Overcoming hurdles to decarbonising the strategic road network

We need to overcome the hurdles to decarbonisation to make the strategic road network cleaner, greener and leaner, says Matt Tooby of Atkins.

We need to make our Strategic Road Network cleaner, greener and leaner, says Matt Tooby.

There’s a mismatch at the heart of Britain’s decarbonisation strategy. On the one hand, the UK has committed to a net zero target by 2050; on the other hand, traffic growth on Britain’s strategic road network (SRN) is forecast to grow by as much as 59% by 2050 alongside continuing investment in new significant road projects.

Our transport network, vital to economic prosperity and social connectivity, is also a major contributor to pollution, congestion and carbon dioxide emissions. The transport sector is the largest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions and road-vehicles contribute the vast amount of these emissions via their tailpipes. 

Given that the UK’s target of being carbon-neutral by 2050 is legally binding, and that dependence on the SRN is likely to increase, it is essential that we drastically improve its sustainability. 

So how can we improve our SRN, meet the target and enjoy cleaner roads?

Just as our road network is multifaceted, so too must be its decarbonisation. Firstly, the SRN needs to be at the heart of ensuring the most rapid possible transition to low emission vehicle ownership and usage. We’re already seeing headway in this, with Department for Transport encouraging and incentivising the development of electric vehicles. In its 2018 Road to Zero Strategy, the government stated an ambition to ensure that at least 50% (and as many as 70%) of new car sales be ultra-low emission by 2030, alongside up to 40% of new vans.

Reducing demand on the roads and making transport on tarmac more efficient requires a more intelligent and considered social structure. Marginal gains (such as ‘platooning’ lorries by using convoys to benefit from slipstreams) are important, but they pale in comparison to the power of wide scale social reorganisation.

Governments and highways agencies must work together to create clear policy and backing of specific technologies to give confidence to vehicles manufacturers and consumers; there is often a temptation to see ‘what next’ but this can cause confusion and slow take up of new technologies.

Secondly, we need to change our culture as SRN infrastructure designers and builders, so that decarbonisation is at the heart of every asset we design, deliver and operate. The contribution of new strategic road infrastructure to the overall carbon footprint of the network is minimal in comparison to vehicle tailpipe emissions. 

However, as designers, we have a role in ensuring that schemes are developed for their viability in terms of cost-effectiveness but also for their contribution to carbon emissions. Simplifying schemes to avoid large, complex structures, off-site manufacturing, low-carbon material choices and intelligent use of data capture capability should all be built-in.

Considering the longevity and design of materials that are being used, how they are maintained and disposed of will minimise the problem of carbon-intensive maintenance. In future, this must be considered from the outset of any road infrastructure project, to avoid wasteful end-of-lifecycle dumping. And this sort of sustainable thinking needs to be embedded throughout the supply chain. 

As long as we’re still using steel, concrete and cement, it will be impossible for the SRN asset to be completely carbon-free without carbon offsetting. We need to be looking at the most holistic approach (alongside biodiversity net gain ambitions) to maximise the potential benefits of this process. 

Thirdly, we shouldn’t be afraid of a more interventionist approach to more actively manage demand on the SRN, so that the system is used as efficiently as possible. This must take a system-of systems approach to ensure the SRN operates effectively alongside other transport modes.

The coronavirus pandemic has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to embed a ‘new normal’ to redefine the art of the possible and give us the confidence to recognise what bold, societal shifts can achieve in our battle to minimise impacts of climate change. The approach of governmental intervention directly into our lives to enforce the lockdown and social distancing measures could set a blueprint for more direct intervention in to other areas of our lives such as travel.

What’s more, the massive reductions in vehicle emissions as a result of the coronavirus lockdown measures have given people a sense of what a cleaner road network may mean for them. Now we need to take advantage and drive change to support this ‘new normal’. 

Such structural changes take time. We must also continue to think more holistically about how our urban centres relate to the SRN and affect our carbon footprint, this way we can make better decisions for a cleaner future. After all, it’s not much good decarbonising our SRN if the ‘final mile’ of freight involves 20 delivery trucks driving around inner city neighbourhoods. Only an integrated solution will work.

Decarbonising the SRN is a significant challenge. We share responsibility to make the infrastructure as sustainable as possible. The legislative drivers are already there, from the long-term Net Zero 2050 target to the immediate Road Investment Strategy 2 (2020-2025), which includes commitments to go ‘further and faster’ in the race to make ‘substantial reductions in road transport emissions’. 

Ultimately, it will be a challenging, long-term project with multifaceted problems. It’s a long road, but it’s time to start driving change. We have to act now.

Matt Tooby is client director, highways, with Atkins.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.