Pavement engineering

Year:About 814 BC onwards

Duration:Ongoing

Cost:Unknown

Country: All over the world

What did this project achieve?

Create a surface on which people or animals can move cleanly and efficiently

A pavement in everyday English means the footpath at the side of a road. In engineering terms, a pavement means a man-made surface on natural ground that people, vehicles or animals can cross.

Any ground surface prepared for transport counts as a pavement. This includes:

  • ‘dirt’ roads in central Africa
  • football pitches
  • race courses
  • garden paths

More usually, a pavement can mean a motorway, airport runway, dockside or railway track.

Pavement engineering is a branch of civil engineering. It involves knowledge of soils, hydraulics and other materials, and how these materials react to load or weight.

Some pavement structures are very specialised. Major football grounds, for example, have very carefully designed pavements that drain easily to stop them getting too muddy. At the same time, they need enough ‘give’ to limit injuries to players.

Other specialised pavements include those on tramlines or between a quarry and its processing plant.

Difference the project has made

Without properly engineered pavements and road surfaces, travel can be both slow and muddy. This slows down communication and makes trade harder.

Successful ancient civilisations – such as the Romans and the Carthaginians – were often those who had learnt to build roads and engineer pavement surfaces.

Travel around Britain – for example - was often very slow until the 18th century when pioneering engineers such as Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam started to rethink the country’s road network.

The improvements of these and other engineers are credited with boosting the British economy by helping the progress of industrialisation.

How the work is done

A road pavement is a sequence – or set of layers - of materials placed on the natural ground. The natural ground is also known as the ‘subgrade’.

The pavement layers usually work to spread out the load of a person or vehicle. A vehicle that would get bogged down in muddy soil can cross the same soil easily when there’s pavement in between.

The challenge is to use the right materials for each layer so that the stress caused by the passing vehicle is so small by the time it gets to soil level that the soil hardly notices a vehicle is crossing.

Most pavements in the UK have flexible surfaces – material that flexes slightly under the wheels of traffic. The visible ‘blacktop’ is usually made of rock particles glued together with a viscous substance created by petroleum distillation called bitumen.

The resulting material is called bituminous macadam – named for the road engineer John Loudon McAdam (born 1756).

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The Roman road is the greatest monument ever raised to human liberty by a noble and generous people

Robert Graves

From the book, ‘Claudius the God'

Fascinating facts

The Carthaginians – an ancient civilisation founded around 814 BC on the coast of what is now Tunisia - are generally thought of as being the first road-builders and pavement engineers.

The ancient Romans also saw the value of building roads. They built around 87,000km of road across their empire – that’s about the length of the modern US interstate system.

The Romans built 4,100km of road in Britain. These mostly connected military camps that were around 30km apart – about a day’s march.

People who made it happen

Pioneering British road and pavement engineers include:

  • Thomas Telford – the first president of ICE
  • John Loudon McAdam

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