Making highways fit for the future

A new research project into future-proofing the UK’s road system has been launched by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT). It will help local government to drive much needed change, explains Neil Gibson

When it comes to our road network, local authorities are facing a very difficult challenge.

Our highway assets are deteriorating due to historic underinvestment with a backlog of repairs – and with more road users than ever before, demand on our road networks is increasing each year. All this comes at a time of increasing budget cuts which we can only expect to get bigger.

As the association with strategic responsibility for the vast majority of the country’s highways assets, we have to look at all ways of managing this asset both effectively and efficiently.

Taking a longer term view, we need to find ways of preventing damage occurring in the first place and future proof our highway networks. This will be more cost effective in the long run and ensure that we can provide good, usable roads for our communities.

By partnering with EY, Ringway and O2 our new research project ‘paving the way to future-proof road networks’ will explore how best to manage and future-proof our highways through a technology lens.

We want to examine how the implementation of technologies such as smart sensors that could monitor traffic flow, structural changes, air pollution and temperature monitoring could be accelerated for the construction, use, operation and maintenance of highways.

With better, real-time data on the condition of the highway, traffic trends and climate we will be able to optimise how we look after those assets. Given the climate of greater financial pressure, we need to explore realistic, cost-effective solutions not only for today’s issues, but for future demand.

Our research aims to build up a picture of best practice both here in the UK and abroad. More importantly, if this best practice is not mainstreamed here we need to understand why. By identifying the challenges we will have a better knowledge of what needs to be done to unblock barriers preventing the implementation of innovative technologies.

By exploring the question from the perspective of different organisations that have an interest in our highways, we will be able to build a wider picture of the issues and put forward solutions that work for everyone. This will include the viewpoints of vehicle manufacturers, road designers, those in the maintenance sector, professional institutions and academics.

Not only will the research benefit local authorities, it will allow construction companies to deliver a more connected service to their customers and enable the delivery of highway infrastructure to become more efficient. It will provide technology companies with an opportunity to access a new market and – most importantly – it will benefit the road users.

We need to be able to support and promote happy and healthy communities. Resilient infrastructure is fundamental to the economy and improved connectivity promotes growth by opening up new opportunities for investment, employment and education. Tackling air pollution is also critical and road congestion is a major threat to clean air but digital technology will allow us to reduce congestion.

Our research is just the beginning: once we have published our findings this summer we will reflect on the findings and consider a further phase of work which will focus on implementing our ideas for change.

The importance of new digital technologies on our road systems over the coming years cannot be underestimated and local authorities need to be at the forefront of implementing these digital solutions.

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