Complex motorway intersection

University of Birmingham researchers attended the 27th World Road Congress in Prague last week - an international event involving over 40 Ministerial Delegations and more than 3,500 delegates drawn from across the global south and north. A cross cutting theme of the Congress was the need to align road infrastructure management and development with efforts to address several complex and intersecting global development challenges.

The timing of the congress was auspicious, coinciding with the mid-point of the 15-year period envisaged to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015.

The Sustainable Development Goals Report published earlier this year, presented a candid assessment of progress. The report warned that, while lack of progress is universal, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who experience the worst effects of these unprecedented global challenges.

The report highlighted that 37% of SDG targets were stagnating or regressing, 48% were moderately or severely off track and a minority, 15%, were considered to be on track.

William Robert Avis, Mehran Eskandari Torbaghan and Opuge Obuolloh - University of Birmingham

The report highlighted that 37% of SDG targets were stagnating or regressing, 48% were moderately or severely off track and a minority, 15%, were considered to be on track.

The impacts of the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, a weak global economy, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed weaknesses and hindered progress towards the Goals.

Shocks: The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the economic and fiscal problems of many countries, impacting on commodity prices, exports and leading to higher levels of external indebtedness and a flight of foreign direct investment toward countries deemed less risky and more robust in handling shocks.

Climate Change: More frequent and more intense extreme weather events have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world. The warmest eight years have all been since 2015, with 2016, 2019 and 2020 constituting the top three.

Conflict: The reaction of the various powers to war in Ukraine has confirmed the emergence of a multipolar world where global consensus is harder to attain and competing visions of the future jostle for position.

Stagflation: The global economy is experiencing a period of stagflation, an economic cycle characterised by slow growth and a high unemployment rate accompanied by inflation.

A question posed throughout the congress was ‘why do roads matter and how can they support efforts to achieve the SDGs?’ The answers are complex and multifaceted.

Roads are essential to society - allowing people to access education, healthcare, and other key services, whilst reducing social isolation by connecting communities and supporting social and cultural activities and inclusion of underserved populations. They also support economic development - connecting people and businesses to markets, suppliers, and customers as well as leading to increased economic activity and job opportunities.

Global road length is projected to increase from 3.0 to 4.7 million km by 2050, which represents an increase of 14%–23% compared to estimates presented in 2018. Significant increases in road length are projected to happen in the global south and in some of the world’s last remaining wilderness areas, such as the Amazon, the Congo basin, and New Guinea.

Levels of investment in road infrastructure are also significant. In 2020, in the United States alone, state and local governments spent $204 billion on highways and roads.

Road development and management can embed unsustainable modes of transport and inequitable access, fragmenting communities and impacting on the environment. Conversely, decisions taken today can support modal shifts, make access more equitable and foster development of inclusive societies, which is the focus of our research at the University of Birmingham.

Given the importance of roads to how society functions and the scale of development and levels of investment, attention has focused on how designing and constructing roads can support the development of solutions to the challenges ahead.

In contexts where road development is considered essential, it must be approached in a manner that incorporates social goals, works toward reducing poverty and promotes innovation that leads to improvements in quality of life in an equitable and climate resilient manner.

The potential for road management to support the SDGs is clear, but this support is contingent on the adoption of a range of strategies including:

Integrated public transportation system: combining different modes of transport to maximise ease and efficiency for the user in terms of time, cost, comfort, safety, accessibility, and convenience.

Multimodal planning: transportation and land use planning that considers diverse transportation options, typically including walking, cycling, public transit and automobile, and accounts for land use factors that affect accessibility.

Smart growth policies: an overall approach of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger, socially diverse, and resilient to climate change.

Complete streets policies: to fund, plan for, construct, operate, and maintain their streets so they are safe for all users, regardless of age and ability.

Universal design: the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.

Whilst developing and implementing these strategies will be challenging, it remains clear that aligning road infrastructure management and development with efforts to tackle key global development challenges will be essential if we wish to avoid travelling down a road to nowhere.