5 Opportunities for Improving America's Infrastructure
Civil engineers in the United States are tasked with designing new infrastructural features that can adequately support the needs of the country’s ever-growing population. The most important aspects that can be addressed by improving infrastructure include solving issues regarding the transportation of vital resources, like water, as well as easing transportation concerns by building safe bridges, highways, and railways. In 2017, the American Society for Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ in their Infrastructure Report Card program. In order to improve the nation’s rating, American civil engineers must address these five key areas of American infrastructure.
Highway infrastructure must be capable of bearing significant amounts of weight, as well as durable enough to resist structural damage and surface wear caused by traffic and weather conditions. For example, when a highway is congested, it is often bearing a load that reaches or exceeds its maximum capacity, and unfortunately, many American highways are congested for a majority of the day. However, while several highways throughout the country are in desperate need of repair, insufficient government spending on highway infrastructure has slowed the progression of many major highway projects. To remedy highway concerns, civil engineers will need to use new technologies and design cost-effective strategies to find ways to safely improve the capacity and durability of these highways.
One option that civil engineers have explored for expanding highway capacity during peak travel times is temporarily adjusting the number and width of lanes on the highway by measuring real-time traffic volume during peak traffic periods using GPS data. This real-time lane expansion has been accomplished by using modern illuminating lane technology to open or close lanes in response to traffic volumes. Opening more narrow lanes in times of high traffic allows for faster travel, while opening wider lanes during light traffic allows traffic to flow more freely. When coupled with innovative advancements in construction material selection, construction processes, and improved pavement design, this method can help to lengthen the lifetime of highways and limit the damage caused to the structures.
Surface Public Transportation
As the cornerstone of any major metropolitan zone, public transportation helps to ease automobile traffic congestion and makes it easier for citizens to travel in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Improvements to public transportation infrastructure could mean increased access to buses, trains, trolleys or similar above-ground public transportation
systems. Securing widespread access to these transportation resources is important, especially for working-class families who don’t have access to a personal vehicle and often rely on public transportation to make it to school and work.
To ensure that public transportation infrastructure effectively serves the patrons who rely on it most, civil engineers must make forecasts of expected passenger travel by estimating how many trips will be taken, where passengers will likely be traveling, what mode of transportation is likely to be used, and which routes will be preferred. After collecting this data, engineers can use it to implement transit technologies—such as signs with variable road safety or traffic messages and advanced traffic control systems—to ease the commuting process for patrons. For example, the traffic messages can help patrons plan their routes accordingly, while the traffic systems can help system operators properly manage and direct the flow of traffic within an urban zone.
Pipelines are essential to modern societies, because they transport resources like water, oil, and gas into homes and commercial estates, as well as transport waste materials out of them. Unfortunately, pipelines are prone to leaks that, when left unaddressed, can cause substantial damage to the surrounding infrastructure. Failures in pipelines can occur due to gradual corrosion, poor initial construction, poor operational practices, and damage incurred from the actions of a third party, like road construction workers who are not aware of pipelines in their work area. Civil engineers must use their knowledge of resource pipeline systems and resource transportation infrastructure to identify potential safety or infrastructural threats, thereby allowing them to develop technological solutions that can help avert pipeline breaches that may directly threaten human life.
On September 9, 2016, the Colonial Pipeline in Alabama suffered from a leak, and 330,000 gallons of refined gas flowed out of the line and into the surrounding area, causing statewide gas shortages. Civil engineers were able to route the excess gas into a local retention pond before any serious threat to human life occurred. However, because adequate safety precautions were not taken during the initial leak, a track hoe struck the damaged pipeline two months later, causing a massive fire that resulted in two deaths and four hospitalizations. To avoid a repeat of such an event, civil engineers are currently testing preventative technology to improve overall pipeline integrity and security, like coatings designed to protect pipelines from corrosion and optic sensors that can be placed along the length of a pipeline to constantly monitor the overall integrity and other conditions.
