Technology greens Britain's motorways

PLASTIC-COATED bridges, no-shine lighting and environmentally friendly tunnels may sound like contradictions but they will all play a vital role on the roads of the future.

These innovations have been unveiled by the Highways Agency (HA) as part of a programme to lessen the impact of new and existing roads on the landscape.

Motorway lighting, for example, has long been blamed for the phosphorescent glow that taints the night skies of Britain. Now the HA is tackling the problem of light pollution with the introduction of new lamps, which can only be seen by motorists.

These are 30 per cent brighter than traditional road lamps but produce a more natural colour than the orange sodium lighting currently used on motorways. They work by directing a narrow beam straight down on to the road rather than onto the surrounding countryside and into the sky.

The HA has installed 678 of these lights in a pilot scheme, approved by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, along an eight-mile stretch of the M62 at Saddleworth Moor on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border.

Jim Burton, for the CPRE, said the lighting was a welcome improvement on the conventional lamps. "The moorland stretch of the M62 is especially sensitive to the effects of road lighting. The lanterns have dramatically improved the night environment across this stretch of the Pennines," he said.

The din of motorway traffic could also be reduced to a murmur with the use of "whisper concrete": this new road-surfacing material is likely to replace hot-rolled asphalt. It cuts down the noise pollution from the thud of rubber on Tarmac by at least four decibels.

Whisper concrete works by reducing the impact between the tyre tread and the road surface without affecting safety. The HA has already used it to surface the A13 Wennington to Mar Dyke road in Essex, which opens this month.

The Royal Fine Arts Commission has given its approval to the aesthetic appeal of some new highway materials, including a special plastic bridge coating. The material, made from glass-reinforced polymer, prevents corrosion on metal beams used to build motorway bridges by creating a special seal, and therefore reduces the need for maintenance work. The coating is currently being used on the second Severn estuary crossing between Wales and England.

In the future, roads are also likely to be more concealed to minimise their visual and polluting effect on the environment.

An example of this is the A27 Brighton bypass at Southwick, which was built in tunnels through the Sussex Downs, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Instead of the landscape being scarred by the road, it has been allowed to remain apparently unmarked.

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