. For instance, on most interstate routes, the outside lane
carries a majority of the heavy truck traffic. It can be evaluated from the following table a.1:

Table a.1. Lane distribution factor

Number of Lanes in Each Direction Percent of Loads in Design Lane
1 100
2 80 – 100
3 60 – 80
4 50 - 75

w’18 = the cumulative two-directional loads predicted for a specific section of

highway during the design period.

The ESAL Equations

ESALs indicate the relative damage to a pavement structure due to various axle loads (e.g., the normal mixed traffic condition).
Wheel loads of various magnitudes and repetitions ("mixed traffic") can be converted to an equivalent number of "standard"
loads. As said, the most common standard load is the 80 kN (18,000 lbs) ESAL. The standard U.S. ESAL equation for flexible
pavements is derived from the AASHO Road Test results.

Equivalent Axle Load Factor

An equivalent axle load factor (EALF) defines the damage per pass to a pavement by the axle in question relative to the
damage per pass of a standard axle load, usually the 80 kN single-axle load. The EALF depends on the type of pavements,
thickness or structural capacity, and the terminal conditions at which the pavement is considered failed.
The Flexible Pavement the EALF Equation (a.3) provides load equivalency factors EALF which relates various axle load
combinations to the standard 80 kN (18,000 lbs) single axle load. It should be noted that EALFs as calculated by the EALF
equations are dependent upon the pavement structure (represented by the Structural Number SN for flexible pavements).

EALF = Nr of 18 kips single axle loads to create a certain drop in PSI (Pi-Pt) / Nr of “x” kip “y” axle loads to create the same
drop in PSI (Pi-Pt)

Flexible Pavement EALF Equation:

EALF = Wx / W18 4.79  Gβx 

Wx  L18 + L2 s   10 [L2 x ]4.33
= 
W18  Lx + L2 x  10 β18 

 
axle applications inverse of equivalency factors (where W18 = number of 18,000 lb (80 kN)
where: W =
single axle loads)
Lx = axle load being evaluated (kips)
L18 = 18 (standard axle load in kips)
code for axle configuration
1 = single axle
2 = tandem axle
L2 =
3 = triple axle
x = axle load equivalency factor being evaluated
s = code for standard axle = 1 (single axle)

 4.2 − pt  a function of the ratio of loss in serviceability at time t to
G = log  the potential loss taken at a point where pt = 1.5
 4.2 − 1.5 
terminal serviceability index (point at which the pavement is considered to be at the end of its
pt =
useful life)

 0.081( L x + L2 x ) 3.23  function which determines the relationship between

β = 0.4 +  3.23 

serviceability and axle load applications
 ( SN + 1) L2 x

SN = Structural Number

Note that Equation (a.3) is dimensional and empirical: hence the loads L shall be introduced as [kips]; the following
equivalencies apply:
1 kip = 1.000 lb
1 kip = 4.444 kN
18 kips = 80 kN
It is important to note that EALF is relatively insensitive to Pt and SN, hence for the first estimate the following values can be
Pt = 2.5
SN = 5.0

EALF values for single, tandem and tridem axles, as a function of Pt and SN, calculated with Equation (a.3), are listed in Tables
a.2, a.3, a.4.

Table a.2. EALF for single axles

Table a.3. EALF for tandem axles

Table a.4. EALF for tridem axles

Example Calculation for a Single Axle

Assumptions: Single axle, 30,000 lb (= 30 kips, = 133 kN), SN = 3, pt = 2.5


4.79  G β 30 
W30  18 + 1  10G [L2 x ]4.33
= 
W18  L30 + L2 x  10 β18 
 

where : W18 = predicted number of 18,000 lb (80 kN) single axle load applications,

W30 = predicted number of 30,000 lb (133 kN) single axle load applications,

Lx = L30 = 30

L2x = 1 (single axle)

G = serviceability loss factor

 4.2 − 2.5 
= log  = −0.2009
 4.2 − 1.5 
β30 = curve slope factor

 0.081(30 + 1) 3.23 
= 0.4 +  3.23 
 = 4.388
 (3 + 1) (1)

and G/β30 = -0.2009/4.388 = -0.04578

 0.081(18 + 1) 3.23 
β18 = 0.4 +  3.23 
 = 1.2204
 (3 + 1) (1)

G/β18 = -0.2009/1.2204 = -0.1646

W30  18 + 1  10 −0.04578  4.33


Thus, =  −0.1646 [1] = 0.1260

W18  30 + 1  10 
and ≅ 12.6% of W18 loads allowable with a 30 kips single axle
Finally, EALF = = 7.9365 ≅ 7.9

Example Calculation for a Tandem Axle

Assumptions: Tandem axle, 40,000 lb ( = 40 kips = 178 kN), SN = 5, pt = 2.5


W40  L18 + L2 s 
4.79  G β 40 
=  10 [L2 x ]4.33
W18 s  L40 + L2 x   G β18 
10 

where : L40 = 40 (tandem axle)

