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Section 4: Highway design principles and practice

Section Editor: Ian D. Walsh

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Chapter 31

doi: 10.1680/mohd.41110.0249

Highway design principles and


practice: an introduction

CONTENTS

Ian D. Walsh Road Consultants Ltd, UK

Background

249

The design process

250

Conclusions

252

References

252

Chapters 3244 outline, for engineers and technicians with some knowledge of civil engineering,
the more detailed information necessary for them to carry out highway design, be it for a new
road, for alignment changes to an existing road or for road maintenance. The last is often the
principal activity of a design ofce given the lack of funding for major capital works at the
time of writing.
The chapters provide descriptions of and notes for guidance to the referenced established
design procedures and methods used in the UK and in some cases provide enough information
for straightforward designs to be produced for that topic; future trends are summarised. All
these topics are elaborated in different chapters and hence this chapter only provides a general
overview of what is a large subject.
It is important to guarantee the sustainability of highway design solutions, most obviously
by ensuring the durability of the constructed works. At least half of the problems of reduced
life of highway pavements comes about from poor design solutions, the other half being
installation workmanship and, to a very small extent only, poor materials.

Background

The design of steel or concrete structures, cars or aeroplanes


is based upon an accurate knowledge of the properties of the
materials used and the design loadings, using well-researched
engineering principles and developed and validated computer
programs. The factors of safety against failure can be quite
small and the structures designed very precisely permitting
minimal use of materials.
Highway design suffers from lack of knowledge of the
design loads; even if the initial traffic volume or rainfall is
known, changes that are difficult to forecast will occur over
the anticipated life of the pavement, which is normally either
20 years or 40 years, but in some cases 60 years.
Highway design also needs to take account of the interaction
with the existing ground and the environment. Measurement
of relevant soil properties that enable the pavement slab to be
properly supported and the side slopes of the embankments and
cuttings designed is an inexact science and the properties themselves will change as a result of the weather and climate, the
former being short-term variations on the latter. The most common highway construction materials are aggregates and asphalt.
Both of these are manufactured from natural or increasingly
recycled aggregates, where laboratory test results have to act
as a surrogate for in-service performance. In addition, the bitumen binder in asphalt is subject to significant change in the presence of air and water so that its physical properties change with
time, some for the better (e.g. strength) but some for the worse
(e.g. adhesion to aggregate). How these interact has an enormous
effect on the performance of the highway pavement.

This lack of precise academic rigorousness may help to


explain why the subject of highway design is not treated in
any depth in most university degree courses. Chapters 3244
intend to help to overcome this deficiency.
Given the inexactitude outlined above, highway design
engineers have developed over the years semi-empirical techniques to enable adequately robust solutions to be provided for
the engineering challenges presented. These are outlined in
Chapters 3244 together with the references for more in-depth
study. Generally the design methodologies do not require complex mathematics; of much more importance are a good assessment of the initial assumptions made, the application of the
most relevant design technique and, most importantly, a reality
check on completion, preferably by an experienced engineer.
It is clearly very important that these assumptions and
selected techniques, together with the actual calculations or
reference to design charts and the design checks carried out,
are all fully documented in the design files that form part of
the organisations quality assurance (QA) processes, regardless
of whether these are independently audited by a certification
body. This enables the design to be referred to in the future
in the inevitable case that, during construction, some of the
assumptions made are found to be wrong and changes have
to be made, often under severe time constraints. A constant
plea of site supervisory staff is that there has to be a reason
why the designer did such a stupid thing; the design manual
is proof that what was done at the time was far from stupid
and can prevent a contract variation being made that does not
address all the complex issues.

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249

Highway design principles and practice

All highway design for the Highways Agency has to be carried out by consultants with BS EN ISO9001 (British Standards
Institution, 2008) third-party certification satisfying the requirements of their guidance document GD 02/08 Quality management systems for highway design published in Design manual
for roads and bridges (DMRB) (Highways Agency, 2010b).
This document does not tell consultants how to design highways; rather it explains how the general QA principles are
relevant to highway design, the management responsibility
and which quality plans and records should be kept. It also
spells out in considerable detail the competency requirements
for the design team in terms of skills, knowledge and ability
to understand requirements. These are spelt out by reference
to the relevant volumes within the DMRB (e.g. Earthworks
and geotechnical; Highways Agency, 2010a) and series 600
in Specification for highway works (Highways Agency, 2009).
A design engineer is expected to be familiar with these documents as they form the bedrock of knowledge.
Most of the basic principles and techniques are unchanged
so that GD 02/08 is a relevant reference to the competency of a
highway design engineer in a local authority context. However,
an engineer must be aware that the requirements for maintaining a relatively lightly trafficked road, whose vertical and horizontal alignment, earthworks, drainage (if any) and pavement
construction will have evolved over the years, will be different from those of similar works on well-designed motorways
and trunk roads, where congestion and disruption charges
are so costly that ensuring the maximum possible life for the
pavement is essential. Most local authority roadworks are
severely constrained by the physical characteristics of the site,

