Time to upgrade our highways

15th June 2016
Jordan Mulcare

South Korea has created what has been hailed as the first true smart city. The city of Songdo has been built from scratch on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land near the country’s capital, Seoul, and provides residential, commercial and retail services with an “unrivalled smart infrastructure”. This sets a high standard for the smart city movement and raises questions about how much retrofitting existing cities need to do to keep up. Here, Nick Cowley, managing director of MCL Group Industries, explores how our highway infrastructure in particular needs close attention.

It has been predicted that 66% of the world’s population will be living in urban environments by 2050. That’s roughly 6.4bn people, almost double the 3.9bn currently inhabiting urban areas. When viewed in this context, the move towards smart cities make a lot of sense. Smarter living will help reduce energy consumption, cut operational costs and help take some pressure off the already stretched infrastructure.

Upgrade for interoperability

The smart city concept is founded on interoperability. The idea is that when everything is connected and working together it becomes easier and cheaper to manage healthcare, public services and transport. However, such interoperability relies on having the right foundations in place. Data needs to flow freely across various technologies, including lighting and transportation. As it stands the UK's broadband and telecommunications infrastructure is outdated, significant infrastructure upgrades are needed to transport such large amounts of raw data, not to mention the fact that all of this needs to be scalable to allow for future growth.

When it comes to smart transportation, the infrastructure needs to enable real time information transfer on road hazards or traffic congestion. This will help reduce CO2 emissions, support live traffic updates and help drivers find available parking and electric vehicle charging. With global urban mobility demand set to grow by 68% by 2050, a rate that is predicted to increase by a further 50% subsequently, getting this right is vital.

This is easy to accomplish when you build a smart city from the ground up, but how do we bring existing infrastructure into the smart city era?

Being smart about transport

Amsterdam and Singapore are proving that with some innovative thinking and determination it is possible to upgrade. Singapore wired an entire precinct in 2015, connecting everything from traffic to streetlights, as a test-bed for a smart city upgrade. In Amsterdam, the three organisations that manage the city’s roads have been brought together into a single system that is connected to the national government to better optimise traffic flow.

In the UK, Bristol launched a multi-million pound experiment to create the smart city of the future. Bristol is Open aims to explore how big data can solve problems like pollution and traffic congestion. However, this project requires a 30 gigabit per second fibre broadband network, not to mention an array of sensors.

The need for these kinds of upgrades to support a smarter future is necessitating road works across the UK’s highways. Upgrade works are beginning to take place against a backdrop of more stringent congestion controls, with the Department for Transport (DfT) recently proposing plans to fine utilities companies and councils up to £5,000 a day for leaving roadworks unmanned at evenings and weekends.

Between navigating upgrades, congestion issues and ensuring new sensors and wiring remain accessible for future scalability and maintenance, it could be a tricky process to get smart transport rolling in the UK. To support local authorities and help them achieve their smart city visions, MCL Group Industries has developed composite RapidSTACK highways communication access chambers that can negate some of these issues.

These fully completed chambers are made of our unique composite material that is stronger and lighter than steel and will not rust. Thanks to the way they are designed, they can withstand lateral force once in place, meaning that there is no need for costly and time-consuming concrete back filling. Fully equipped with steps for easy repeat access, the chambers can be delivered either fully assembled and ready to drop into place, or as flat pack.

With growing populations, increased urbanisation and pressure to reduce CO2 emissions, smart transport cannot come soon enough. However, it’s important that we go about retrofitting our roads in a way that sets systems up in a scalable manner without inconveniencing current motorists. By using simple techniques that can save time and money, we’ll all be much smarter before we know it!

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