The American Society for Civil Engineers found that nine percent of American bridges were structurally deficient in 2016. Fortunately, modern engineers have access to the durable building materials and technical skills needed to improve our nation’s bridge system. Material science is pushing the boundaries of what common materials—like steel, wood, glass, and concrete—are capable of supporting, while constantly expanding the structural capabilities of newly created materials like hard plastics and composite materials. As an increasing number of American cities need to replace aging bridges, civil engineers will need to begin implementing the use of these materials more effectively in bridge design, helping to create stronger bridges that will support large loads without a great increase to maintenance requirements.
Currently, bridge design is also seeing growth in the areas of advanced geometric modeling and simplified design implementation. Engineers are now able to render three-dimensional bridge designs using software that can optimize the design based on a number of factors, including weight load and solar heat gain. These new technologies expedite the process of remodeling decrepit bridge infrastructure, enhancing the overall quality and speed of modern bridge construction without sacrificing safety and stability. Highly skilled civil engineers must be prepared to collaborate with architects and other design experts to ensure that bridge design plans utilize the foremost bridge building techniques, resulting in structures that are not only cost effective but also safe for use by commuters.
Underground railway systems have been in use since 1863, when the London Underground network, also known as the Tube, first opened. Since then, the integrity of subway systems has greatly improved, and they are used in many large metropolitan areas throughout the world. While the collapse of railway tunnels is very uncommon in the United States, in 2015, a fire in Washington D.C.’s underground transportation system resulted in a train being filled with smoke that couldn’t be vented out quickly enough, leaving one passenger dead.
This event brought a critical subway travel safety concern to light, and now civil engineers are modifying their practices to prevent this type of tragedy from reoccurring, as well as developing methods, solutions, and technologies to help improve the overall stability of underground transportation tunnels. For example, when designing new underground rail facilities, civil engineers can implement ground improvement technologies like ground freezing, dewatering, and grouting to change the properties of the soil and the groundwater around it, helping to boost overall tunnel stability. When coupled with advanced tunneling methods, these ground improvement technologies allow civil engineers more flexibility when planning subway expansions and efficient ventilation systems that can save lives when subway tunnels are filled with smoke or other toxic inhalants. Once the foundation of underground railway infrastructure is safely laid out, civil engineers continually use computational and analytical methods to verify that the most effective construction materials and design plans have been used, effectively confirming that the finished rail system is safe and sustainable for use by commuters.
Leveraging Big Data to Improve American Infrastructure
Civil engineers can also turn to digital resources to help improve the U.S.’s infrastructure. For example, they can utilize big data to discover recurring trends, patterns, and associations. To improve American infrastructure, big data can be mined for a variety of purposes.
- Monitoring of infrastructure health – Engineers can access the data sourced from sensors that are used to detect the structural integrity of individual structures. This data can be used to plan repairs and future infrastructure design.
- Traffic engineering – Civil engineers can help regulate the flow of traffic by drawing upon data placed on traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.
- Construction management – Construction projects can be planned more efficiently using design models that are based on analytics of the most effective building methods.
- Highway and transportation engineering – Automobile traffic, railways, air traffic, and water transportation are all monitored by systems that collect general and specific data, such as times of travel, passenger volume, cost of travel, and routes taken. This information can be used to plan practical modifications to infrastructure.
- Materials science and engineering – By accessing the libraries of data that show which material attributes were most effective in prior building endeavors, civil engineers can help ensure that new infrastructure designs benefit from past building failures and successes.
As America continues to seek ways for improving its infrastructure, the need for skillful civil engineers who can integrate new technologies and digital resources into their design strategies is on the rise. With the proper blend of experience, education, and training, practicing civil engineers can become instrumental contributors to the redevelopment of the struggling American infrastructural system.
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ASCE Committee on America’s Infrastructure, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card
Game changers: Five opportunities for US growth and renewal, McKinsey & Company
The New Technology of Bridge Design, Structure
America's Infrastructure Scores a D+, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card
Traffic: Frequently Asked Questions, Arizona Department of Transportation
Drinking Water, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card
Bridges, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card
Subway Derailment in Manhattan Injures Dozens, The New York Times
Civil Engineers, Bureau of Labor Statistics