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Blazing a Trail to Efficient Road Networks

22 July 2010




Faster, greener and more economical roads are essential to our future road networks. Frances Penwill-Cook finds out what changes to expect in road infrastructure and technology as we head towards 2020.


The consequences of overpopulation, climate change and the economic crisis have all taken their toll on our road networks. This has meant that decisions from road authorities surrounding the development of road infrastructure and technology are increasingly concerned with sustainability (both environmental and economic), safety and mobility in both advanced and developing countries.

Financing road development

Although there are many road projects requiring development all over the world, as a direct result of the global financial crisis, budget deficits and cuts have caused investment to fall under intense pressure.

"The private finance market has tightened and governments, initially supporting their economies with stimulus programmes, are now facing growing fiscal constraints," explains a spokesperson for the International Road Federation. Despite this, the IRF says that investment funds are slowly filling up and there is new willingness to invest in economically viable road infrastructure projects, many of these with green procurement requirements.

"Green procurement requirements for road infrastructure projects are in place in several countries (including Austria, the UK and the Netherlands) and are challenging the road industry to invest in clean technologies and materials and to reduce its carbon footprint," according to the IRF.

"Governments, initially supporting their economies with stimulus programmes, are now facing growing fiscal constraints."

The infrastructure challenge

According to Frances Harrison, chief technical officer at Spy Pond Partners and a member of the Transportation Research Board's Information Systems and Technology Committee, aging infrastructure is the main challenge for most developed road networks and is where most investment could be directed.

"Given aging infrastructure, the current fiscal picture and current environmental concerns, major focus areas are rehabilitation and the replacement of existing roads and bridges," she says, referring to the I-35 bridge failure in Minnesota and closure of the Lake Champlain Bridge connecting New York and Vermont as a recent reminder of the implications of aging infrastructure.

The two roadways on this bridge were reduced to one in October 2009 due to structural problems that could have led to a collapse. The bridge was used by 3,400 drivers a day, but it was demolished shortly after closure to make way for a new bridge structure.

"On the rehab / replacement front, there are a number of notable large projects planned or in progress," says Harrison, giving California's eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge, Washington's Alaskan Way Viaduct and Missouri's "safe and sound" bridge programme as some examples of those that have managed to secure the required investment and are proceeding with development.

Developing countries' crisis

For road investment in developing countries, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has established three strategic agendas to guide its work up to 2020: economic growth, sustainable growth and regional integration – and the sustainable transport initiative (STI) released in May 2010 states that better transport is common to each agenda.

"Green procurement requirements for road infrastructure projects are in place in several countries."

From 2005 to 2008, ADB projects provided 1,400km of expressways and 39,100km of national highways and provincial, district, and rural roads, benefiting an estimated 422 million people through its STI.

The STI defines a sustainable transport system as one that is accessible, safe, environmentally friendly and affordable. Over the past few years ADB investment and lending into transport projects has gradually increased, and $2.3bn was invested in 22 projects in 2009.

So what road networks can we see developing with ADB investment between now and 2020?

"Generally, the road projects, from national trunk roads to tertiary rural roads, share over 70% of ADB investment to the transport sector in ADB developing member countries (DMCs)," says Hiroaki Yamaguchi, a principal transport specialist at the ADB. "This reflects the countries' emphasis on road development, and will continue to keep a major share of ADB transport sector investments."

Although lending to urban transport has been limited, it is expected to increase in the future due to demand from DMCs for rapid bus systems and improvements in road safety. Overall the ADB are paying attention to social inclusiveness, road safety, environmental and financial sustainability, and regional cooperation and integration

A global congestion crisis

A major problem common to road networks in both advanced and developing countries is congestion. According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), part of the US Department of Transportation, in 2009 a traffic accident occurred every five seconds in the US – and, according to the ADB, out of an estimated 1.18 million deaths and injuries caused by road accidents each year around 60% occur in Asia. These high accident rates reflect increasing traffic, locked traffic flow and the failure of our road infrastructure to cope.

