Sustainable Engineering Solutions

"The road to development begins with the development of the road."

One of the vital ways to improve rural mobility and access is through the development of rural roads in order to improve the connectivity of villages to road networks and transport hubs.

Poorly designed, built and maintained roads are unsustainable and consequently they become an economic burden to everyone, but especially to rural communities. They also increase the costs of accessing economic and social opportunities for the rural poor. The costs of transporting all crops, goods and people on such routes is much higher than necessary; constraining development and poverty reduction efforts.

It is a sobering thought that after over 100 years of motor transport development, only about 15% of classified rural roads are constructed to all-weather standards in some regions. We need to accelerate development and application of affordable and sustainable engineering solutions to provide the effective access to the rest of the rural population.

The ideal rural road would consist of a surface that is cheap to construct, allows safe passage at all times, requires minimal maintenance and enables smooth traffic flow to reduce vehicle maintenance costs. Engineers, researchers and road developers now face the challenging task of developing alternative rural road surface solutions that minimise maintenance requirements and make optimal use of locally available resources, in an era of seemingly ever-increasing energy and materials costs.

An important consideration is who is or will be responsible for construction and maintenance of the road?; these need not be the same entity or person. However, it should be clear to all stakeholders who is responsible for each function, and those parties should be fully involved in all decisions relating to the development and maintenance of the route. For many rural routes these responsibilities are not always clear.

In order to obtain optimal results from the rural road network in developing countries, it is important to adopt an investment approach that is guided by appropriate local standards and conditions, to achieve a sustainable outcome. This will require taking into consideration all of the Road Environment Factors indicated in the following diagram.

In addition, there is need to incorporate the needs of ALL users (including users of Intermediate Means of Transport as well as pedestrians) within the appraisal process for rural roads. In this way the appraisal process becomes more inclusive and participatory. It would result in delivering road designs that take into account important issues such as the use of Intermediate Means of Transport, safety issues for all users, but especially pedestrians and overall inclusion of needs of women, children and other vulnerable users.

Key Challenges

  • In many developing countries, rural, mainly un-paved. road networks make up about 70% to 80% of the entire national road network. Instead of a burden these rural roads networks should be considered to be an essential asset to facilitate development and poverty reduction. Investments in them require a change in mentality and approach.
  • Developing the requisite capacity of local authorities and communities to apply appropriate and sustainable approaches to rural infrastructure development and maintenance.
  • Developing appraisal and design specifications that take into account local circumstances and yet offer sufficient flexibility for standards to be adapted to the local context and needs (especially of end users).
  • Integrating social and safety issues into the appraisal process of rural roads engineering.
  • Translating available new knowledge on local materials into specifications manuals for practitioners and regularly updating these as well as making them available across regions.
  • Finding the relatively high initial capital required to invest in proven road surfacing alternatives that are more durable, require less maintenance and are therefore ultimately less costly.
  • Involving local communities in the design and maintenance of local engineering solutions and sensitizing them on important aspects of road maintenance.
  • Integrating available knowledge into the curricula of engineers and transport planners courses.

Knowledge Gaps

These have been identified as:

  • There is a need to strengthen the flow of best practices on alternative, long lasting and sustainable rural road surfacing techniques within and across regions to ensure availability and accessibility for practitioners in developing countries.
  • For investment appraisal, particular needs are those relating to the aspects of road maintenance and vehicle operating cost relationships for local vehicles and road conditions. The construction and subsequent performance experience of the range of alternative Low Volume Rural Road (LVRR) surfaces also needs to be extended. Simple guidance is required for LVRR investment decisions, without having to resort to complex data collection and analysis.
  • There is a need to identify and document good LVRR maintenance practice in reality (including case studies) and highlight the reasons for success.
  • Simple guidance for communities of what are the important issues regarding building low, cost, sustainable engineering solutions for rural roads, and signposting to where they can gain access to further assistance.

However, perhaps the greatest knowledge gap is that between the available knowledge and actual mainstreaming or embedment of this in standards, specifications and everyday practice of road agencies in developing and emerging nations, to achieve low cost, and sustainable engineering transport solutions.


Click here for recent paper summarising the key issues concerning the development of Sustainable Engineering Solutions for Low Volume Rural Roads

Key documentation includes:

The following gTKP web pages may also provide further knowledge on specific issues:

If you would like to comment on this knowledge, suggest a key reference or make a further contribution, please contact info(at)

Updated March 2010