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Let’s drive more out of our road network

Roads continue to be the dominant form of transport infrastructure in the UK, and while some say that this is the new age of the railway, the same could be said for the road network.

Innovations in the way roads are constructed, maintained, operated and, indeed, thought of, could change the way they are used in future.

Thinking of the road network differently is a good place to start. In the UK, we have 247,000 miles of roads, with 188,000 miles in England. Of this, the strategic road network, which carries a third of all traffic and is managed by Highways England, is 4,300 miles.

More than a traffic network

Much of this complex network could be exploited for more than just traffic, and as £11bn will be invested over next five years in the strategic network alone, there is opportunity to realise more of this potential.

With a little more upfront planning, roads could act as utility corridors, capable of reducing the environmental footprint of other utilities. They might also be a means of generating power and even storage devices for water.

‘Residential areas might also benefit from tools designed to improve air quality and noise pollution’

Across the new and existing network, the reinstatement of landscape, ecological and indeed non-motorised use connectivity is the challenge. Often the answer may be green or bored tunnels, or green bridges.

After many years of discussion, the Hindhead tunnel on the A3 has shown what can be achieved, and the plans for HS2 illustrate a readiness to incorporate both bored and green tunnels.

A number of studies looking into the capacity of the strategic network to generate solar power have been undertaken and these have revealed the potential for ‘linear power stations’ at suitable locations, such as where there is a high concentration of energy users.

Suitable locations such as residential areas might also benefit from tools designed to improve air quality and noise pollution.

Fresh thinking

The current barrier design competition being held by Highways England is a good example of some fresh thinking that could also stimulate further innovation.

At Ramboll, we have proposed a low-carbon barrier design that addresses not only noise reduction and power generation, but also the use of solar chimneys to improve air quality through the dispersion of pollutants.

Of course, the primary role of the road network is the movement of people and goods. As the vehicle fleet changes, much can be done to support and accelerate the pace of this change and deliver benefits to the environment.

For example, the stated ambition of Highways England to have electric charging points within 20 km of the strategic road network is the sort of intervention that would influence consumer behaviour.

As the characteristics of vehicles change, the design of highways will need to adapt. For instance, the different noise characteristics of a largely electric driven fleet may allow for the provision of integrated tuned noise solutions between road surface and noise barrier. Automated vehicles will bring further opportunities to exploit the road network differently.

Proactive traffic management

Increasingly, traffic on the network is managed in a proactive way through active traffic management. The need for the design of large numbers of supporting infrastructure gantries has driven a move towards automated design and increasingly the requirements of working in BIM environments bring opportunities.

Although active traffic management has to date been deployed for the benefit of the road user, there is more that could be done. Through ATM, use of the road space could be managed for the benefit of adjacent communities.

‘The hope is that the future will be considered more positively by both those living next to roads and those using them’

When there is less traffic, not all road space is needed and vehicles could be required to run in the furthermost lane from communities and/or with reduced speeds, decreasing noise and emissions.

Roads of the future will be designed to improve the experience of those travelling on roads, and of local communities, as shown by the Highways England Delivery Plan for a Design Review Panel.

The hope is that the ethos behind this can extend more widely into the highways sector and that, despite large volumes of traffic, roads in the future will be considered more positively by both those living next to them and those using them.

A construction industry prepared to think differently has a significant part to play in achieving this.

Simon Price is UK deputy managing director at Ramboll Environ

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