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The future is bright with concrete roads

Readers familiar with The Concrete Initiative will know all about concrete’s sustainability benefits in buildings: durability, low environmental impacts, fire safety, to name but a few.  Readers may be less aware, however, that all of these advantages have a direct parallel when it comes to using concrete for road pavements.

Concrete can provide both the surface layer of roads – which vehicles ride on directly – as well as the base layers. Concrete pavements have been used across Europe for many years and in fact were very widespread up until the 1950s. The subsequent trend towards a preference for asphalt in many countries can be attributed to a focus on initial costs and the availability of the raw material, bitumen, due to large-scale oil refining.

Concrete pavements have always been appreciated for aspects such as durability and low maintenance – and it’s not hard to grasp how this translates into clear sustainability benefits for today’s eco-conscious world. Just like in buildings, the advantages of concrete in pavements span the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental.

Taking the social pillar, concrete contributes to fire safety in tunnels since it does not burn. In fact, fire services recommend the use of concrete pavements in road tunnels. Safety is also enhanced thanks to durability: concrete roads do not form ruts, reducing the risk of aquaplaning.

The economic benefits are clear, too. Concrete pavements have much lower life-cycle costs than the competition, thanks to their durability. What’s more, their bright colour means savings in street lighting.

Finally, it shouldn’t be surprising that the long lifetime of concrete pavements is good for the environment. Even more impressively, concrete pavements can even save emissions of the vehicles riding over them! Thanks to their stiffness, which reduces the rolling resistance of heavy vehicles, every kilometre of concrete road can reduce the CO2 emissions from vehicles by up to 1000-4000 tonnes over a 30-year period.

Nowadays, there are reasons to believe in a comeback for concrete road pavements. Road authorities are waking up to the advantages of concrete - or rather, they are reawakening. In Poland, for example, work is underway to build 1 380 kilometres of concrete motorways and express roads over the next few years. There, the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs), whereby the private concessionaire has the responsibility to design and finance the road, as well as maintain it for 25 or 35 years, means long-lasting concrete is the obvious choice.

Concrete’s increasing share of road pavements could have some surprising economic benefits. A recent paper from the US illustrates how jurisdictions with healthy competition in the pavement sector – as indicated by a minimum concrete share - have lower prices and thus greater spending efficiency for road authorities. The very fact of specifying concrete pavements saves public money!

So, the sustainability benefits of concrete are clear – and these are benefits that will be shared by citizens, governments and the environment alike. The future is bright with concrete roads.

Karl Downey is Secretary General of EUPAVE, the European Concrete Paving Association. Further information on all the facts in this article can be found here

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