Roads are the arteries of our cities, pumping life to and from the heart. While most of us experience roads on a daily basis, whether via car, bus, bicycle or foot, we often don’t give much, if any, thought to how they’re designed. If we did, we’d realise that the roads we take for granted actually required extensive thought, not just about how to best serve a population today, but how needs might change going forward. Safe and efficient movement is no simple feat and town planners, transport engineers and contractors work tirelessly to ensure all the important parts are working together. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the people who use the roads don’t give them another thought.
We sat down with civil engineer and transport engineering specialist, Richard Laborn. As Lithon’s head of transportation, he gave us the nitty-gritty on what goes into creating these arteries and how to keep them safe, efficient and fit-for-purpose and the future. We uncovered five surprising facts.
Roads have hierarchies and transport engineers design them accordingly. From national highways designed for high volume and high-speed travel to small winding country roads and even dirt roads, each road must be meticulously prepared with the exact foundation that’ll support the volume, weight and speed it’s designed to carry. What we see is the black bitumen surface, or smooth gravel, but the foundations underneath a road (usually consisting of multiple layers) can be substantially thick.
Because a transport engineer’s final product carries countless people, at speed, daily, their key focus is safety and driving comfort. These engineers spend hours on end thinking about how to prevent loss of life and on top of that, how to best facilitate efficient travel (shortest travel time and minimised traffic jams), all while meeting landscape and budgetary constraints.
Roads act as an economic stimulus in city spaces. As people are more easily able to travel from one place to another, their ability to trade goods and services to new areas increases. New commercial and residential developments often spring up alongside new roads too. Roads are often the first infrastructure provided in a new area, with other bulk infrastructure, and then human settlement to follow.
The primary task of a transport engineer is to foresee potential problems and strategise solutions to overcome them. A transport engineer’s first challenge is often the natural constraints of the landscape. Does the road travel across a river, or over a mountain? Perhaps it travels over other physical obstacles too. These situations can present interesting challenges that transport engineers relish!
When Lithon designed the Husab Mine road, we were challenged with rocky terrain and building a bridge within the confines of a riverine landscape. While the pre feasibility study we did looking into the upgrading of the Aussenkehr to Rosh Pinah road, required us to consider the possibility of flooding by the Oranje River. Richard’s advice is for road engineers to work WITH the landscape and not against it – this means sometimes making a slower, more scenic drive, instead of bulldozing a hole through a mountain. The plus side is that natural vegetation (which is sometimes indigenous and protected) and the quality of the place is retained.
Transport engineering also includes the traffic lights and signage that help us navigate along and across roads. This specialised sector of transport engineering involves a lot of psychology, explains Richard. Accidents can happen in areas where signage is unclear or overcrowded, so minimising confusion is a MUST. “If the turn-off you pull up at looks like a Christmas tree [because it’s so full of colourful signs or traffic lights], you should be extra alert!” he advises. There is also much more than just vehicular traffic to consider. Engineers need to prioritise ever-increasing demand for pedestrian movement, school children. and non-motorised transport. Their job is to ensure that everyone can get where they’re going safely, efficiently, and without any confusion.
Roads are very expensive, costing millions of Namibian dollars per kilometre depending on the size of the road. Transport engineers bring in specialists to help calculate the return on investment of a road project, and Richard explains that the technical side of road design is sometimes less challenging compared to working out the financial stakes! Often budgetary constraints lead to having to make tradeoffs with road size, materials, and more. Transport engineers do their best to make sure everything works out for the good in the end, despite the challenges.
Lithon’s transportation team offers high-level expertise for the design and construction of safe and efficient roads. We have a track record that speaks for itself! Get in touch with us for advice on your next project email@example.com.
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