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Viewpoint | Designing for the future

David MacKenzie

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”.

This challenging statement, made famous in 1985, had many a civil engineer contemplating the future as they watched Professor Emmett Brown launch Marty McFly to November 2015. Although we don’t have time-travelling DeLoreans (in fact, we don’t have DeLoreans at all anymore), we should still be contemplating the future as we design our infrastructure to survive for at least the next hundred years.

The Royal Academy of Engineering released its report The transport congestion challenge – getting the most out of the UK’s road and rail networks also in November 2015.  This compelling document looks at the short and medium term options that offer the greatest potential for reducing congestion before 2030. But are we able to consider the longer term options?

While I was involved in the significant exercise of designing the strengthening of the Severn Bridge in 1985, I was curious as to what went through the designers’ minds when they planned the design of the bridge 30 years earlier.  Could they have considered the changes to traffic and the increase of freight on the roads in particular? Could they have done me out of a fascinating job? Fast forward 30 years, and we now have two bridges to deal with the congestion.

We know the answer is not simply to keep building more and more bridges and tunnels – that’s not sustainable. We must think more carefully about the capacity and the timing of how infrastructure is and will be used. We are using smarter road pricing models to spread the load, but in a society of rapidly accelerating technology, how do we successfully predict our needs for the future and how do we get better agreement?

Time-travelling DeLoreans and hover boards aside, there is a huge potential for driverless vehicles that offer opportunities for better use of our networks, greater shared ownership and a reduction in carbon emissions. We must also consider the driverless truck in that equation. We could have the ability to improve the delivery of goods by using the road as an effective railway, with trucks being safely sent in convoy – nose to tail.

So are we also taking the steps to consider the impact on loading and fatigue to safeguard our new structures or will our mindset always be to repair and replace, expensive as it is?

We can look further with the development of concepts such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and its low pressure tunnels – should we be considering making allowances for these technologies now? And if so, which one do we bet on? Anyone remember Betamax?

It’s difficult to frame the problem in just a few hundred words, let alone try and answer it. So the challenge is: are we doing enough with our infrastructure to consider how we get back to a future we want?

● David MacKenzie is chief executive of Flint & Neill.  From 1 January 2017, Flint & Neill becomes Cowi

In association with Flint & Neill

Flint neill logo large

Flint neill logo large

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