When is a road not a road

Roads have been in existence for the duration of human history, originating from animal tracks, through stone roads, smooth roads surfaced with tarmac and eventually modern roads, motorways and ‘smart’ roads containing ICT.

We all therefore are extremely familiar with what a road is and what is used for; it is a surface on which vehicles can travel, and a means with which people and goods are conveyed. Of course, that is its primary function, but not its only one. Most roads contain a significant amount of utilities; gas and water mains, electricity cables, surface drains and sewers, telephone and broadband cables. The quantity of utilities in urban areas is brought into sharp focus when tram routes are constructed, another occasion when a road is used for an additional purpose, and quiet suburban roads are often areas where children play or ride their bikes. A lot of the time, a reasonable proportion of a road’s surface in urban areas is used for car parking.

There are some high profile examples of people envisioning other uses for roads, such as means of generating electricity through the incorporation of solar panels, or capturing heat from integrated pipes. Others have looked at the potential of integrating cables for wireless charging of vehicles.

If we then think not of what we think a road is, but what it could be, then we begin to see the potential for other opportunities in various areas. With constrained budgets across all government departments, could we look to integrate various functions with part of the road or wider transport network. Could certain roads be constructed as means of flood defence or used to store excess rainfall for later use?

If accepting that the road network, in urban areas at least, will be used to convey pipes, cables and drains, then why not design it as such, with conduits or easily removable surfaces (research in this area has been undertaken) at least for new developments, or when utility diversions are required.

With future transport concepts such as autonomous driving and trends towards an electric vehicle fleet and smart, connected cities, the role of the road might become increasingly important as an integrated, intelligent and connected part of a wider system.