Pavements form the basic supporting structure in highway transportation. Each layer of pavement has a multitude of functions to perform which has to be duly considered during the design process. Different types of pavements can be adopted depending upon the traffic requirements. Improper design of pavements leads to early failure of pavements affecting the riding quality also.

Types of Pavements

The pavements can be classified based on the structural performance into two,

  1. Flexible pavements and
  2. Rigid pavements

In flexible pavements, wheel loads are transferred by grain-to-grain contact of the aggregate through the granular structure. The flexible pavement, having less flexural strength, acts like a flexible sheet (e.g. bituminous road).

On the contrary, in rigid pavements, wheel loads are transferred to sub-grade soil by flexural strength of the pavement and the pavement acts like a rigid plate (e.g. cement concrete roads).

In addition to these, composite pavements are also available. A thin layer of flexible pavement over rigid pavement is an ideal pavement with most desirable characteristics. However, such pavements are rarely used in new construction because of high cost and complex analysis required.

1. Flexible Pavements

Flexible pavements will transmit wheel load stresses to the lower layers by grain-to-grain transfer through the points of contact in the granular structure (see Figure shown below).

Load transfer mechanism
Load transfer mechanism

The wheel load acting on the pavement will be distributed to a wider area, and the stress decreases with the depth. Taking advantage of these stress distribution characteristic, flexible pavements normally has many layers. Hence, the design of flexible pavement uses the concept of layered system. A typical cross section of the flexible pavement is shown below.

cross section of flexible pavement
cross section of flexible pavement

Based on this, flexible pavement may be constructed in a number of layers and the top layer has to be of best quality to sustain maximum compressive stress, in addition to wear and tear.

The lower layers will experience lesser magnitude of stress and low quality material can be used. Flexible pavements are constructed using bituminous materials. These can be either in the form of surface treatments (such as bituminous surface treatments generally found on low volume roads) or, asphalt concrete surface courses (generally used on high volume roads such as national highways). Flexible pavement layers reflect the deformation of the lower layers on to the surface layer (e.g., if there is any undulation in sub-grade then it will be transferred to the surface layer). In the case of flexible pavement, the design is based on overall performance of flexible pavement, and the stresses produced should be kept well below the allowable stresses of each pavement layer.

Types of Flexible Pavements

The following types of construction have been used in flexible pavement:

  • Conventional layered flexible pavement,
  • Full – depth asphalt pavement, and
  • Contained rock asphalt mat (CRAM).

Conventional flexible pavements are layered systems with high quality expensive materials are placed in the top where stresses are high, and low quality cheap materials are placed in lower layers.

Full – depth asphalt pavements are constructed by placing bituminous layers directly on the soil subgrade.

This is more suitable when there is high traffic and local materials are not available.

Contained rock asphalt mats are constructed by placing dense/open graded aggregate layers in between two asphalt layers. Modified dense graded asphalt concrete is placed above the sub-grade will significantly reduce the vertical compressive strain on soil sub-grade and protect from surface water.

Causes of Failure of Flexible Pavements

The major flexible pavement failures are fatigue cracking, rutting, and thermal cracking.

The fatigue cracking of flexible pavement is due to horizontal tensile strain at the bottom of the asphaltic concrete. The failure criterion relates allowable number of load repetitions to tensile strain and this relation can be determined in the laboratory fatigue test on asphaltic concrete specimens.

Rutting occurs only on flexible pavements as indicated by permanent deformation or rut depth along wheel load path. Two design methods have been used to control rutting: one to limit the vertical compressive strain on the top of subgrade and other to limit rutting to a tolerable amount (12 mm normally).

Thermal cracking includes both low-temperature cracking and thermal fatigue cracking.

2. Rigid Pavements

Rigid pavements have sufficient flexural strength to transmit the wheel load stresses to a wider area below. A typical cross section of the rigid pavement is shown below.

cross section of rigid pavement
cross section of rigid pavement

Compared to flexible pavement, rigid pavements are placed either directly on the prepared sub-grade or on a single layer of granular or stabilized material. Since there is only one layer of material between the concrete and the sub-grade, this layer can be called as base or sub-base course.

In rigid pavement, load is distributed by the slab action, and the pavement behaves like an elastic plate resting on a viscous medium (see the figure below).

Plate Theory
Plate Theory

Rigid pavements are constructed by Portland cement concrete (PCC) and should be analyzed by plate theory instead of layer theory, assuming an elastic plate resting on viscous foundation. Plate theory is a simplified version of layer theory that assumes the concrete slab as a medium thick plate which is plane before loading and to remain plane after loading. Bending of the slab due to wheel load and temperature variation and the resulting tensile and flexural stress.

Types of Rigid Pavements

Rigid pavements can be classified into four types:

  • Jointed plain concrete pavement (JPCP),
  • Jointed reinforced concrete pavement (JRCP),
  • Continuous reinforced concrete pavement (CRCP), and
  • Pre-stressed concrete pavement (PCP).

Jointed Plain Concrete Pavements are plain cement concrete pavements constructed with closely spaced contraction joints. Dowel bars or aggregate interlocks are normally used for load transfer across joints. They normally have a joint spacing of 5 to 10m.

Jointed Reinforced Concrete Pavement: Although reinforcements do not improve the structural capacity significantly, they can drastically increase the joint spacing to 10 to 30m. Dowel bars are required for load transfer. Reinforcement help to keep the slab together even after cracks.

Continuous Reinforced Concrete Pavement: Complete elimination of joints are achieved by reinforcement.

Causes of Failure of Rigid Pavements

Traditionally fatigue cracking has been considered as the major or only criterion for rigid pavement design. The allowable number of load repetitions to cause fatigue cracking depends on the stress ratio between flexural tensile stress and concrete modulus of rupture.

Of late, pumping is identified as an important failure criterion. Pumping is the ejection of soil slurry through the joints and cracks of cement concrete pavement, caused during the downward movement of slab under the heavy wheel loads.

Other major types of distress in rigid pavements include faulting, spalling, and deterioration.


Dr. Tom V Mathew (IIT Bombay)

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