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The Unexpected Ways Engineers Help Us Move Faster

We are a society obsessed with speed—"the fastest" never ceases to capture our imaginations. The fastest production car? The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. The fastest train? The SCMAGLEV in Japan. The fastest passenger plane? The Concorde. Astonishing engineering has endowed these vehicles with remarkably quickness, but their raw feats are only half the story. The Veyron couldn't reach 267 mph on a bumpy back road, the SCMAGLEV couldn't hit 361 mph without a highly specialized track, and the Concorde wouldn't have been able to travel at twice the speed of sound if no runways existed to get it aloft. Marvelous machines fulfill one half of our need for speed. Infrastructure satisfies the other.

ByRobert VictorNOVA NextNOVA Next
The Unexpected Ways Engineers Help Us Move Faster

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We are a society obsessed with speed—“the fastest” never ceases to capture our imaginations. The fastest production car? The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. The fastest train? The SCMAGLEV in Japan. The fastest passenger plane? The Concorde. Astonishing engineering has endowed these vehicles with remarkably quickness, but their raw feats are only half the story. The Veyron couldn’t reach 267 mph on a bumpy back road, the SCMAGLEV couldn’t hit 361 mph without a highly specialized track , and the Concorde wouldn’t have been able to travel at twice the speed of sound if no runways existed to get it aloft. Marvelous machines fulfill one half of our need for speed. Infrastructure satisfies the other.

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Flashy locomotives keep high-speed rail zooming along, but they couldn't achieve those speeds without specialized track.

Expanding cities, global businesses, and an interconnected world mean that people need to travel to more places than ever before. Cities cannot prosper in isolation, and businesses cannot thrive if they cannot move goods effectively. As our nation continues to grow, so too must our basic infrastructure. Today, our roads, bridges, and transit systems are not keeping pace with America’s rapid change—meaning we are not positioning ourselves for the future.

In the 20 th century, creating American infrastructure meant building the Interstate system, but today, the era of massive road expansion is largely over. Now, engineers and planners are working on how to use the infrastructure we have most efficiently. This doesn’t mean just repairing roads, though that is an essential piece of the puzzle. Rather, new advancements in construction, design, and technology promise to revolutionize how we move people and goods on roads, on rails, and through the air. Cities and states across the country are experimenting with different strategies to maintain and modernize their infrastructure, spurred by the challenges caused by decades of underinvestment.

The long-awaited Hoover Dam Bypass opened in 2010. An alternate route for U.S. 93 was first discussed in the 1960s.

My colleagues and I at the American Society of Civil Engineers recently released its 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure , giving the nation a cumulative grade of D+ across 16 categories of infrastructure. Since the first report card was issued nearly 15 years ago, grades have mostly been poor—averaging a D—due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories. To catch up, we estimate that across all categories of infrastructure, we need to spend over $200 billion a year from now to 2020.

Fortunately, that’s an attainable goal—our peer countries invest more than four times what we do as a percentage of their GDP. It may seem like a large outlay, but it’s an investment that would pay dividends for generations.

Untangling Our Roads

Modernizing our roads is an important step. Most of us can relate to sitting in traffic. Today, more than 40 percent of our urban highways are congested. Americans waste almost $7 billion on 2 billion gallons of gas just idling in traffic. The average commuter loses 34 hours each year in traffic and loses an additional $713 due to congestion. That’s like giving up nearly a week of vacation or missing your kid’s entire soccer season five times over.

Poor road surfaces contribute to those delays both directly—cars can’t travel as fast over potholed surfaces—and indirectly—money for improvements is redirected toward basic repairs. If highway departments could fix small cracks before they become gaping holes, we’d all be moving a lot more smoothly.

With current methods, that requires closing lanes for long amounts of time. But the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Georgia Department of Transportation are developing a robot that automatically detects and repairs cracks and potholes. Pulled behind a slow-moving truck, the prototype system can find and fill cracks as small as one-eighth of an inch. If it becomes widely adopted, road repairs around the country could be finished earlier and with fewer lane closures, saving cities money and commuters an immense amount of time.

The road repairing robot developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Georgia Department of Transportation

We know that repairs are not enough, though. The 2013 report card includes innovation as part of the grading criteria, recognizing that it is not just about fixing the infrastructure we have, but making it smarter. Innovation in infrastructure includes not only new technologies, but advanced design, pricing, and construction techniques. By changing the way we build and manage our roads, there is huge potential to move things faster.

In 2011, for example, the Maryland State Highway Administration completed work on the Intercounty Connector (ICC) Project, a 19-mile highway that links the heavily trafficked I-95 and I-270 corridors in the Washington, D.C., region. What sets the ICC apart from other bypasses is its variable pricing model, which raises tolls during peak travel times and lowers them during off-peak periods, such as overnight. The Capital Beltway around Washington, D.C., uses a similar pricing scheme in certain lanes to keep traffic moving. Higher tolls during peak periods encourage people with more flexible schedules to travel off-peak, reducing overall congestion.

