Given increasing demands for urban water sensitivity, climate control and iconic cityscapes, new models for roadway development and enhancement need to be created. iPD is currently engaged in conceptual development around the idea of the ‘Eco Lane,’ a highway retrofit model adequate to a wide range of contemporary and future environmental challenges for roads and highways.

Highways have been famously identified as ‘non-places’ in Marc Augé’s terms. Non-places, for Augé, are a key feature of the contemporary urban environment. They include highways, hotel rooms and airports. They are places defined by transience, and as such our mechanisms for valuing and evaluating these sites are separate from the way we relate to a park, school, or office block. It is perhaps the anonymity of the non-place that dictates the human relation to this site: dispossession, disregard, disaffection. The non-place is thus dual: “Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have these spaces. […] As anthropological places create the organically social, so non-places create solitary contractuality” (Augé, The Anthropology of Supermodernity, 94). The word ‘nonplace’ describes both a type of place and a way of relating to that place. For Augé, these non-places are a symptom of ‘super modernity.’


The strength of this approach is that it is easily recognisable: we can all easily identify our ambivalent feelings about motorways, the inability to navigate the highway as a pedestrian, the derth of visual stimulation and the frustrated aural and tactile ambience. While this idea remains a resonant descriptor of the highway, its pragmatic use is limited. It is vivid, but it does not provide a navigational or tactical tool for the design and development of these spaces as the challenges and nature of the highways change rapidly in the 21st century. 


How do you retrofit highways and roads to activate their hydrologic, ecologic and aesthetic possibilities? The construction of an ‘Eco-Lane’ requires an assessment of the hydrological patterns of the highway environment, establishment of present and potential site ecology, the implementation of smart or photovoltaic technology, and the identification of possibilities for creative reimagining of the area.


There are a few precedents to this idea, including visions for ‘smart highways’ or ‘intelligent transport systems’, which have been developed in a number of different ways. Daan Roosegaarde’s “smart highway” concept updates the highway system for the digital and sustainable era. The idea revolves around making highways ‘intelligent’, i.e. able to conserve and distribute resources. The smart highway is lined with photoluminescent paint that absorbs light in daytime and then appears reflective and bright at night. The paint illuminates the highway for cars, reducing the need for lighting powered by electricity. Any additional street lighting only switches on when there is traffic on the road. A similar principle is implemented with temperature sensitive paint. Snowflakes or other weather related illustrations are drawn onto the highway and appear in cold weather conditions, so as to alert motorists to the prospect of slippery roads. The ‘smart highway’ also provides charging for electric cars, embedding induction coils in the road so that cars charge as they drive. This will both facilitate and incentivise electric cars, as charging is easy and a designated lane will streamline traffic. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is developing a similar technology for use in vehicles and public transport.


OnyxSolar and Butech have developed photovoltaic tiles that can be used for pavements and future roadways. These tiles are precedented by a similar technology for buildings (BIPV or ‘Building Integrated Photovoltaics’), which convert the facades of buildings into electricity producing surfaces. The electricity generated by the pavement tiles can be used to power street, bus stop and pathway lighting, or other nearby facilities for pedestrians and commuters, massively reducing the electricity burden created by roads.


SolaRoad, a initiative of a consortium including the province of Noord-Holland, Ooms Civiel, TNO and Dynniq, echoes the principles inherent in the ‘smart highway.’ The SolaRoad is an attempt to realise the “the dream that large parts of the road surface in the Netherlands will act as a large solar panel. The generated electricity can be used for street lighting, traffic systems, households and electric vehicles” (Solaroad, web).


In a similar vein, there are new projects that seek to active the environmental potential of the highway, so as to turn the road into an environmentally sensitive space. Keith Robinson, of CalTrans, has transformed roadside projects in California that used to primarily focus on erosion to consider “the improvement of soil quality on every single project. We want to make sure that soil sustains native plants and creates favourable conditions that encourage pollinator plants to not only to grow but thrive” (quoted in King, ‘Highways Can Help Pollinators Return to Health’).


EcoLane contributes to this broad field of endeavour with a focus on air and water pollution mitigation, water sensitive urban design, reduction of energy requirements and the regeneration of native vegetation and fauna. Roads present a particular problem for water management. In the first instance, they contribute to water pollution, as the water that runs off the roads is contaminated by contact with cars, the tarmac, and exhaust fumes. The non-porous surface of the road is also susceptible to flooding in extreme weather events. The EcoLane constitutes a porous area that accompanies the roadway, which can absorb water in flood prone regions and retain water in drier climates. The porous EcoLane also allows water to filter through to underground aquifers, replenishing supplies (where water infiltration is possible). Where environmental and spatial conditions permit, the EcoLane also functions as a water filtration process, using bioswales and rain gardens to clean the polluted water coming off the road, for use in irrigation, cooling or the nearby communities.


As such, the planting that is central to the EcoLane provides a biodiversity passage, facilitating the regeneration of native flora and establishing trees to provide a migration, nesting and feeding corridor for birds.


Lastly, EcoLane also provides a buffer for cycle routes, where they are needed. Bicycles no longer have to share the road with cars and public transport, and will be provided with a well lit path between the EcoLane and bus or tram stops on the edge of the road.


One of the most obvious challenges for the development of the EcoLane is the ubiquitous presence of utilities underneath the footpaths and at the roadside. One of the key contributors to the environmental negligence of roadways is the association between the spaces to the sides of the road and electrical and plumbing utilities. The EcoLane requires a change to this automatic practice in order to allow for a porous surface that can respond dynamically to environmental conditions.


Above all, ambition at the core of the EcoLane project is to produce models for the roads of the near future, which will look very different from the roads we see around us today. Roads will need to transform not only due to environmental factors but also due to the transition to driverless, electric cars. As some of the above precedents indicate, automatic, electric cars will come to dominate roads, fundamentally changing traffic patterns and density. The reductions in travel time and traffic density facilitated by driverless cars will free up space in high density areas for the implementation of EcoLanes.


The highway is anonymous in two senses, although we don’t usually recognise both of these senses. As a contractual and transient environment it offers human anonymity. But as an environment that is not water sensitive; that produces incidental and unchecked pollution; that cannot power itself or its amenities (bus or tram stops, lighting and signage, heating railways in freezing conditions, etc); and that cannot intelligently respond to changing conditions or events, the highway is environmentally anonymous as well. It is an environment on this second, non-anthropocentric level, of the sort that will become increasingly untenable with the advent of further extreme weather events and greater loss of biodiversity. The EcoLane intervention presents a practical model for redesigning roads so that they are no longer environmentally anonymous, an effect that spells an end to the experience of the modern roadway described by Augé, and the advent of a contemporary transport network.