The problem with rural transport is that it is rural, the solution is in branding

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A major constraint with developing and maintaining rural roads is the fact that they are, unfortunately, rural. The areas where they are needed are often difficult to access, logistics become complicated, local contracting capability is limited, engineers are few and far between, and younger engineers especially, are not keen to leave the urban environment.

The rural environment is often the growth engine of a country, the food supply and the rural population are custodians of the environment and ecosystems. Planners of rural development need to be experts in the complexities of these interconnecting priorities and need to know how the road provision fits into the larger goals of rural development, and the priorities for economic and social growth.

We need to attract the best talent to rural development as there is less support available and fewer services and suppliers that we normally take for granted (no on-hand advocacy, and little asphalt and concrete production). It takes more engineering and managerial expertise to construct sustainable infrastructure by going back to analysing options that are available locally rather than relying on a design manual and conventional construction. For instance, the rural engineer needs to know how to convert a local material to a suitable road construction material, and assess the design limitations and durability. He or she needs to understand the complexities of the local watershed and construction capability limitations.

The solution lies in making our rural development work more attractive, many who get involved stay forever but we need to do more to make the rural development work attractive than we do at present. Taking a lesson from the marketing people we need to identify our unique selling points and convince our talent pool that this is the career for them. Job satisfaction, making your own decisions, a lower cost of living perhaps!!!

It is understandable, in the absence of expertise and for ease of operations, that perhaps more complex solutions are not preferred. As a result of limited capability and the attraction of low upfront capital costs (mortgaged against the future maintenance costs), in some developing countries, over 90% of the road network remains unpaved, mostly gravelled, and our problem is not just in the logistics of building good roads but maintaining them too. Keeping these roads in a condition that provides all-weather access is becoming increasingly difficult as good gravel resources become depleted whilst traffic increases. This leads to a situation where gravels of decreasing quality are used for both road construction and maintenance with an ever-increasing frequency in the cycle of deterioration and the need for repair. Maintaining unpaved roads to a standard that ensures sustainable access is thus becoming an increasingly difficult task.

We need somehow to keep our design and construction techniques to take into account capability and the limited knowledge on quality procedures.  How do we do it?

  • Design simple, high error margin techniques with low maintenance regimes
  • Use local materials as much as possible
  • Remember the cheapest option is probably the worst option no matter what the economic analysis or traffic volume figures indicate.


Rural road networks consist predominantly of roads of gravel or earth construction as shown in the pictures. In some countries, much of the trunk road network also remains unsealed. In Tanzania, for example, only some 7% of the entire classified road network is bituminised. Rural roads are often a lifeline for rural communities. Studies carried out in South-East Asia found a strong correlation between lack of access to basic infrastructure and poverty. Conversely, villages provided with road access produced more than they did before. The problem with gravel roads is that they often deteriorate rapidly, especially in the wet season, disrupting transport services and access to health centres and markets when it is most needed.

There are many issues surrounding the low initial-cost provision of gravel roads. These include:

  • Short road-life expectation due to erosion and wear
  • Lack of drainage and watercourse crossings
  • Damage to health and detriment to farming productivity from dust
  • Damage to road users and equipment from rough roads


There is increased expectation amongst the rural poor that governments will provide and maintain roads in a condition that facilitate all-weather access and regular transport services.


Gravel roads are reconstructed or rehabilitated at frequent intervals often with little in the way of lasting improvement (see photo). In the South Africa region alone, it is estimated that some 150 million cubic metres of gravel are consumed annually. Thus, despite the best intentions of governments to provide roads with a sealed surface, funding for upgrading is limited. For countries such as Tanzania and many others, unsealed roads will remain a significant part of the network for many years to come.

In recent years, the management of road maintenance has improved significantly in some countries through the establishment of Roads Boards with dedicated funding for maintenance derived from road user charges and fuel levies. There is, however, a limit to the scale of the charges that can be imposed before they increase road user costs and impact negatively on the economy. As economies grow and traffic increases, the rates of deterioration on gravel roads are likely to escalate and the problems associated with the maintenance of gravel roads will be exacerbated. There is a need to consider options that make investments in sealed roads more attractive through technical innovation and the capture, in monetary terms, of the social, environmental and other benefits as well as the economic benefits of upgrading to a sealed road standard.

Perhaps we need to investigate further how to utilise more performance-based contracting with contractors taking on the maintenance liability, or some derivation of the PPP principles. What is for sure is that we need to get every dollar spent to achieve the most and be a small a liability as possible as the demand is limitless.

Despite the establishment of Road Funds that have increased funding for road maintenance, financial resources remain insufficient to pay for the ever increasing maintenance as road networks expand. Rural communities are demanding roads that provide year-round unimpeded access and better opportunities for improved mobility. This presents a major challenge for practitioners in the road sector.


Peter O'Neill

Chief, Transport Policy and Development, UN ESCAP

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