TfL has teamed with HAUC(UK) to run a research project to minimise the impact of street and road works contributing to climate change

Initial research on the topic showed that while a lot of information could be found on the relationship between construction and climate change, data specific to the impact of street and road works was harder to find.

With 200,000 plus miles of road in the UK, they act as veins and arteries, transporting goods, services and people. It’s important they are looked after, along with the assets that lay beneath. This results in approximately four million holes being dug each year, which can cause environmental problems of their own.

Crude oil and mineral aggregate used in asphalt make up 95% of UK roads, both of which are finite and in short supply, although there have been developments in recent years with the use of recycled plastic and rubber tyres.

UK quarries are struggling to keep up with the demand for virgin aggregates. As much as the sector tries to avoid it, road works can cause disruption, leading to idling traffic and greater emissions, along with the historic use of red diesel to run the associated plant and machinery.

A prominent issue for urban areas

The space below ground is of particular importance and will become an even more important issue in future. With 4 million kilometres of buried assets in the UK, 11 million metres of which are estimated to be abandoned and the number of works continuing to grow, saturation will soon be reached, if allowed to continue unabated. This is already becoming a prominent issue in urban areas.

Innovative projects are being run by many across the sector to improve the way road works are carried out including robotics, new methods of working, better technologies, alternative materials and improved data. These innovations and the move to a circular economy are key to ensuring a sustainable, safer and less disruptive sector for many years to come.

To enable the sector to deliver on this and future targets, collaboration is required to establish a single source of truth, track progress and provide strategic direction.

Based on the initial findings, Transport for London (TfL) drafted a proposal to carry out research to look at how future road works could be carried out in a way that reduces congestion and supports the UK’s drive to net zero. This includes how zero emission machinery could be adopted, changes to business models and legislation needed to support more sustainable operations.

To obtain support from the wider community, the Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee HAUC(UK) was approached to co-partner the proposal. As the advisory body for the sector, they provide a platform for collaboration, inspiring positive change through continuous improvement.

Construction workers during asphalting road works wearing coveralls.
© Photovs

They recently set a five-year vision for change, defined by five main themes:

• Digitalisation
• Innovation
• Skills and Workforce
• Collaboration; and
• Environment and Decarbonisation

Funding was sought from TfL’s Lane Rental Scheme which charges utility companies and TfL contractors for digging up roads at the most traffic-sensitive times and locations. Money received through this scheme is ring-fenced and can only be spent on projects which work to reduce the impact of roadworks.

After a procurement process, the University of Birmingham and EA Technology were selected as research partners, who are now challenged with delving into the heart of the sector to determine how to maximise its contribution.

At the forefront of this phase will be the development of an action plan providing recommendations on the direction of travel in the short, medium and long-term. The research will pose fundamental questions on sustainability, the use of resources, innovations, actions vs consequences and requirements for delivery in certain research areas.

Research areas of focus for a transport transition:

1. Material, process, innovation
2. Climate change, net zero and beyond
3. Measuring environmental performance

The project and research partners are supported by a diverse working group (Thames Water, UK Power Networks, Cadent Gas, Southern Gas Networks, Gigaclear, the London Borough of Southwark and the Greater London Authority) and aided in delivery by GeoPlace.

The project will take place over the next eight months with the research findings presented to the sector in March 2023. An innovation challenge is expected to follow to tackle some of the outputs, addressing any identified gaps. The aim is to unite the sector in this research and leave a positive legacy for future generations.


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