Highway Research for the 21st Century. (Perspectives)
Skinner, Robert E., Jr., Issues in Science and Technology
The U.S. highway system faces many challenges in the years ahead, challenges that cannot be successfully addressed without new knowledge and innovations of all sorts. For example, how can highway agencies and their contractors reconstruct heavily used urban freeways while maintaining service and minimizing traveler delays and community disruption? Can the application of "intelligent" information and communication technologies reduce motor vehicle crashes, squeeze additional capacity out of existing highways, and improve the reliability of motor vehicle travel? How do roadways affect the natural environment, and what can be done to mitigate their impact? Can we develop affordable materials that will significantly extend the lives of highway pavements and bridges?
As users of the nation's highway system and residents of communities affected by highways, most of us can identify with questions like these, or at least their premises. No wonder: The U.S. highway system handles more than 90 percent of all trips to and from work, more than 80 percent of intercity person trips over 100 miles, and about 70 percent of freight traffic, based on billings. Clearly the United States is heavily dependent--too dependent in the view of many--on its highway system; but like it or not, the nation will continue to depend on this system for decades to come.
Consequently, questions such as those posed at the outset will be relevant for years to come. Answering them requires research that expands our knowledge about highways, their performance, and their impacts. The stakes are significant, because highways are closely linked to economic development, public health, environmental quality, and lifestyle, as well as being a substantial public expense.
Unfortunately, research does not receive the attention or support in the highway field that it does in other sectors. Several factors contribute to this situation. First, the field has a low-tech image. The familiarity of the system and its use of materials and technologies whose origins can be traced to antiquity contribute to the thinking that there is nothing left to learn about highway technology and that today's challenges are no different from ones the industry has faced before. Second, the highway system is highly decentralized. Roughly 35,000 governmental units operate highways, and tens of thousands of private companies provide materials and services. Most of these organizations do not have the wherewithal to support research on their own, and the sheer numbers involved make it difficult to transfer innovations into practice, even when the benefits are proven and substantial. Third, there are few incentives to innovate. The prevalence of highly prescriptive design specifications and low-bid procurem ent practices provides little incentive for private-sector contractors and material suppliers to conduct research on their own and offer innovative products. In addition, in the public sector, there are no market or competitive factors to push innovation. Finally, the benefits of research are hard to measure. Miracle cures for problems such as traffic congestion and motor vehicle crashes are unlikely. Progress is more often made through a combination of incremental improvements, making it difficult to attribute the benefits to a particular research project or investment. Moreover, the benefits come in multiple forms, some of which can be measured (for example, out-of-pocket cost savings or reduced fatalities and injuries) whereas others cannot (for example, improved aesthetics).
All of this translates to highway research spending that does not match the investment levels of other industries. Research spending for highways, including technology transfer and other activities that promote innovation, is less than 0.6 percent of total highway expenditures by highway agencies. Emerging industries, such as information and electronics and medical substances and devices, spend 7 percent or more of their net sales on research, and even relatively mature industries, including basic industries such as materials, machinery, and chemicals, devote 1 to 3 percent of their net sales to research. …