Opinion: The smart road to prosperity
Photo by Creamer Media
16TH JULY 2021
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Language is baffling. Engineers refer to “roads” as “pavements”, while the rest of us, in our pedestrian way, call a sidewalk a “pavement” and a road a “road”. Either way, the roads (pavements) the engineers build across the country are as vital to the economy as are clear directions to someone who is lost.
There’s a lot of talk about “smart transport”, as there has been about “smart cities”. At its most mundane level, it’s a catchphrase, meaning there are better (smarter) ways of thinking about transport. But “smart” also implies a consistent and continuous interconnection derived from new technologies that change the transport network at a macro level and impact the way individuals move in that network.
However, digital technology—no matter how smart—is not enough. A better tracking and destination system may assist a logistics company in making deliveries faster and more efficient. Still, if its vehicles are travelling over poorly maintained roads, any savings on efficiency will be lost.
Tackling this, therefore, requires a smart approach to road construction. For the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), this is at the core of its existence, guided by its Business and Strategy Pillars—Roads, Road Safety, Stakeholders and Mobility.
As Rachel Hoat of the Transit Innovation Partnership has said, smart transport starts with infrastructure. Transport, cities and infrastructure—smart or not—all rely on roads. And while Sanral is responsible for roughly only 22,200 km of the country’s 750,000 km of road network, the engineering excellence found in the building, maintenance and rehabilitation of that national network is, as Sanral CEO Skhumbuzo Macozoma said, world-class and met the highest international standards.
Road construction, however, is not something on which you can rest your laurels. It is like a moving vehicle, and there is a constant need to be doing it smarter. Moving people or goods between A and B is a lot more complex than simply plotting a course and getting there.
For this reason, Sanral, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)—an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation—and York Timbers, an integrated forestry company, are collaborating with the University of Pretoria’s (UP) state-of-the-art Engineering 4.0 facility. Housed in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT), it is dedicated to research into road construction, road use, traffic flow and smart transport systems.
As Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering, UP, explained, “Poorly maintained roads add to vehicle operating costs by pushing up your fuel and maintenance costs.” A bad road—and he is not referring to a badly damaged road, but one that is not providing an optimal ride quality—means everyone travelling on that road pays more per kilometre when they use it.
“If we can provide, through research, better roads for the whole country, it means that we can affect the economy directly—save on transportation costs, logistic costs, etc.—and ultimately create a higher quality of life for people,“ he added.
Engineering 4.0 is a first in Africa and, in addition to other functions, it houses the Sanral National Certification Laboratory which will ensure the independent certification of all material testers responsible for quality control testing on road construction sites. It also houses the Sanral National Reference Laboratory which will ensure the independent certification of conformality to ISO test standards of all local road laboratories responsible for testing road construction materials. There is also a concrete laboratory for structural testing of its use in road construction and infrastructure build, while two of the most innovative additions to the Engineering 4.0 are the Accelerated Pavement Testing (APT) track and the active two kilometre-long test lane on Pretoria’s N4 highway.
The APT track enables engineers to monitor the expected behaviour of a pavement over a fraction of its life. The test lane collects real-time data and uses big data analytics to test and analyse how different road surfaces perform, how traffic moves, the density and type of traffic, and will enable engineers to optimise pavement design and construction. The data collected can be used to model many aspects of transportation systems. Improved and optimised pavement design supports longer-lasting roads that serve the economy and social well-being of society. The provincial and municipal road engineers will also benefit from this research.
Sanral CEO Skhumbuzo Macozoma said, “The facility enables cutting-edge roads research, materials testing, skills development, real-time road performance monitoring, and the application of research outcomes and innovation in the industry. This is how Sanral remains innovative, competitive and supports the social and economic development of the country.”
Sanral recognises that an enormous challenge to implementing the infrastructure programme is the shortage of professional engineers and skilled technicians. According to the SAICE Infrastructure Report Card, the ratio of engineers to people in South Africa is one to 3 200 people (compared to an average of between 130 to 450 people per engineer in Europe, North America, India and China). This also hampers its transformation agenda, which is about making the sector more equitable for black-owned businesses and ensuring that black professionals are being trained to meet the nation’s growth challenge.
To assist with this, Sanral has endowed three specialised chairs at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch University (SU) and the University of the Free State (UFS). In addition, Sanral’s training academy, the Technical Excellence Academy (TEA), enrols graduates and provides them with the on-the-job training required for certification by the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). It’s a fast track toward full-time employment after graduating.
Smart transport, cities and infrastructure are intertwined in road construction. The construction and maintenance of roads is crucial for the economic development and activity of any country and in South Africa road transport accounts for 87% of all freight and 93% of all passenger movements. Providing better roads driven by innovation in transportation and road building technology is the first step towards a smarter more sustainable transportation system for all people in South Africa and aligns with Sanral’s Horizon 2030 Strategy.