e.g. thresholds and existing construction, including the presence of statutory undertakers services, possible traffic diversions and budgetary and time issues. All of these will affect
the assumptions made and decisions taken and may mean that
an ideal solution as presented here cannot be implemented.
Indeed, there rarely is one ideal solution to the clients request
and the designer may well be expected to provide a number
of costed alternatives, together with their strengths and weaknesses, so that a reasoned decision on which to use can be
made by consultation with the relevant parties.
The design process

The design loading for a highway is determined by knowledge of the volume and types of heavy traffic as provided by
the traffic engineers described in Section 7. Where this is not
available the local authority will have classified the network
by its heavy vehicle flow into one of four classes so that reinstatements carried out under the New Road and Street Works
Act 1991 (NRSWA) can be carried out with this knowledge.
An accurate assessment of traffic flows, while very important,
should be set in the context that 20mm of asphalt surface is
approximately equivalent to doubling the traffic-carrying
capability of a road.
Where a road is likely to carry more than 30 million standard axles (msa) in a design life (NRSWA Type 0) a classified
count for traffic should always be obtained if at all possible.
The structural layers of a pavement are designed for the traffic loading assuming there is a standard foundation made up
of the ground conditions and sub-base layers, or the existing
pavement in the case of a maintenance scheme (Figure 1).

Traffic
Structural
layers
Surface
characteristics
The wider
environment
Sub-base

Ground
condition

Figure 1

250

Existing
pavement

The design process

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Highway design principles and practice: an introduction

In the UK this pavement design is normally carried out using


standard design charts that relate the required structural thickness of known materials with the traffic (in msa). The stiffer the
material the thinner the pavement slab can be; for asphalt this
is largely determined by the hardness of the bitumen binder,
for concrete by the quantity of cementitious material and any
reinforcement. Details of how to design asphalt, cement-bound
and concrete roads have been provided. The latter have lost
favour recently for public roads, if not for industrial hardstanding, but with the significant increase in bitumen costs they are
becoming more cost-effective. There are several mathematical
models for pavement design and an overview of these is also
provided in Chapter 39, Analytical pavement design.
Although not much used for public highways in the UK,
unpaved roads play a major role in many parts of the world and
are often required as agricultural and forest access in the UK.
Chapter 40 explains how the aggregate layers must comprise
strong stones, bound together by fines to produce a granular
material that is capable of carrying traffic and that will be
largely impermeable, thus making a good-performing durable
pavement structure.
Maintaining an existing road may involve the addition to or
substitution of the existing pavement materials. In the circumstances, engineers should be aware that flexibility and crack
resistance may also be important as well as stiffness.
The existing structural strength of the pavement should always
be assessed prior to maintenance works in order that the predicted design life of the pavement can be achieved and value for
money obtained. For example, applying a single thin surfacing
overlay to a road with observable structural weakness is unlikely
to deliver best value in the use of that surfacing. Strengthening
of an existing road is a significantly more complex procedure
that involves an identification of the defect that the treatment is
intended to solve and its cause as well as the overall structural
strength of the existing road. The site investigation techniques
required usually involve a walk-over survey to identify the
defects and taking a few cores from the road; these supplement
the machine survey data from SCANNER (UK Roads Liaison
Group, 2010) where available.
The design of the foundation for a new road is based upon
the equilibrium moisture content of the soil, not necessarily that
found at the time of the site investigation, and standard techniques
for estimating this have been developed in the UK, largely in the
1980s. For existing roads the subgrade strength can be measured directly from trial pits or core holes. Until recently the only
UK unit of measurement of subgrade strength was California
Bearing Ratio (CBR%). However, more recently the large-scale
and portable falling-weight deflectometers have become more
commonly used; these give values in megapascals (MPa). The
latter are particularly helpful in mixed granular/cohesive soils
where sample preparation for CBR can be a problem.
The CBR of subgrade materials of all kinds is always and in
the case of cohesive soils dramatically affected by the moisture
content. It is always necessary to consider subgrade drainage in

