If we want our road infrastructure to be fit for the long term, we must keep pace with the key drivers affecting the highways industry, says Andy Theobald.
Providing our clients with long-term solutions means looking ahead, taking a 10 to 20-year time horizon to understand how to design and deliver projects that will serve society decades into the future.
It’s common to look at new technologies and processes that are making an impact now – artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example – and try to imagine a world where they are even more embedded in our solutions than today.
Technologies come and go, however, and the speed of innovation means many of the tools we’ll be using in the coming years have yet to make an impact currently. Instead, it’s more useful to look at the main drivers affecting demand to get a better sense of the long-term solutions we need to deliver:
Roads for levelling up
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals are steering economic development, and good road infrastructure directly or indirectly supports all of them in some way. Highways link people to jobs, to markets to sell their goods, to educational opportunities and healthcare facilities. Roads can be a key investment to change people’s economic prospects and to support equality, as good connectivity can reduce time spent on menial tasks and widen access to jobs and opportunity.
The World Bank estimates that nearly 1bn people worldwide live more than 2km from an all-weather road. It also estimates that one in six women globally are not actively seeking work out of fear of harassment in transit. While road infrastructure in the UK is significantly more developed, there is still scope to improve the network to help spread prosperity. The focus should be on the factors driving the community’s need for the road. Improving neighbourhoods, addressing the needs of local communities, and enhancing the natural environment through nature-based solutions and regenerative design, will all help to maximise the long-term benefits.
The International Transport Forum’s 2021 transport outlook estimates that to 2050 there will be a 2.3-fold increase in demand for passenger transport and a 2.6-fold increase in demand for freight transport. In the UK, the Department for Transport predicts road traffic will increase by between 17% and 51% by 2050 (depending on the development trajectory taken). Digital systems and smart motorways will be crucial in helping us to use existing roads more efficiently. Where new road infrastructure is needed, this must be balanced with the need to drive down emissions. Roads which support and encourage active transport and electrified vehicles will be key to cutting emissions, while working with suppliers to enhance the materials used will help reduce embodied carbon.
Designing for safety
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.35M people are killed on the world’s roads each year. Road accidents are already the leading cause of death for people between the ages of five and 29, and by 2030, WHO predicts that more people will die as a result of road accidents than die of cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes or violence. Besides the tragic human cost, there is also an economic cost to countries – estimated as an average of 3% of GDP each year – which impacts the resources that can be put into social development.
We need to work with users, operators and vehicle manufacturers to design in safety, using technology where appropriate. Our efforts should include helping to promote a cultural change in attitudes to the remote control of vehicles on roads by convincing the public they can carry more traffic, more safely.
Alternatives to fossil fuels
We know electric vehicles are a crucial and growing element of our transport system to tackle emissions, and these need to be supported with the necessary charging infrastructure. Heavy trucks, though, challenge what is capable via current battery technology and charging times would impact logistics. Sweden and Germany have trialled electric road systems which power heavy trucks via overhead lines, rails or an induction loop. This is a technically feasible solution to electrifying heavy vehicles but the business case is still to be proven.
The probable long-term solution could be green hydrogen, either through combustion or fuel cells, which requires development of specialised infrastructure to support it. As for active transport modes, inner city commuters increasingly expect dedicated cycle lanes and greater separation between pedestrians and car users, with better, greener public spaces that support health and wellbeing.
Technology will change the way we use roads. Connected, driver-assisted and electric vehicles are delivering better informed and more comfortable journeys. As we look into the future, mobility as a service and other shared ownership models are likely to make road journeys more affordable and accessible for everyone. Data-driven operations and management solutions will boost the capacity of our network and lead to more efficient maintenance. A digital-first approach will help deliver enhanced journeys for all.
If we want to unlock the significant social benefits of point-to-point road journeys, the highways industry must continue to invest and keep up with technological advances to create a road transport network that is accessible, affordable and inclusive. While the outlook is uncertain, keeping mindful of these five key trends will help ensure highways infrastructure supports all parts of society for the long term and common good.
Andrew Theobald, group practice leader for highways, Mott MacDonald