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Loïc Touchais
Ingénieur, groupe Egis
Published on February 07, 2020

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What future for road engineers?

The intellectual contribution of road engineers has shifted from a technical to an opportunity focus. The consequences of this are substantial for society and offer huge potential to Egis, provided that all the implications are accepted.

Ingénieur routier

- Crédits : Blue Planet Studio - AdobeStock

The clean slat 

One upon a time was the era of the clean slate. “We would draw beautiful new motorways running through the fields,” recalls Theo*, aged 60, an engineer at Egis.

This is not particularly ancient history, since the job of road designer barely 15 years ago still consisted of looking at a map and deciding, more or less by hand, where the road would pass. It was not just a question of being creative because there was a higher cause to pursue: that of connecting people. Today in France, this cause is less predominant, but there are still many countries in the world in which controlling the land means guaranteeing peace. Taking a map and drawing a road between two civilisation centres thus fell within that cause.

As for creativity… it knew no bounds! Everything, or almost everything, needed inventing. Experimentation happened on the ground, in real-life conditions. High-flying engineers (known as X-Ponts in France from the names of their elite engineering colleges) would design complicated junctions to which only they had the secret. “And then we would get people to use them. And we would have a good laugh,” adds Theo. “I can remember a junction that really fascinated me, just as you arrived at La Flotte-en-Ré, in Charente-Maritime. It had a certain charm to it, it was deliciously disconcerting and, to top it all, dangerously beautiful. Since then, it has been turned into a bog standard roundabout with no appeal… but it’s certainly safer.”
 

Standardisation kicks in

Throughout the many years of design and return on experience, roads thus tended towards a simpler, more codified geometry; they became more uniform, more understandable, more comfortable and safer.

The way standards have evolved reflects this trend. At the end of the last century, the benchmark standard for motorway design in France, ICTAAL, still proposed what amounted to cooking recipes. For example, it would indicate the maximum permissible vertical acceleration depending on a certain level of comfort and safety. It was then the task of the designer to calculate the resulting parabolic radius according to speed. ICTAAL 2000 departed from this guesswork by clearly specifying the minimal value of this parabolic radius, a value that the designer would then content themselves (if such a term is appropriate) with applying.

Generally, all design guidelines have followed this trend and have now become quite directive: the creative scope of the designer is reduced to a minimum. “And you can’t help but admire the attention to detail,” explains Theo with a wry smile. “Today, on a motorway slip road, the length of zebra crossings is specified to the centimetre!” This is indisputably an advantage from the perspective of the user and their safety. But from the engineer’s viewpoint, it is a bit frustrating: “We don’t ultimately know where these values come from,” says Theo. Creativity has gradually been stifled, reduced to a walk-on role, although it can sometimes crop up where you were least expecting it. Take the highly serious CEREMA, the French centre for studies and expertise in risks, the environment, mobility and planning: a few years ago, it published the official guide to the monkey nut intersection (owing to its elongated two-lobed shape).

It nonetheless remains the case that the profession of road designer is very closely regulated. Even exceptions to rules, a prime example of subjectivity, are delimited by precise manuals with a quite clear aim: the amount of subjectivity must be circumscribed. But where only objectivity remains, there is no intelligence. Let us ask ourselves an honest question: is the human factor in danger of disappearing from road design engineering?
 

What next??

Somehow deprived of a creative space, the French road designer could be tempted to seek salvation in the perfection of technical solutions. But this would overlook the fact that the computer program has never been, and will never be, an end to itself – unless you want to become a computer programmer, of course. On the contrary, the design software is merely a means of perpetuating this move towards standardisation.

“If we carry on copying the same logic from twenty or even ten years ago, then yes, we’re dead,” opines Theo. As everything is set out and meticulously defined in these guides, you might even conclude that a properly programmed software package could do the exact same job. “There are already programs out there that can generate hundreds of alignments and then pick the best one,” adds Theo. Without going that far, it is clear that the simpler the job is, the more accessible it will be to a wider audience and the more likely it is that the market will drive prices lower.

Road engineers must therefore stage their revolution. The task in hand should no longer be about recommending the best technical proposal to the client, but instead about taking on the client’s request entirely and challenging it from every angle down to its fundamental principles. Because the crux of the matter today – in France, at least – is about the underlying justification for projects. Roads are no longer a connecting line between people, but objects that at first sight are out of vogue since they encourage car travel - and therefore pollution. Not easy to live with… Nor can we ignore the end customer: the user, the resident, society as a whole, including the person who may live at the far end of France, but who also wants their say… and shall be heard!

The justification can therefore no longer be exclusively utilitarian, and even less economic in nature. Even the safety aspect cannot be cited as the sole reason for building a road facility. What is required is a true overview, and under no circumstances justification in hindsight of a decision that has already been taken: otherwise the project is doomed. Egis does not merely address the requirement of an order principal who pays for its services. It addresses a social demand, which is sometimes very exacting. And nowadays this approach still calls for a lot of intelligence!

This constitutes an opportunity for the engineer, but also a source of difficulty, as they need to be humble enough to accept that their initial response, “the road”, might not be the best one. And yet it is in this area that Egis is expected to deliver, and where it possesses the wherewithal to make a difference. It is here, too, that Theo will be able to give free rein to his creativity.

 

*Theo is a made-up character

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