If you ride a bike path at night between Tongelre and Opwetten in the Netherlands, as of a fortnight ago you should have noticed something different. The path, coated with paint that charges by day and glows by night, lights the kilometer-long route a speckled green-blue ode to one of the country’s greatest works of art.
The Van Gogh bicycle path, designed by Daan Roosegaarde and built by developer Heijmans, has been widely touted as an innovation in art worthy of its storied inspiration. But look just a few millimeters deeper and there’s evidence to suggest it’s a whole lot more than pretty lights.
A solar panel nearby powers the pathway, while additional LED lights add strength on a foggy night. It’s part of a bigger collaboration between Roosegaarde and Heijmans called Smart Highways, which aims to marry the bike path’s looks with a quotidian use.
Smart Highways builds on designs present for over thirty years to illuminate roads at night. But it’s more ambitious, comprising ideas like lights that switch on only when traffic approaches, glowing lines, dynamic paint that informs drivers of road conditions and roads that could even charge electric cars as they pass.
The tech behind it isn’t particularly new, says the project’s Director of Communications Lonneke Wijnhoven. But innovation comes in different guises. “It is new to combine different views and world in the traditional road building industry,” she says. “And also it is innovating to use these kind of solutions to expand the possibilities of roads, to develop them as an experience and improve safety.”
Solar Roadways is an Idaho-based startup that is using similar technology to allow solar panels to light streets for night driving and real-time information. Back in Europe, a stretch of highway in the western U.K. town of Swindon has been mooted for a project whereby soundproofing with solar panels could double to generate electricity.
All are at an embryonic stage. Wijnhoven and Roosegaarde both estimate that Smart Highways can be implemented across considerable stretches of Dutch tarmac in three to five years. Cars, Roosegaarde points out, update every week. Roads, meanwhile, have been stuck in the Middle Ages.
“People recognise the urgency and the need for change,” adds Wijnhoven. “It is not to say that there has been no innovation in road building what so ever in the latest years. We are, however, taking it to another level: we are innovating towards interactivity of roads. This is totally new in road building.”
Increased sustainability is one of Smart Highways’ key goals. Europe is home to seven of the countries with the highest car ownership per capita and Italian, German, French and Spanish drivers own more passenger cars than their US counterparts. According to INRIX, a DaaS and SaaS firm specializing in traffic data, citizens of Brussels and Antwerp both suffer more traffic than Angelenos.
A European Environment Agency report this month admitted that changes must be made to traffic systems to accommodate, and prevent, climate change. Smart Highways could be one of a few solutions out there, thinks Susan Shaheen, transport sustainability professor at UC Berkeley.
“By decreasing accident rates through warning systems, like dynamic paint that displays different messages based on temperature or other mitigation measures, like road panels that are capable of generating heat to melt snow and ice, such roadways can maintain a more efficient level of service and curb fuel consumption, not to mention decrease traffic-related injuries and fatalities,” says Shaheen.
Others are more skeptical. Tali Trigg of the International Energy Agency, in Paris, thinks that Smart Highways is interesting, “but a lot of these nice design projects completely fail at asking the real question: how much? What is the cost per km, lifetime, and who will pay for it?”
A huge amount of investment and hope is being afforded Europe’s major car makers, as its constituent states still claw themselves from the global recession of six years ago. And with other issues generating tax money at a higher level, such as nuclear power, there is still a stretch to go before the Van Gogh bicycle path can emulate the ubiquity of its namesake.
Heijmans and Roosegaarde have created something promising, and technologically innovative. But the road ahead looks long.