Why we must learn from the past and fund the future to deliver solutions for road surfaces

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In this feature, a road surface expert from the UK’s Transportation Research Laboratory (TRL) takes a close look at the complex challenges road surface engineers face in developing solutions to improve the quality of the UK’s road network. 

The first thing most people think of when considering the challenges for road surfaces would be the infamous pothole. In fact, while it is essential to repair potholes to keep road users safe, they are merely a symptom of the many underlying causes that effect the quality of a road’s surface.

When it comes to solving the pothole crisis in the UK, experts at TRL suggest that treating these defects is simply not enough. Potholes are a symptom of road surfaces that are not fit for purpose because of the changes transportation has endured over the years and most importantly, due to a lack of funding.

The first thing most people think of when considering the challenges for road surfaces would be the infamous pothole. In fact, while it is essential to repair potholes to keep road users safe, they are merely a symptom of the many underlying causes that effect the quality of a road’s surface.

When it comes to solving the pothole crisis in the UK, experts at TRL suggest that treating these defects is simply not enough. Potholes are a symptom of road surfaces that are not fit for purpose because of the changes transport has endured over the years and most importantly, due to a lack of funding.

Many factors come into play when identifying the real cause of poor-quality road surfaces in the modern world. Increasing populations, growing numbers of vehicles on the road, rising consumer demand and the strain on the freight sector with the advent of online delivery services have all had a major impact on the durability of roads due to increasingly frequent use.

Consider the arrival of GPS; this innovative technology has made it easier for road users to navigate UK infrastructure, while in turn, it has resulted in the overloading of road surfaces with heavy traffic flows and heavy vehicles utilizing routes that may not have seen these levels of traffic previously or may not have been designed for this type of use to begin with.

Treating the cause, not the symptom

To lay a solid foundation for the UK infrastructure, and prepare road surfaces for the future, a focused engineering strategy is needed in the approach to potholes. Engineers and authorities must look at solving the causes of potholes, rather than treating the symptom.

Well-engineered, regularly maintained road surfaces and the use of quality materials is the only real way to defeat the notorious pothole. Strategies that focus on proper maintenance of road surfaces before they deteriorate would prevent a huge number of defects seen on our roads.

Sealing, strengthening and renewing road surfaces are the most important ways that defects can be minimized through preventative maintenance. These may seem like disruptive and expensive measures, but in terms of whole life cost they could eradicate potholes and prove more cost effective.

Challenges with new technologies

Modifying road surfaces to accommodate connected and automated vehicles presents a variety of challenges for the future. Installing sensors throughout the network will be the first hurdle. Roads may also become burdened with increasing wear and strain if connected vehicles all follow a set singular path.

Ultimately, the main challenge for engineers and authorities has remained the same since the 1800s, producing longer lasting, more durable road surfaces.

The industry is currently developing and trialling a range of new surface materials to provide longer lasting roads. The latest innovation gaining attention is the ‘plastic road’. Surprisingly, the amount of plastic in this form of modified bitumen represents less than 0.5% of the mixture.

While the use of modified bitumen is not a new concept, it is concerning that there are currently no standards and specifications surrounding bitumen modified with plastic. More troubling perhaps are the issues of what happens to the plastic waste biproducts when these surfaces deteriorate. The implications to the environment and surrounding ecosystems should be studied more widely before these surfaces are rolled out nationally.

The road to the future is paved with lessons from the past

An influential 19th century Scottish engineer and road builder, John Loudon Macadam, advocated that roads need to be properly maintained and funded. This sentiment rings ever true in today’s modern world. With the increasing changes and challenges we face in planning the future of transportation, there is a growing need for advanced engineering, proper maintenance and increased funding to ensure our infrastructure is fit for purpose.

TRL has been working alongside Transport Scotland to develop a cutting-edge new surface course material. The material, known as TS2010, has the potential to last for 20 years, twice as long as many materials currently used throughout the industry, effectively doubling the life expectancy of UK road surfaces.

Introduced in November 2010, TS2010 has been through extensive development and is now well into the assessment phase. Annual visual assessments indicate the material will last twice as long as materials previously used on Scottish trunk roads.

Maintaining the UK’s extensive road network is vital for the future of transportation. There are rapid changes ahead for the transportation sector with the arrival of connected and automated vehicles and electric and ultra-low emission technologies set to change the face of UK infrastructure.

Now more than ever it is increasingly important to develop a focused engineering strategy for the future and adopt strong policies to maintain and strengthen the foundations of the UK’s road network. Advances in technology are set to change the face of transportation, making it crucial to innovate road engineering principles and practices to ensure the UK’s infrastructure is fit for purpose.

To find out more about this ground-breaking research, visit the TRL site.

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About Author

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Rachelle joined Traffic Technology International in early 2016 after having worked for an HR magazine and prior to that, as a freelance sub editor for various lifestyle consumer magazines. As deputy editor, she supports the editor in making each issue and updating the website. Outside of work, she enjoys tap dancing, playing the piano and video games, and eating spicy food.

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