L18 = 18 (single axle)

L2x = 2 (tandem axle)

L2s = 1 (single axle)

G = serviceability loss factor

 4.2 − 2.5 
= log  = −0.2009
 4.2 − 1.5 
β40 = curve slope factor

 0.081(40 + 2) 3.23 
= 0.4 +  3.23 
 = 0.53824
 (5 + 1) (2)

and G/β40 = -0.2009/0.53824 = -0.37325

 0.081(18 + 1) 3.23 
β18 = 0.4 +  3.23 
 = 0.50006
 (5 + 1) (1)

G/β18 = -0.2009/0.50006 = -0.40175

W40  18 + 1   10 −0.37325  4.33


Thus, =  [2] = 0.48064

W18  40 + 2  10 − 0.40175 
Finally, EALF = = 2.08

Generalized Fourth Power Law

The AASHTO load equivalency equation is quite long and complicated. Therefore, as a rule-of-thumb, the damage caused by a
particular load is roughly related to the load by a power of four (for reasonably strong pavement surfaces):

EALF = Nx / N18 kips = (Lx / L18 kips)4 (a.4)

For tandem or tridem axles, a more general equation is:

L 
EALF =  x 
 Ls  (a.5)

Ls = is the load in kips on standard axles which have the same number of axles as Lx.

For example, given a flexible pavement with SN = 3.0 and pt = 2.5, from Table a.2:
a 18,000 lb (80 kN) single axle has EALF = 1.0
a 30,000 lb (133 kN) single axle has EALF = 7.9

Comparing the two, the ratio is: 7.9/1.0 = 7.9

Using the fourth power law (Eq. a.4):

 30,000 lb 
  = 7.7
 18,000 lb 
 
Thus, the two estimates are approximately equal.


For Pt = 2.5 and SN = 5, determine the EALF for 5000 lb (5 kips) and 50,000 lb (50 kips) single axles. If the EALF of a 32 kips
(145 kN) tandem axle is 0.857 (see Table a.3), determine the EALF for 15 kips and 80 kips tandem axles.

- For a single axle with Lx = 5: EALF = (5/18)4 = 0.006

- For a single axle with Lx = 50: EALF = (50/18)4 = 59.84
- For tandem axles with Lx = 15 and Ls = 32: (Lx / Ls)4 = (15/32)4 = 0.0483, which must be multiplied by 0.857 to
obtain the equivalent factor between 15 kip tandem axles and an 18 kip single axle, so: EALF = 0.0483 x 0.857 =
- For tandem axles with Lx = 80: EALF = (80/15)4 x 0.857 = 33.48

Total Design Traffic

The design procedures for roadways are based on w’18 (see Eq. a.2), that is the cumulative expected 18-kips equivalent single
axle loads (ESAL) during the analysis period. Hence the road design is based on the total number of passes of the standard axle
load during the design period, defined as the equivalent single-axle load (ESAL) and computed by:
ESAL = ∑ Fi ni
i =1 (a.6)

where: m = the number of axle load groups

F = the EALF for the ith-axle load group
ni = the number of passes of the ith-axle load group during the design period

From equation (a.6) the cumulative two-directions traffic for the first year can be calculated:


ADTi = initial year Annual Daily Traffic = cumulative two-directional ESALs predicted for a specific section of highway during
the first year of design period
ESALDIRECTION 1 = average daily traffic in direction 1 of the road for initial year
ESALDIRECTION 2 = average daily traffic in direction 2 of the road for initial year

The total volume of traffic during the analysis period equals the first year traffic estimate ADTi multiplied by the compound
Traffic Growth Factor TGF:

w’18 = Traffic Growth Factor * First Year Traffic Estimate = TGF x ADT1 = TGF x N1 (a.8)

w’18 = total volume of 18 kips loads during the analysis period
N1 = compact symbol for ADT1
TGF = compound Traffic Growth Factor = multiplier to be applied to N1 for getting the total ESALs which the road will carry
over the entire design life
If a year growth rate r is known, the total growth rate over the design life Y is:
GR = (1 + r)Y (a.9)

r = the yearly rate of traffic growth
Y = the design period in years

Hence during the first year the traffic will be: N1 x GT1 = N1 x 1; during the second year the traffic will become: N1 x GT2 = N1 x
(1 + r); during the third year the traffic will become: N1 x GT3 = N1 x [(1 + r) x (1 + r)] = (1 + r)2; etc.

At the end of the first year the total traffic the road has carried is: N1 x 1; at the end of the second year the total traffic the
road has carried is: N1 x [1 + (1 + r)]; at the end of the third year the total traffic the road has carried is: ADT1 x [1 + (1 + r)
+ (1 + r)2]; etc.

