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FEATURE STORYDecember 6, 2023

Brazil: What Does a Good Road Look Like?

Jose Correia, Brazilian driver

“I don’t get as tired, and I feel safer behind the wheel,” says driver José Correia

Photo by Mariana Ceratti/World Bank

A visit to road sections improved with World Bank support reveals that quality means much more than just paving

As a driver, what aspects do you take into account when assessing the quality of a road? For Anibal Coelho da Costa, a civil engineer with 50 years’ experience in this area, the answer is easy. “For a layperson, good roads are those with no potholes or major deformations,” he says. “However, someone with technical training may be able to identify significant wear even in the absence of apparent potholes—which is an indication that, in the short term, perhaps in the next rainy season, water may penetrate the road surface causing it to deteriorate rapidly,” he adds.

A visit to some state highways improved under the WB-funded Bahia Road Recovery and Maintenance Program (PREMAR 1 and 2, which ran from 2006 through 2014, and from 2016 through 2021, respectively) helps us understand these different perceptions. It also shows how important that program was for local communities, and how much may still be done to improve that state’s transport infrastructure.

In total, the program rehabilitated 4,000 km of roads: 1,000 km in Phase 1, and 3,000 km in Phase 2. One of the projects was developed on an area along BA-263 known as Serra do Marçal, where there is an elevation difference of over 400 m (over a 6-km stretch), and curves that resemble bent elbows. In 2007, the road was closed for almost six months for the rehabilitation works. “We had to create a long detour, and traffic was complicated at the time, but the results were good,” recalls Anibal, who worked on both PREMAR 1 and 2.

Gas station manager Mauricio de Jesus Oliveira also remembers that time well. “When traffic was diverted, our business at the gas station slowed down. There were many potholes on the way from here (the municipality of Itambé) to Vitória da Conquista at the time. In addition to managing the curves, we had to pay attention to the potholes.” Today, he is happy with the road’s condition. “I think we are good now.”

Thanks to the support of PREMAR, the 300 km from Paulo Afonso to Juazeiro can now be covered in four or five hours, instead of the previous 12 hours. “I don’t get as tired, and I feel safer behind the wheel,” says driver José Correia.

Building on these initial important improvements, the team working on the design of a new program (Pró-Rodovias) identified several points for attention. These points are not only relevant for the state of Bahia, but for other states to be included in the Pró-Rodovias Program (Espirito Santo, Rio Grande do Norte, Goias, Tocantins, Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Piaui); and to federal highways managed by the National Department of Transport Infrastructure (DNIT) in the Northeast. This is an important step toward increasing road safety in Brazil, a country that ranks third globally in road deaths, according to a bulletin from the National Transport and Logistics Observatory (ONTL).

Road design must always take into account that humans make mistakes
Carlos Bellas Lamas
program manager at the World Bank
Road traffic in Serra do Marçal, Bahia, Brazil

In total, PREMAR rehabilitated 4,000 km of roads: 1,000 km in Phase 1, and 3,000 km in Phase 2. One of the projects was developed on an area along BA-263 known as Serra do Marçal

Photo by Mariana Ceratti/World Bank

Speed gun

Even when a highway is well built and maintained, accidents may still happen if drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians act recklessly

Photo by Mariana Ceratti/World Bank

A good road has...

  • Planned, regular, and high-quality maintenance works to prevent potential problems from worsening. A road is something alive: it can appear to be in good condition one day, and deteriorate the next. Hence the importance of including maintenance activities in infrastructure projects. Climate change tends to lead to increasingly intense and frequent rains and droughts, which makes this aspect even more relevant. For example, it is important to respond quickly to any erosion in order to contain it (otherwise repair works might become much more expensive). Through PREMAR 2, long-term performance-based contracts were signed, meaning that construction companies would only be paid if all contractually agreed conditions were met (potholes eliminated, drainage systems cleaned, roughness kept within parameters, etc.). The Pró-Rodovias Program makes sure these contracts are enhanced to include road maintenance for longer periods. The program’s objective is to improve access to opportunities for the population through safer connectivity that shows greater resilience to climate change impacts,” says Carlos Bellas Lamas, program manager at the World Bank.
  • Proper drainage. This is a critical aspect for any road, as a good drainage system prevents ground water from infiltrating and creating cracks on the asphalt. More often than not, drainage systems need to be rebuilt because the ones in place no longer drain enough water from rivers and rain, especially when the rainfall increases as a result of climate change.
  • Safe and accessible integration of roads with urban areas. Cyclists and pedestrians often use roads that cross small towns. In order to increase their safety, sidewalks, bike lanes, and protected areas should be provided. These facilities benefit poor women and children in particular, as they are the ones that walk and cycle the most.
  • Properly installed guardrails, especially on dangerous road bends, river banks, and slopes. In the event of a collision, guardrails are crucial to slow vehicles down and prevent greater harm to occupants. Therefore, they need to be firmly anchored into the ground at an appropriate height (or, as engineers say, have the correct elevation). If they are too low or if a post is loose, they will not fulfill their purpose.
  • Consistent and well-maintained signage. Signage maintenance is the responsibility of both road traffic authorities (public or through a PPP) and the population. When road signs are vandalized or stolen, risks increase for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, and additional funds are required for their replacement. Anibal Coelho says that vandalism is still common, and it is important to constantly raise awareness among the community in order to prevent it. “The program also promoted awareness raising on the risks for the communities,” he recalls.
  • Enforcing speed and cargo weight limits, and promoting safe overtaking. Did you know that excessive loads on trucks may cause the road surface to deteriorate much faster, leading to even more frequent maintenance needs? An estimated 3 percent of all trucks in Brazil carry more weight than the recommended limit, and they are responsible for half of the country’s road degradation.

Finally, even when a highway is well built and maintained, accidents may still happen if drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians act recklessly. At the BA-142 and BA-026 intersection—a stretch to be included in the Pró-Rodovias Program—a gas truck driver (who preferred not to identify himself) fell asleep and caused his vehicle to overturn. He dozed off, and only woke up when his truck was already turning left, about to roll over. Luckily, although he knocked down a lamp post, no-one was injured or killed in the accident.

“Road design must always take into account that humans make mistakes, as explained by the Vision Zero concept. Roads need to be built and maintained so that, in the event of an accident or in extreme weather, any harm to life or damage to assets is as contained as possible,” said Carlos Bellas, of the World Bank.


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