From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Macroergonomics and Forever Open Roads

The quest for human-centered solutions characterizes two visionary European road-building initiatives that are under way in 2009. The psychological needs of byway users of the future are central to the deliberations, and “macro” thinking appears to underpin the goals of the second of the two projects.

Developers of the Forever Open Road project, headed by the Transport Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom and its counterparts in Europe, hope to develop roads that are never potholed and never cause traffic delays: the surfaces clean and repair themselves. The technology, already in use in some paints, is expected to cut the amount of time roads have to be shut down for maintenance. 

A recent poll by Britain’s Automobile Association in November found that road works were the most annoying road feature for drivers after speed humps. Another poll places the annoyance of delays from road works only slightly behind tailgating drivers. Irritation distracts, and distraction is a risk factor on roads. If the concept is realized, no-maintenance roads promise safer roads.

The quest for self-maintaining roads has been around for some time. Engineers of the past have been able to take the idea some of the way by cambering roads to control drainage, which helps guard against erosion and potholing. The engineers of so-called “fifth generation roads,” the name given to the Forever Open byways by The Scotsman newspaper, are adding futuristic materials to the concept of reducing risk. The new-era roads will allow water and detritus to drain away naturally. Anti-skid properties will keep drivers safer at the same time the reduction in distractions from potholes and repairs will help them keep their minds on the road.

The green credentials of the next-generation roads are also high. Surfaces will collect the power of the sun’s rays to re-use as solar energy. Underground heat exchangers will use the power to keep the road at a constant temperature, preventing cracks caused by water freezing and expanding. The systems could also supply street lights and signs with cheap energy. Additional features include communications equipment buried below the surface for next-generation satellite navigation and traffic information for drivers.

The newspaper points out that once realized, these high-tech, self-maintaining roads will be a part of a continuum that started in ancient times with crude cart tracks and bridle trails. The cobbled roads of the ancient Romans were next,  and these have given way in more recent times to smooth concrete and bitumen surfaces. Forever Open developers say their concept could be adapted to different terrain and climates across the world and could be used for everything from minor roads to arterial routes.

The second initiative of note for its declared human-centeredness is the Central European Research in Transportation Infrastructure Project. Its long view envisions no loss of popularity for individual solutions and demands. Then, as now, the report says, everyone will enjoy driving a car but not want to pay the price: nobody will want to see a road, hear the traffic or smell exhaust fumes.

The report is book-length, an indication of the scope of both the project and the vision. Supported by the Sixth Framework Programme of the European Union, it has been under way since 2003 and looks ahead to 2040. The project motto“Towards reliable, green, safe and smart and human infrastructure in Europe”proclaims its intentions.

Like the Forever Open project, it aims for unimpeded road travel in the future, but it doesn’t foresee no-maintenance and self-repairing roads. “Fast, hindrance-free maintenance techniques must be developed,” the report emphasizes, and it advocates upgrading the quality of construction to achieve that goal. New technologies will allow maintenance works even under bad weather conditions, the report states, “consequently [reducing] traffic congestion by extending possible maintenance seasons. This is to reduce down time for road work caused by bad weather.”

Engineers are researching technologies aimed at reducing negative aspects of travel apart from down time and delays caused by road works. Projects within the larger initiative strive to reduce traffic noise and pollution and improve road safety. A chemical in road surfaces, TiO2, will acts as an air purifier, for example. And the “safer and smarter infrastructure” of the future, according to the report, will include “the use of infra-red technology to improve drivers’ vision under bad weather conditions.” The thinkers also envision designing complex urban environments in a way that improves road safety.

Human Infrastructure

The macroergonomics community could be gratified by the degree to which the project is considering the whole picture. As envisioned, roads will be developed to complement life in the communities through which they pass. Many of the measures to reduce the negative aspects of travel on roadway users can be used to reduce the same problems in areas contiguous to the roads.

The report explores ways of designing road infrastructure so it supports public security. “Although visibility and surveyability are the most important aspects,” it states, “other human senses also play a role in our perception of public security. A barrage of noise and polluted air outside our doors holds no prospect of an enjoyable sortie into public spaces. Developments in design and configuration are required to reduce the negative impacts of traffic. Citizens want their streets back to upgrade their social activities in their living surroundings. They are tired of their living space being invaded by polluting cars and trucks speeding by."

Multi-purpose design is also a goal. “The main characteristics of this concept are multi-functionality and multi-use of the space occupied by infrastructure,” according to the report. “Human infrastructure offers the main categories of road user the elementary facilities which guarantee social security. The main points are sharing the space with non-road users for leisure, etc. and exploring the space above and below the road surface to facilitate other socially relevant functions (transport and non transport-related). Human infrastructure stands for harmonizing infrastructure with the human dimensions.”

The report notes that public security in public spaces will be needed to persuade road users and others to make full use of the future infrastructure. It recommends paying special attention to the most vulnerable users of roads and public spaces – pedestrians, cyclists, people with disabilities, people with reduced mobility, old people and children. “In general,” the report says, “well-designed and recognisable configurations of public spaces will inspire confidence in public security. Besides separating the vulnerable road users from motorists, a clear and open design will promote a sense of well-being.The report recommends the development of intelligent lighting systems, such as infrared systems, that switch on lighting when people are in the vicinity.

The idea of co-design also underpins this project. Its developers want to see the highest participation of users and residents.

Sources: The Scotsman; Transport Research Laboratory; Central European Research in Transportation Infrastructure project


This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-11-24.