Then the compound Traffic Growth Factor TGF over the design period Y is:

TGF = ∫1Y [(1 + r)n-1] dn = [ (1 + r)Y – 1] / loge (1+r) (a.10)


If r = 2 % = 0,02 and Y = 20 years

GR = (1 + 0,02)20 = 1,486
TGF = [(1+0,02)20 – 1] / loge (1 + 0,02) = 24,54

If the cumulative two-directional loads predicted for a specific section of highway during the first year of design period is: N1 =
1.000.000 ESALs
- at year 20 the annual traffic will be: N20 = N1 x GR = 1.000.000 x 1.486 = 1.486.000 ESALs
- over the 20 years design period the total number of ESALs the road will carry is:
w’18 = 1.000.000 x 24,54 = 24.540.000 ESALs

To determine the traffic (w18 ) that will be used in the design lane, equation (a.2) is used to account for the directional and lane
distribution factors:

w18 = DD x DL x w’18 (a.2 bis)

DD = a directional distribution factor, expressed as a ratio, that accounts for the distribution of ESAL units by direction, e.g.,
east-west, north-south
DL = a lane distribution factor, expressed as a ratio, that accounts for distribution of traffic when two or more lanes are
available in one direction
w’18 = the cumulative two-directional 18-kip ESAL units predicted for a specific section of roadway during the analysis period, as
explained above.

The directional distribution factor DD is generally 0.5 (50%) for most roadways, however it may vary from 0.3 to 0.7 depending
on whether more or less traffic is passing in one direction than the other.

DL factors listed in Table a.1 may be used as a guide.

Determining the Number of ESALs per Day

The process of determining the design traffic generally consists of the following steps:
1. Define the traffic spectrum;
2. Determine the number of equivalent single axles for each axle or axle group;
3. Determine the total number of equivalent single axles per day;
4. Use the equivalent single axles per day, together with the expected growth rate and design period to determine the
cumulative single axles during the design period.

Detailed Traffic Count and Axle Configuration

Traffic evaluation will depend on the way the traffic spectrum is defined. A detailed traffic count requires that all heavy vehicles
be counted and classified, and that the number of vehicles in each class be determined. In addition, the intensity of the overall
traffic spectrum should be estimated either from visual observation or by doing spot checking of small samples.
A simple but quite realistic way to define the traffic spectrum is by dividing each vehicle class in four different traffic intensities:

a) empty,
b) half-full;
c) fully loaded.
d) overloaded.

For each of these intensities, and for each vehicle class, the number of equivalent standard axle loads can be determined. Thus
for vehicle class 1, there will be four possible standard axle loads representing an empty, half-full, full and overloaded vehicle.

When the traffic spectrum is defined as above explained, the following steps are followed to arrive at a number of equivalent
standard axles for each vehicle class.

The gross vehicle weight is divided among the vehicle axles. First the front steering axle shall be defined (as an example equal
to 65 kN). To determine the weight on the remaining axles, the adjusted gross vehicle weight (AGVW) is first determined for
each load intensity as follows:

a) Empty vehicles: AGVW = Steering Axle weight + 10 % of Gross vehicle weight;

b) Half-Full Vehicles: AGVW = Steering axle weight + 50 % of Gross vehicle weight;
c) Fully loaded vehicles: AGVW = Gross vehicle weight;
d) Overloaded vehicles: AGVW = Gross vehicle weight x 115%

The steering axle weight (example: 65 kN) is then subtracted from the adjusted gross vehicle weight, and the remainder is
divided by the number of axles (excluding the steering axle) to provide the weight per axle, for axles other than the steering

An example is reported in Table a.5, which shows the weight per axle for the 6-axle vehicle in Figure a.2.

Figure a.2. Six axle vehicle (steering axle + tandem axle + tridem axle)

Once the weight per axle has been determined for a vehicle class, the EALF is determined for each individual axle by using the
EALF equation (a.3).

Once the EALF for each axle or axle group of a vehicle class has been determined based on the above specified traffic intensity
distribution (sub-classes a, b, c, d), the number of vehicles per day for each vehicle sub-class is calculated; then by summing all
the contributions of ech sub-class the number of equivalent single axles (ESALs) per day applied by that vehicle class is


For the 6-axle vehicle in Figure a.2 the calculation of EALFs and ESALs is shown in Table a.5. Thus for a total of 100 6-axle
vehicles/day , the daily number of ESALs for this vehicle class is equal to 219.3.

Table a.5 - Calculation of EALFs and ESALs for a 6-axle vehicle class

As shown in Table a.6, by repeating the above calculation for all vehicle classes and by adding the totals for the four sub-
classes, the total number of ESALs per day is obtained for the total traffic spectrum.

In Table a.6 the default values of total vehicle weight and steering axle weight are referred to European standards, but the
calculation method is valid for any user’s defined weight: for user’s defined weights it is enough to use proportional values of
the steering axle weight and consequently of all other axles weight.

Table a.6. Calculation of ESALs per day for the whole traffic spectrum, for Pt = 2.5 and SN=5.0