Recently, the city of Los Angeles completed what is perhaps a more ambitious project—the synchronization of 44,000 traffic signals across the city’s 469 square miles. The project took over 20 years to complete and is the largest effort of its kind in the world. The system uses magnetic sensors to send real-time traffic updates to a central command center where computers can adjust signal timings based on congestion. Preliminary data shows that it has reduced travel times by 12 percent and increased average speeds by 16 percent. Car commuters aren’t the only ones who benefit, either. The system prioritizes buses by holding green lights longer, giving them a better chance to stay on schedule, even during rush hour.

San Francisco's smart parking system, known as SFpark, varies parking costs based on time of day and occupancy rate.

Parking, too, is getting an overhaul. Cities like Seattle have installed electronic signs that tell you how many parking spaces are available in nearby garages. San Francisco has gone a step further, installing sensors in 7,000 of its 28,000 on-street parking spaces. During peak times, or when spaces fill up, prices on the remaining spaces rise, encouraging people parked on busy streets to free up their spots for someone else. There’s also a smartphone app that can help you find parking. San Francisco’s smart parking system will also keep traffic flowing more smoothly—about 30 percent of congestion in cities is due to people circling around trying to find a space.

On the Right Track

There are times, though, when taking a car isn’t that convenient. As our nation’s population grows and traffic swells along with it, more people will be looking for alternatives to the automobile. One established mode that’s been getting a new look in recent years is rail. Though passenger trains in the U.S. haven’t kept pace with others around the world, new projects are starting to change that. Chicago, for example, is overhauling it’s main north-south rapid transit line, and Denver and the San Francisco Bay Area are expanding their existing commuter and subway lines by dozens of miles each. New York City is midway through an extension to the Long Island Railroad, one of the busiest passenger railroads in the country.

Amtrak, too, has been rehabbing old track and bridges. Along the Northeast Corridor, the most heavily traveled passenger line in the U.S., it replaced a bridge over the Niantic River in Connecticut that was over a century old. Even people who never ride the train could benefit from this upgrade. Since Amtrak shares track with freight railroads, the new bridge will speed non-passenger trains as well.

The East Side Access project will bring the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

Then there’s high-speed rail. Though the excitement of a few years ago has died down, California’s system is moving along. There have been a few hitches of late, but construction is still scheduled to begin in October. And don’t forget the Acela, currently the nation’s only high-speed rail line. Connecting Boston with Washington, D.C., it carried a record 3.4 million passengers last year. The slightly slower Northeast Regional, which runs the same route, hauled 8 million passengers. The trend in train travel only seems to be increasing , too.

Taking Off

The U.S. is a large country, and getting quickly from one end to another is best done in a plane. In the U.S., airlines flying domestically and to and from international destinations carried over 815 million passengers in 2012. The sheer volume of passengers is why many airports are planning or building new runways and terminals. For example, Chicago’s O’Hare airport, notorious for its delays, is expanding and reconfiguring its runways. When the modernization program is complete, O’Hare will have eight runways, six of which will run parallel to one another. That last is key—runways that don’t cross each other have higher takeoff and landing capacities. Across the country, Los Angeles International Airport, another busy hub for travelers, is renovating its main terminal to accept even more passengers and to accommodate super jumbos like the double-decker Airbus A380.

Every day, air traffic controllers track thousands of flights across the U.S.

Even if you don’t fly in and out of large hubs, the federal government’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, also known as NextGen, will make your flights shorter and more efficient. By using the latest technology to optimize airspace above major airports into precise traffic patterns, much like a street system, we can streamline flight operations even as air traffic continues to increase. NextGen blends GPS receivers, wireless communications, and distributed data about weather, terrain, and air traffic to keep pilots better informed of their surroundings and provide air traffic controllers more accurate information about airplane locations. At airports, this will mean shorter lines for landing and taking off, getting passengers on their way more quickly.

The NexGen air traffic control system will allow planes to take off and land more frequently, reducing delays at busy airports like Chicago's O'Hare, where this Alaska flight is departing from.

Implementing all of this won’t be cheap, but the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that it will save $23 billion by reducing delays alone. It’ll also make plane travel more efficient, saving 1.4 billion gallons of fuel and cutting carbon emissions by 14 million tons.

At A Turning Point

Many of our interstates, bridges, and subways are nearing the end of their useful lives. Most of our railroads are more than a century old, and dozens of our airports are bursting at the seams. As we decide how to fix and upgrade our infrastructure, the question is, will we just slap on another band-aid or will we seize the opportunity to modernize our outdated systems?

Repairing our infrastructure isn’t just about fixing potholes or straightening wobbly track, it’s about moving people faster and more efficiently. That way, people can spend less time in transit and more time with their families, friends, or even at work.

The benefits of optimized infrastructure also extend to our economy. ASCE estimates that if the U.S. continues down its current path of meager infrastructure investment, we will lose $3.1 trillion in GDP, $1.1 trillion in trade value, and 3.5 million jobs by 2020. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy. If we can move things faster, we can reduce costs, improve productivity, and save people money.

Despite the fact that infrastructure is directly tied into so many issues people claim to care about, it is rarely discussed. The quickest, most long-lasting, and best way to fix our nation’s infrastructure is to hold our leaders accountable and demand bold action. An infrastructure grade of  D+ means our problems are large and complex. There are amazing examples of innovation being implemented every day, but only bold leadership—at all levels—will fix the massive issues we face.

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.