Future-proofing Our Transportation Infrastructure

By Mark Conway, PE

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Future-proofing is the ability of an asset to continue to be of value in the future. Because investors in long-term assets seek reliable returns, it is essential for infrastructure projects to remain efficient and productive for decades. To achieve this goal, assets must be “future-proofed” by anticipating changes in growth patterns and demands, creating flexibility, and the potential for increased capacity. Additionally, tomorrow’s transportation infrastructure must continue to advance in safety and cost-effectiveness. 

Why is Future-proofing Important?
Current global trends affecting transportation assets continue to change at an increasing rate. Future-proofing looks at these as well as regional trends to determine the best options to provide long-term value at minimum expense while considering the project’s entire life cycle. The most notable impact on transportation networks of the future will be the continued deployment, integration, and reliance on, autonomous and connected vehicles (AV/CV), and electrification of these AV/CV technologies. Future-proofing prepares us for this inevitable evolutionary shift and allows AV/CV to operate at their full potential.

There are numerous other motivations to future-proof critical infrastructure, including:

  • Optimize aging infrastructure
  • Extreme weather events
  • Changing use and capacity enhancements
  • Reduced life cycle costs
  • Optimize diminishing government budgets
  • Changes in legislation (carbon footprint for example)
  • Risk reduction (lower vulnerability with higher capacity to respond)
  • Measures and quantifies the value of potential disruptions 

How Do We Future-proof Transportation Infrastructure?
There are two aspects of infrastructure future-proofing to consider: resilience and adaptability. Resilience refers to the ability of the infrastructure to maintain/resume normal operations during/after unexpected/uncontrollable events and circumstances. This may include climate change, flooding, terrorism, and pandemics. Adaptability refers to the ability to adapt or respond to changing needs, uses, or capacities of an uncertain future. This includes allowing for changing requirements, building to avoid/reduce the impact of future events, and considering numerous socioeconomic and environmental dimensions. An example is the conversion of parking garages to an office or retail facility as a single-occupancy vehicle demand decreases. 

Maximizing infrastructure asset productivity while minimizing building and operating costs can be achieved in a variety of ways:

  • Early recognition of national and regional trends
  • Realistic estimations of the impact of trends on vehicle, pedestrian, and transit demand
  • Identification of risks associated with trends
  • Sensitivity of the system to forecasting errors
  • Performing cost-benefit analyses on broader project objectives
  • Building in flexibility of use and dynamic pricing
  • Considering the possibility of multiple-purpose assets
  • Using technology to improve design, planning, and performance

Infrastructure planners and developers must take a multi-prong approach with regards to future-proofing that includes roadway considerations, technology solutions, and legislative support. All three are necessary for long-term success. 

Factors to consider include:

Roadway/Roadside Considerations

  • Exclusive AV Lanes
  • Full Depth Pavement
  • Impact on Bridge Structures
  • Smart Traffic Control Devices
  • Traffic Management Measures
  • Access to Electrical Power Service – Hard Wired, Solar, Pavement Embedment
  • “Safe Harbor” Areas
  • Role of Service Stations and Rest Stops
  • Modified Parking Facilities – Convertible, Repurposed

Technology Considerations

  • Communications – Fiber, Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), Cellular V2X
  • Data – Management, Use, Storage, Sharing
  • Electric Vehicles
  • Cognitive Vehicles

Legislative Support Considerations/Strategies

  • Identify transportation, safety, and environmental goals that may be achieved through AV/CV
  • Establish performance metrics for the goals and objectives to measure progress/accountability
  • Increase public awareness of benefits
  • Funding and resources
  • Thoughtful land-use policies, parking requirements, and road-use pricing
  • Encourage AV/CV user benefits; subsidies, priority access to dedicated lanes, traffic signal priorities, and priority parking access
  • Buy-in by federal, state, local, and municipal agencies
  • Establish focused initiatives
     - Public
    Private sector engagement

Today’s investors and operators of transportation infrastructure must consider the economic impact of asset resiliency and adaptability as assets are planned, built, and managed. Future-proofing ensures long-term sustainability and value on return on investment. Infrastructure asset owners need to take positive action to promote thoughtful and effective strategies and legislative/public support.