44 May 2012 Better Roads
I dare you.
ome time back in the last decade, a sketchy, much too brief news item
made a quick tour of Better Roads editors. It was about a town in Europe
— Holland, I think — that had devised an experimental system for using the daytime heat of an asphalt pavement to heat water that could then be
used to heat buildings, among other things.
We ran the story. We even tried to follow up a year later but none of our
European contacts knew about the experiment or showed much interest in
seeing how things turned out.
That indifference still makes me shake my head. If the system worked, or
even showed promise, it would have been the most important pavement technology story of the decade. Or so it seemed to me.
Imagine if there was a technology that allowed America’s pavements to
reduce the consumption of imported energy by a percentage point or two.
Suddenly, the country’s hundreds of thousands of miles of pavement become
an asset even a politician can comprehend — and maybe sell to his or her
constituency. Instead of a Congress that can’t consider a fuel tax increase lest
millions of hearts stop beating, we might have a Congress ready to invest in a
At a time when the phrase “thinking outside the box” is an anthem, even
among members of the Flat Earth Society, it might be time to ponder the possibilities for roads the way a child sizes up playground equipment (hint: you
designed the slide for a fun descent, but they ﬁnd it just as recreational to
For example, the area between pavements in a divided highway is unique
real estate. It is protected from human trafﬁc and vandals by a formidable
barrier, and all the things that neighbors might complain about (noise, dust,
danger) already exist. What other uses of that land might be possible? Can a
solar energy farm be planted there? Some kind of commercial enterprise that
generates lease revenue for roads?
Can we ﬁnd a way to harness the turbulent air created by large trucks traveling at highway speeds?
Can sound barriers be designed to do something more than channel noise
away from homes?
Crazy? Consider this: Just twenty years ago, pavements were considered an
environmental detriment. Today, roads and parking lots made of porous asphalt or pervious concrete are environmental assets that improve water quality. What’s possible is limited mostly by our willingness to consider new ideas.
I’ve told the story about the European town’s experiment with highwayheated water to various road groups over the years, suggesting that industry
should support further research. The response is always the same: that sympathetic stare people of good breeding bestow on an English major or journalist
who has just said something incredibly stupid.
Which is how you tell the difference between an English major and a journalism major. The journalism major drops the subject and moves on. The hapless English major keeps bringing it up, glazing the eyes of readers without
apology, decade after decade.