rural areas, though it is rarely provided in urban areas owing to


the presence of services trenches that can fulfil the function and
the largely impermeable surfaces used. However, it is coming
back into prominence, especially on housing developments with
the introduction, at Environment Agency insistence, of permeable pavements to attenuate surface run off. The maintenance
liability of these pavements is still causing some concern.
Surface water drainage is always required on highways and
its design, while straightforward using standard computer
programs for the pipe and/or channel sizes, has to be detailed
carefully in conjunction with the carriageway alignment to
ensure that there is no standing water on the pavement surface in times of storms. It is also an area where the predicted
increase in winter rainfall of about 20% as a result of climate
change needs to be taken into account.
The selection and design of a new carriageway alignment,
both vertical and horizontal, is now a highly skilled computational process carried out by computer to produce threedimensional (3D) modelling, layout drawings and materials
quantities. The systems are flexible enough to enable a new
road to fit snugly into the landscape, minimising the materials
taken off site and permitting alternative solutions to be rapidly
evaluated. The systems permit the interaction of the alignment
vertically and horizontally to be assessed so that flat spots with
a potential for wet skidding accidents are avoided and appropriate kerb edge drainage selected.
Predicted climate change will have a profound effect on soft
environment, which forms an essential part of a modern highway design. The earthworks sideslopes, the trees, bushes and
ground cover will all be affected and an appropriate planting
regime can significantly help with reducing surface water run
off in both volume and rate and with the effects of desiccation
of the soils in summer. The selection of and implementation of
planting is extensively covered by published planning policy
statements (PPSs). The quality of the soft landscaping and its
maintenance can have a very beneficial effect on the public
perception of a road scheme or of a housing development,
but the costs of ongoing future maintenance must be borne
in mind.
One of the major investments in recent years has also been
the improvement of the environment in urban areas by the
correct selection of an aesthetic hard landscaping treatment,
stone, concrete and clay paving and hard landscaping features
such as planters and street furniture. Much of this is carried out by landscape architects but, if it is to be successful,
adequate engineering input is required, otherwise premature
and expensive failure too often occurs. Good design guidance
using the British Standard series BS 7533 has been provided
(British Standards Institution, 2006). There are a number of
conflicting requirements that need reconciliation: aesthetics,
structural strength, political preference, statutory undertakers,
bus companies, emergency services and the disabled will all
have views on geometric layout and selection of materials, not
least the local authoritys view about ongoing cleansing and

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251

Highway design principles and practice

maintenance. The time needed for consultations should not be


underestimated.
Conclusions

Some aspects of highway design may appear simplistic; however, a design that meets all the requirements of the many
people who will use the road in the future, including the oftforgotten maintenance engineer, is far from simple. Above
all, it requires a meticulous attention to detail in all aspects,
but particularly to those that affect the safety, operation and
appearance of the completed scheme.
When the scheme has been designed, it must be translated
into instructions to the contractor by way of contract documents drawings, specifications, appendices, programmes,
schedules, bills of quantities and so on. These must be an
accurate translation of the design, and state exactly what is
required unambiguously. The documents must be devoid of
internal inconsistencies and above all be able to be constructed.
Sadly, this is all too frequently not the case, and in cases of
premature failure it is the design that is at fault in about half
the cases. If a designer is in any doubt over any aspect they
must not guess or assume an answer, they should seek out the
necessary information in print, from the web, or from an experienced engineer, and make a note of this source in their QA
documentation.

252

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References
Highways Agency. Specification for highway works. Volume 1.
Manual of contract documents for highway works, London, The
Stationery Office, 2009. [Available at www.standardsforhighways.
gov.uk]
Highways Agency. Earthworks and geotechnical. Volume 4. Design
manual for roads and bridges, London, The Stationery Office,
2010a. [Available at www.standardsforhighways.co.uk/dmrb/]
Highways Agency. Design manual for roads and bridges. GD 02/08.
Quality management systems for highway design, London, The
Stationery Office, 2010b. [Available at www.standardsforhighways.co.uk/dmrb/]
British Standards Institution. BS 7533 Parts 113: Pavements constructed with clay, natural stone or concrete pavers. Guide to the
structural design of trafficked pavements constructed on a bound
base using concrete paving flags and natural stone slabs, London,
BSI, 2006.
British Standards Institution. BS EN ISO 9001: Quality management
systems. Requirements, London, BSI, 2008.
UK Roads Liaison Group Roads Board. Road surveys strengthen
intellectual rigour, Transportation Professional, June 2010.

List of legislation
New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. London, Office of Public
Sector Information. [Available at www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1991/
Ukpga_19910022_en_1.htm]

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