We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. 

Our transport networks and infrastructure are under pressure like never before, with the impacts of climate change, urban growth, technology, congestion and a global pandemic all conspiring to turn traditional models on their head. As people’s behaviours and preferred modes of transportation are changing, so too is the urgency to respond in the design, operation and maintenance of our roads.

True road operations and maintenance, when done well, is more than just filling potholes and clearing drains, it’s about getting the absolute most out of our transport systems. It’s about ensuring our networks are fit for purpose for the demands of today, and future proofed for the anticipated demands of tomorrow.

Our spending on new (and still not very ‘smart’) roads is significantly higher than on operations and maintenance, and yet at times it’s almost as if we keep laying down more of the same and expecting different results. We need to be thinking about how to make our roads more efficient, more effective, and up to the sustainable and intelligent standards they need to be.

Fast, accurate and accessible data capture and analysis, and the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) to integrate and make use of it, will be a fundamental part of the solution. And by and large, the sensors, tools and systems we need to revolutionise our transport networks all already exist.

Real-time data is enabling us to better predict when faults are likely to occur, measure likely impacts and put the right solutions in place to get the network functioning properly as soon as possible afterwards. Digital network and asset models are enabling decision makers and non-technical stakeholders alike to attain a phenomenal level of insight and ability to engage with complex projects, in a safe and interactive virtual environment. Huge advances in artificial intelligence, automation, sensor, camera, GPS and LIDAR technologies are seeing us accelerate on the path to a driverless future.

There is so much potential in this space, and it’s great to see the developments moving ahead in leaps and bounds around the globe. However, in Australia we’re not quite there yet – it’s almost as if we’re dipping our toes in, when really we need to jump in at the deep end. Take the M1 and M4 ‘smart’ motorways in Sydney - these are a fantastic start and a step in the right direction, but the infrastructure is still some way off from the innovation in motorway management you can see in the UK and Europe.

Our current and traditional transport networks are geared to cars, and often our lifestyles are resulting in single occupancy trips, in mostly four-person vehicles. This is simply not sustainable. Our roads can’t keep getting wider, and our cities can’t keep choking from the exhaust and inefficiencies of personal car use. Our networks need to provide for all users, and it’s time to rethink the road space and enable the operators to reshape the road network. 

What we should be doing is actively planning and preparing for the future by incorporating data technologies and ITS from the ground up, as foundational building blocks in our infrastructure design – and that’s true both for new infrastructure, and for design processes to transform our current assets. 

Every cloud has its silver lining

Perhaps the great catalyst for change will come out from under the cloud of catastrophe. With COVID-19, we experienced a sharp and decisive shift in people’s behaviours almost overnight as a result of lockdown measures. As workplace commutes and school drop offs stopped, we saw a corresponding uptake of more active transport modes like walking and cycling, and less public transport and private car use. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Imagery sourced from Auckland Council.

With fewer vehicles, has come greater opportunity for repurposing of space – taking from the car and giving back to the people. Governments and road agencies have quickly reacted to changes in customer needs with new ‘pop-up’ cycleways, wider footpaths accommodating new social-distancing regimes, and city and town centres closed off to vehicles. 

In Melbourne, Victoria, there are plans to remove inner-city carpark spaces and shut down roads to accommodate outdoor events, entertainment and alfresco dining. While ‘tactical urbanism’ plans may have been underway for some time (see pictured changes to the Auckland, New Zealand CBD), the rapid changes we’re seeing may never have happened prior to COVID-19.

Lower traffic volumes have led to less network priority given to cars and trucks, such as in green time at traffic lights, and more priority given to pedestrians and cyclists. Fewer vehicles and higher tolerance to restricted movements on the network, has also provided opportunities for many councils and infrastructure owners to increase road maintenance works – with benefits to the roads and infrastructure and also to stimulating the economy more broadly. 

Once the world returns to normality - and it will happen - what happens to these temporary ‘pop-up’ solutions? Do they become more permanent fixtures? Or will they be removed from the network and we fall back into old habits?

The time is now to futureproof our road network

We have a fantastic opportunity here to (re)consider our approach to futureproofing the road network. As we’ve seen first-hand, when the needs of the transport network user changes, so too does the need for the operator to adapt and change how the network is maintained and operated. There is a role for network owners and operators to change the way maintenance contracts are designed and awarded, and to question current maintenance and new build activities. 

We should see significant investment in integrating technology into the network, and recognition of the wider array of multi-modal forms of transport, such as scooters, bikes and e-bikes; incorporating last-mile solutions into the end-to-end user journey. ITS and data corridors will need to be retrofitted or activated when the time comes for driverless vehicles. With advances in technology and the roll-out of ever more intelligent sensors and systems, it is likely that line marking, road furniture and signage will be significantly reduced in number – as simply unnecessary in a smarter, more automated future. Will we even still need the safe systems approach?

With change comes opportunity 

We can’t predict the future, but we can steer it. We know opportunities to review and reset transportation come very rarely, and COVID-19 has given us all that opportunity we needed. We have the chance to really switch things up, and to give network priority to those who are contributing to the solution, rather than those who are causing the problems.

We have to question current maintenance versus new build activities – and the need to keep expanding the network capacity because we’ve always believed that more people need more roads. Of course we need new roads when the situation warrants it, but what we should focus on is optimising our existing infrastructure – as that’s what will deliver the most value and make the greatest impact for the future. 

The transport landscape is fundamentally shifting and evolving, and we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. Now is the time to right the wrongs of our past, and properly fund our existing transport networks, so we can best design, operate and maintain our roads for the needs of tomorrow. 

So, what are you going to change?