Aerial Shot Bridge Maroochy at the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia

by Michael Kilgariff, CEO, Roads Australia

As with any industry, the transport and infrastructure sector requires a degree of social licence to operate.

In a world where customers have access to more information than ever before and have the power to amplify their views via social media channels (which are themselves a rich vein of source material for traditional media outlets), it is increasingly important for our sector to ensure we are reflecting the expectations, values and aspirations of the communities we serve.

Roads Australia is keenly aware of this prevailing view, with the decarbonisation of the economy through integrated transport and the efficient use of resources and energy one of key policy goals set out in our Strategic Plan.

Although sustainability has certainly been a focus for industry and governments for many years, the degree of importance attached to it by the wider community has grown significantly over recent times. It is very much now a mainstream issue which is a key focus across all demographics and shades of political opinion.

Consequently, the drive to decarbonise the transport sector is set to be a defining characteristic of public policy in the next decade. This poses a significant challenge for those engaged in the design, construction, maintenance and operation of integrated transport infrastructure.

This is because historically, the community has perceived private vehicle use to be a major factor in increased emissions, road construction to be disruptive and having a deleterious impact on community amenity, and that environmental considerations were not paramount when sourcing materials used to construct transport infrastructure.

Perhaps some of these perceptions were justified in decades gone by. However, as the salience of sustainability has grown across the wider community, our industry has leaned on its innovative capacities and adapted to deliver transport infrastructure and services in new ways.

Accordingly, contemporary transport infrastructure not only has a reduced impact upon the environment but is demonstrably contributing to an enhanced quality of life for local communities.

Immense circular economy opportunities

As with anything, good outcomes in transport infrastructure start with good planning. If the full economic, environmental and social value of transport infrastructure is to be realised, it is vital to consider how we use neighbourhood spaces in a way that optimises the space and promotes people’s health, happiness and well-being.

This focus on placemaking is a hallmark of the contemporary approach to delivering integrated transport infrastructure and services. It means ensuring communities are developed in a manner that facilitates access to active transport options (such as dedicated walking and cycling paths), and promoting the use of public transport services by making sure residents can safely access reliable services.

But beyond this, Australia has a major opportunity to drive decarbonisation in the transport sector by embracing opportunities on offer through the circular economy.

In particular, there is major scope to reduce embodied emissions – that is, emissions generated via the production of construction materials, as well as the construction process itself.

This is one area where the industry itself has been taking a lead, with recycled products becoming increasingly prevalent in the transport infrastructure sector.

Of course, this is not a new development; our industry has been recycling asphalt and crushed concrete for decades. However, there is an increasing awareness among industry participants about the need for a more systemic approach, which reframes discussion about ‘waste’ to instead talk about ‘resources’.

Within this, there is also a need to focus on practical, cost-effective innovation that is still needed to drive down the cost of some recycled materials, which can still be more costly than virgin material if examined from a traditional bottom-line perspective.

Broadening this focus and integrating whole-of-life thinking into our approach to planning, designing, procuring and constructing Australia’s transport infrastructure is essential to drive better sustainability outcomes across the industry and for the community.

This imperative is reflected in Infrastructure Australia’s 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan, which calls for governments to support the increased uptake and consistent use of recycled and recyclable materials.

This includes incorporating targets in building and design codes and developing procurement targets and timelines for government infrastructure projects.

Industry collaboration

There are also an increasing number of high-profile major transport infrastructure projects being completed that are demonstrating the way forward. Late 2021 witnessed the opening of Victoria’s Mordialloc Freeway, which has garnered a reputation as the nation’s greenest freeway.

This project used around 800,000 tonnes of recycled and reused materials, with the centrepiece being 10,000 noise wall panels made with 570 tonnes of plastic waste.

Around half of the recycled plastic used was hard plastics from kerbside recycling (such as milk and shampoo bottles), with the balance being derived from soft plastics (like food packaging).

These recycled plastic noise walls are a world first and demonstrate our industry’s innovative capacities, as well as its commitment to embedding sustainability in new transport infrastructure.

Roads Australia is delighted to now be working with the Australian Railway Association and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council in an industry-first partnership working to finalise a report that will showcase best-in-class initiatives and make policy recommendations that will help Australia achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The report – which has been undertaken by KPMG and is being supported by report sponsor Arup – will outline a series of actions to support a focus on place, drive emissions reduction, support investment in renewables and EV infrastructure, and promote engagement and collaboration across the transport asset lifecycle.

The recommendations and case studies that will be included as part of the report have been developed through engagement with industry to identify the challenges and opportunities facing the transport sector.

This industry partnership was born of a recognition that strong collaboration across all modes of transport, and between governments and industry, will be needed to deliver on global sustainability goals and community expectations.

Roads Australia is looking forward to playing an active role in progressing this agenda in collaboration with our members and the wider industry.

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