"A major problem common to road networks in both advanced and developing countries is congestion."

Technology to increase traffic flow

The advancement of real-time technology and intelligent transport systems provides a possible solution to these ever-increasing problems. For Hazar Dib, assistant professor at Purdue University and Transportation Research Board member, technology must deal with the problem of congestion to have any chance at success.

"I believe any new technology, for it to be successful, has to deal with the congestion on the roads," says Dib, who believes that cars can't just be replaced with public transport and that the human relationship with cars must be researched and understood.

"Cars are not just a method of transportation from point A to B, the question is why people drive," he says.

"To solve the issue of congestion on the road you need to offer information to the drivers and smart cars in order to allow for smart decisions and optimum choice of optimum route via 'communication technologies'," he explains. In terms of these communication technologies, Dib believes "remote sensing coupled with information management" will enable the driver to determine the least congested and best route based on driver preference.

Vehicle-to-vehicle and roadway-to-vehicle

In terms of what technology is anticipated to be successful, Frances Harrison explains that transport departments are looking for ways to incorporate technology that will help facilities last longer and be easier to maintain. Harrison believes the Intellidrive research programme is the "one to watch".

This will replace the existing vehicle infrastructure integration (VII) programme in the US to provide a national communications infrastructure for vehicle-to-vehicle and roadway-to-vehicle information exchanges. The Intellidrive programme aims to provide greater safety through a significant reduction in crashes (crashes are the leading cause of death for people aged between three and 34 in the US), increased mobility (US highway users wasted 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic in 2007 – nearly one full work week for every traveller) and a reduced environmental impact (fuel wasted in traffic congestion topped 2.8 billion gallons in 2007 – three weeks worth for every traveller).

"Road construction by itself will no longer solve the problems faced on our road networks."

Christoph Stiller, editor of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) ITS magazine, believes it is vehicle-to-vehicle communications that will come first and lead the way for vehicle communication with infrastructure.

"This technology will in turn drive investments in communication on the infrastructure side of things – with traffic lights, roadside sensors, and traffic signs at larger intersections," he says, explaining how signals to drivers about traffic light timings and priority drivers will regulate traffic flow and reduce accidents.

"The IEEE is fostering standardisation of such messages in order to gain the maximum efficiency and safety benefits on an international level for vehicles from all manufacturers," Stiller adds.

The hills ahead

If communication technologies are to have the future impact on our road networks they have the potential to, then standardisation is a key issue to be overcome says James P Hall, associate professor in the department of management information systems at the University of Illinois Springfield and TRB member. He believes that there are a range of problems relating to the human element, connected to "psychological factors of more reckless driving" as reliance on vehicle decision-making increases. "For example, the use of gates and lights at rail crossings has resulted in more carelessness at less protected crossings – not looking for trains for example," he says. He also points out issues relating to driver distractions once more information is being communicated.

As environmental and economic world crises peak to combine with safety and mobility problems on our road networks, a different approach to road development, in both advanced and developing countries, has never been more necessary. As the number of drivers increases and accidents soar, road construction by itself will no longer solve the problems faced on our road networks.

Communication technologies, via vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure, offer hope for a more sustainable and safer future – but, of course, not without obstacles. One thing is certain though and that is that the role of these technologies is on the rise and now, in the words of the IRF, are "a tool for governments to mitigate negative environmental impacts, reduce accidents and to battle congestion".

Traffic jam in Los Angeles, 1953. The consequences of overpopulation, climate change and the economic crisis have all taken their toll on our road networks.
A traffic jam in the Himalayas, Garhwal Hills, Uttarakhand, India. Although there are many road projects requiring development all over the world, as a direct result of the global financial crisis, budget deficits and cuts have caused investment to fall under intense pressure.
The ADB's headquarters in Manila. ADB has established three strategic agendas to guide its work up to 2020: economic growth, sustainable growth and regional integration – and the sustainable transport initiative (STI) released in May 2010 states that better transport is common to each agenda.