Driving more efficient highways delivery

3 min read

Congestion on our motorways and major road networks is estimated to cost the UK economy around £2 billion a year. 

As Highways England continues to roll out thousands of miles of extra capacity through the delivery of the smart motorway network, it aims to reduce the temporary lane closures and traffic delays which arise from construction.

In this article, Mace's Sean Gray explores how innovation can help to deliver that goal.

Smart motorways promise better reliability for the 38 million vehicles currently on Britain’s roads. As this number is only set to rise as autonomous vehicles come along, the use of new technologies will be essential to ensuring that traffic flow is managed more efficiently. 

As the integrated network of smart motorways is developed, it will not only benefit individual drivers with more efficient and smoother journeys, but also bring digital capacity to the road network. This is a vital step in driving the adoption of smart vehicles, be that fully autonomous or assisted driving. 

Over the long-term these transformations have the potential to significantly improve the country’s productivity and economic performance, ensuring we can continue to compete effectively on the international stage.  

Adopting a new approach 

While the merits of a fully integrated smart motorway network are clear, any focus on efficiencies tends to focus on the benefits that will be gained once the construction programme is complete. 

It can be easy to overlook how efficiencies could be achieved right now, during the construction phase, by building capacity at a fraction of the cost it takes to construct new lanes from scratch.  Even a modest improvement to this delivery would see seismic results and ensure projects are completed ahead of time, relieving pressure on an already congested network, and ensuring the rollout of smart motorways can be completed as soon as possible.     

In Mace’s highways team, we’ve begun to explore how an increase in productivity – and so a dramatic improvement to the length of road completed per month – could be achieved by transferring the principles of Mace’s ‘jump factory’ project. 

At N08 East Village, a construction site in London, we introduced a factory approach to a construction project, coordinating different elements of the build inside a ‘factory’ structure to reduce timelines. Using that technique we were able to build a storey a week across two residential towers. 

There’s no reason that this same approach and logic can’t be applied to the construction of smart motorways.  By reducing the workspace on the motorway (meaning that we don’t have to take miles and miles of existing highway out of use each time) we would revolutionise the way that road infrastructure is currently delivered and ensure these complex transport programmes are completed at a much faster pace.

If more efficiencies are achieved during the delivery phase, a great deal of the pain currently caused by temporary congestion would be alleviated, making the case for smart motorways much more compelling. Highways England is already looking at reducing such congestion during the build by increasing speeds through affected sections of motorways from 50 to 60 mph. 

This kind of approach will be an especially appealing proposition to Whitehall. With all eyes on Brexit and an uncertain economic future, the Government is looking for affordable ways to deliver national infrastructure delivery without compromising on programme or quality. 

Towards a new model for delivery 

We need to recognise that there are valid voices across the industry raising concerns about smart motorways, largely because not enough has been done to educate road users on the benefits of the programme. Many people aren’t clear about how the end result will improve their journeys, and so they haven’t bought into the wider vision.

These criticisms are amplified because construction of the network is still underway, meaning the full potential of the integrated ‘smart’ network is yet to be realised. 

As delivery remains the current priority and smart motorways are completed piecemeal, there are only pockets of evidence available and little capacity to educate the public on the overall benefits of smart motorways. 

Businesses and government must turn their attention to convincing the public that the main barrier to unlocking the full potential of smart motorways is project delivery. Improved delivery will mean fewer operatives on the road, faster completion rates, and thus safer and more economically sustainable projects.  

With strong project management, intelligent procurement, and a new model for project team assembly and delivery, we can further reduce risk and increase efficiency. The outcome for road users will be a transformation of road infrastructure, capacity and safety, and ultimately less congestion on our major roads. 
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