The Future of Highways

We must utilize rapid technological advances to improve our infrastructure

By Malcolm Dougherty

Our transportation system is the lifeblood of our country— specifically with our highway system. However, the most recent Infrastructure Report Card gives America’s roads a D grade due to crowding, poor conditions, chronic underfunding, and increasing dangerous conditions. Collectively, the country spent more than 6.9 billion hours delayed in traffic. That equates to 42 hours per driver each year and added up to $160 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2014. With a backlog in rehabilitation needs across the country and a rapid increase in technology, we need to be smarter, creative, and pragmatic.

Connected and Autonomous Vehicles

Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) will be a significant part of the transportation of tomorrow and our infrastructure will need to accommodate. In the near term, we will see more electric cars hit the road, meaning we’ll need the infrastructure to power those vehicles. Expect to see more charging stations along highways—and eventually the possibility of an electric grid that will enable dynamic electric vehicle charging—or cars and transit vehicles charging as they cruise down the highway.

In the future, infrastructure will communicate directly with our vehicles. We can expect technology to incorporate signal timing and calculate how best for drivers to hit primarily green lights along their route. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications will also become more common, helping cars avoid collisions and dramatically improve safety while sharing traffic, weather, and road conditions.

Geometric Design

Particularly in and around urban areas, there could be a shift in the geometric design of roadways. More and more, complete streets are improving safety, changing land use, and encouraging people to travel via different modes of transportation. Future design will need to account for more than just cars, so the traditional highways we know will need to be redesigned for the most efficient way of moving people around—that means sharing the road among all modes of transportation. We may even see dedicated lanes for CAVs, much like our current HOV lanes, bike lanes, and transit lanes.

An oft-buzzed about topic in geometric design relates to fully autonomous vehicles (AVs). At what point will technology allow us to narrow lanes so we can have more lanes in the same amount of space or less? This is still a while off, as we need complete saturation of AVs. Even one human driver on the road will complicate the transition, but it’s something we are considering as we design for the future.

Resiliency

With climate change comes uncertainty. We are no longer able to use historical climate as a predictor of future risk. With infrastructure now expected to last for 50 years or more, we need to pay close attention to how higher temperatures, as well as severe storms and flooding, will affect our transportation system. In many cases, this will come in the form of hardening future infrastructure and acknowledging where highways need to be addressed.

More Data

We have access to ever increasing data and are putting it to good use in several ways to design future highways. Data analytics can help us identify mobility patterns, causes of congestion, and will allow planners to identify solutions.

Traffic management can benefit from live data, allowing us to better facilitate real-time traffic monitoring and control. Data also allows us to identify and acknowledge practical driving alternatives when our main highways become congested. With a backlog in rehabilitation needs across the country and a rapid increase in technology, we need to be smarter, creative, and pragmatic as we design the infrastructure of the future.

The rise of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) has also been fueled by the data explosion. We will see more apps popping up that connect and coordinate these transportation options and payments in one place.

Data can also help us monitor the conditions of current infrastructure. By employing sensors, we can collect data that provides real-time conditions and determine the rate of deterioration. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—or drones—will be exceptionally helpful as they can reach locations not easily accessed. In the long-term, we will seek to create an integrated transportation network to move people in a faster, safer and, more convenient fashion. By enhancing personal mobility while modernizing highways, we will seek to improve quality of life.

Malcolm Dougherty is the National Practice Executive – Transportation at Michael Baker International

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