John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Cities around the world are reinventing the highway with things like de-icing pavements, color-changing paint and wind-powered street lights.
Imagine you're cruising on a motorbike along a narrow road winding viperlike through the mountains. Around the next bend, a flooding natural spring has covered the pavement with thin, slippery ice. A rider who's none too careful might slide right into this frozen street-lake and suffer a bone-shattering crash.
Now imagine you're cruising on a highway that's wired to sense the local temperature. Ghostly, blue snowflake symbols begin to appear on the surface of the asphalt, warning that the road is cold enough to freeze. You brake in time to avoid the ice, as well as a bunch of pain and hospital bills.
This "smart" highway is closer to fruition than you might think. A stretch of Route 66 in the Dutch province of Brabant will employ temperature-monitoring "dynamic paint" as early as 2013; in another nifty safety feature, its center lines will glow in the dark. Brabant's highway engineers are one of several forward-thinking groups worldwide who are reimagining roads for the 21st century. Crandon, Wisconsin, is rolling out pavement containing a chemical that prevents ice from forming in the first place. Israel, meanwhile, wants to build streets that convert the vibration of passing automobiles into electricity.
Thanks to the creative efforts of Manchester's Neo Mammalian Studios, we can taste a sampler menu of planned highway innovations served up in one fetching infographic. Have a look at the vastly sophisticated "Road of the Future," which is about as far away from asphalt slapped on dirt as you can get: