Rethinking road infrastructure for a more sustainable future

John Rammutla, Associate: Highways, Transport & Infrastructure, WSP Africa

The planet is warming up at its fastest pace in history. Securing a world that can support life now and future generations requires global concerted efforts in tackling the urgent challenge of climate change. Africa with its population of approximately 1.5 billion people – around 17% of the global population – is responsible for less than 4% of the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions but find itself on the front lines of the impact of climate change. 

Photo by John O’Nolan on Unsplash

The continent is already contending with more frequent climate-related disasters, hotter weather, erratic rainfall, and rising sea levels, all of which bring human tragedy, economic disruption, and social upheaval. Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions demands decarbonisation efforts across all sectors, including the transportation sector. 

The transportation sector is considered a significant contributor to global CO2 emissions, being responsible for between 10-15% of all global emissions (and 25% of global fuel combustion emissions) and making it the second highest sector contributor to climate change. 

South Africa and the rest of Africa, like most parts of the world, faces a difficult journey to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. One of the interventions that can contribute to reaching these goals is adoption of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS). This will help revolutionise road networks to be more climate resilient and decarbonised by design.

Think of ITS as an advanced application that provides users with access to innovative services that relates to transport and traffic management. Fundamentally, ITS is not about ripping and replacing what has already been put in place. Rather, it is gaining the ability to adapt existing networks to either facilitate less movement or to enable more efficient movement of people and goods.

John Rammutla, Associate: Highways, Transport & Infrastructure, WSP Africa
John Rammutla, Associate: Highways, Transport & Infrastructure, WSP Africa

Accomplishing this will require a shift towards public and active transportation modes while moving away from individual and personal road transportation. In South Africa, where people still insist on using their own transportation to get from Point A to Point B, this is definitely a tricky proposition although not an impossible one to achieve.

Roads will always be an integral cog in the transportation chain here and other countries. To move on the path of net zero emissions, entails thinking differently when it comes to how roads are used. This is where the concept of ITS comes in.

ITS has evolved into a sophisticated systems approach, providing numerous opportunities to revolutionise road networks, delivering transformation that influences travel patterns and demand. Furthermore, an ITS can help reduce congestion, facilitate more efficient planning, and pave the way for greener mobility – all key aspects when it comes to moving closer to reaching the global net zero target.

Construction innovation 

Adapting to ITS begins by focusing on road infrastructure construction. This encompasses many historically high energy activities including everything from mining borrow material to the manufacturing of cement for road infrastructure structures. South Africa’s historic isolation, when combined with the need for an advanced road infrastructure to support the economy, resulted in local engineers developing customised road design and construction technologies that are viewed as innovative globally.

This created an environment where naturally available materials, of which South Africa has an abundance of, have been used to develop road infrastructure. Additionally, recycling existing road materials, and the use of so-called deeply balanced pavement structures, have contributed to the development of an extensive road network at a fraction of what it would cost in most developed countries.

Unfortunately, road funding faces significant competition from other social requirements such as health and welfare. Invariably, this has seen a relative slow uptake of technology innovation by road authorities. Despite this, mass-transit systems, electric vehicles, and asset management systems, when combined with ITS, can alleviate some of the poor road conditions that all road users experience. By alleviating congestion, improving safety, and optimising maintenance needs and planning, a more environmentally friendly road infrastructure can be developed.

Carbon reduction focus

Currently, road transportation activities and operations account for approximately 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the country. It stands to reason that evolving this sector to leverage ITS more effectively can result in a significant contribution towards South Africa’s net zero drive.

It is specifically in road design and construction where emphasis has been placed on the recycling and re-using of materials in addition to adopting non-carbon intensive materials. Furthermore, the concept of multi-purpose road usage will bring significant benefits. This sees roads used as communication corridors, social and recreation facilities, overhead mass-transit systems, underground pipeline and services, and the like.

Partnership approach

Government cannot accomplish this on its own. It is critical for engineering and construction service providers to work closely with municipalities and regional partners to develop strategies for how transport needs can be met. In this way, existing infrastructure can be used smarter as opposed to continually building new roads.

Part of this entails evaluating existing infrastructure and identifying opportunities to upgrade and refurbish. A basic principle is that assets should be optimised from a whole life service perspective, promoting renovation, and be retrofitted. The drive towards net zero emissions is one where decarbonisation becomes a focal point.

With roads continuing to play a vital role for South African society, more attention must be placed on how to harness its positive contributions towards mobility. Roads contribute to the economy and societal development. By adapting existing road networks for a more sustainable future, ITS can unlock significant growth while also contributing towards reducing the carbon footprint of transportation.

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