Road Engineers: A Look at Road and Highway Design

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Roads Highways

Road engineers play an important role in building and preserving valuable transportation infrastructure across the nation. Their work allows people to travel safely and transport vital products and resources on the ground. As the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported, U.S. highways and roads move 72% — or roughly $17 trillion — of the country’s goods.

There is a problem, however. An increasing volume of traffic and lack of road repair and expansion has left 43% of those public roadways in poor or mediocre condition. Frequent natural disasters and severe weather events also continue to damage these roadways, impacting people’s safety and America’s economy.

While $29 billion of federal funds were allocated to state governments for highway improvements in 2020, there is still much work to be done. That means engineers will be needed to lead the charge in improving and maintaining roads and highways for billions of Americans.

A Master of Science in Civil Engineering degree can teach prospective civil engineers innovative strategies, tools, and procedures for success in their careers and to help bolster U.S. road infrastructure.

Highway Design

With the advancement of technology, a large majority of civil engineers are designing roads and highways using civil design software. There are a variety of design technologies. Some of these include singular platforms with civil engineer-oriented computer-aided design (CAD) technologies, while others are multi-software platforms that are tailored to fit basic design needs.

In considering the most appropriate civil design software, it’s important for road engineers to know exactly the type of projects that are being proposed and match these with the abilities and outputs of the design software. To help with this process, teams should decide on factors such as how often they plan on using the software, whether they’re seeking a simple add-on or an extensive platform, and the overall purpose of the software.

Civil design teams will also want to consider these other factors.

Client Preference

Some clients may have particular requirements in regard to how their infrastructures are designed. Thus, if you’re running CAD software that they’re uncomfortable with, they might select a company that can more successfully meet their needs. Note: Some add-on design software can run parallel or on-top of CAD platforms, so adhering to client preference is not entirely as difficult as it may sound.

Employees’ CAD Skill Levels

Naturally, some employees — especially recent graduates — will have been trained on only one CAD software system. Thus, learning a new system could be quite a process. To keep training delays to a minimum, engineering teams may want to consider purchasing the most popular software the industry offers.


Civil engineering design technologies can be extremely expensive, so teams should keep in mind which offers the best long-term return on investment.

Technological Resources

CAD files can be quite massive. If computers don’t have enough bandwidth, these large files could slow down overall performance. To prevent this, teams should consider their current technological resources, such as computer hardware, external hard drives, bandwidth extension, and memory upgrades.

Highway Repair

As mentioned, America’s roads and highways are in dire need of repair. According to ASCE, there are currently more than four million miles of public roadways, yet almost half of them need to be improved. These inferior roads alone are costing American travelers nearly $130 billion each year on vehicle repairs and operating costs.

In addition to the design aspect, road engineers are responsible for the continuous maintenance and upgrades to the existing road infrastructure. These civil engineers utilize some of the most recent resources and strategies in the industry.

A 2020 study in the Journal of Traffic and Transportation Engineering, for example, found that road civil engineers should consider using asphalt pavement of over 70 cm thickness to improve the lifespans of high-traffic roads. Meanwhile, McKinsey & Company noted that advanced materials such as plastic mixed with asphalt can make roads up to 60% more durable than the conventional asphalt that’s typically been used. Also, the World Resources Institute for Sustainable Cities suggested that design aspects such as shorter blocks, narrower lanes, and speed humps can be used to improve travel and save lives.

Advancements for Human Travel

Road engineers also have to account for traffic and congestion issues in their work. According to ASCE, U.S. drivers racked up over 3.2 trillion vehicle miles in 2019 — an 18% jump from 2000.

Conventional approaches to solving the nation’s traffic congestion problem have been to build new infrastructures such as additional lanes, additional alternate routes, and modifications to existing interchanges. However, these are becoming less feasible, mainly due to the overall cost of expanding highways and the difficulty in acquiring rights-of-way.

Still, research has shown that major improvements can be made to our roads and highways without constructing new roads or lanes. For example, major cities have been implementing technology to improve flow and decrease traffic. These technologies fall under the umbrella term of Intelligent Transportation Systems. They are allowing for an increase of testing for previously difficult, complex factors, like signal timing for efficiency, and proper speed limit range for optimum safety and accessibility.

Since civil engineers are responsible for the safety and efficiency of roadways, they must also be prepared to thoroughly test designs for safety and practicality. Roundabouts, for example, come in multiple types, many of which provide equal levels of safety but also come with a learning curve for drivers. To help quicken the testing process, engineers are now using simulation software to test their designs in a faster, safer, and more efficient manner.

Our nation’s need for overall road repair and improvement makes it a great time to be a road engineer. With highway travel remaining one of the most important element supporting the country’s economy, federal funds will continue to be allocated for road design, repair, and construction, federal budget concerns notwithstanding. In May 2021, for instance, President Biden launched a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes revamping 20,000 miles of roads and highways.

As such, civil engineers will play a progressively important role in the development of our transportation system, be it by reconstructing current roads or designing faster, more sustainable methods of travel for the future.

Build Your Career as a Road Engineer

For more than a century, Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology has been teaching engineers how to build a better future through responsible and sustainable design. With our online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program, prospective road engineers can learn to design, construct, and operate the infrastructures that keep the modern world connected. The curriculum offers four specialties to arm students with the knowledge, management skills, and advanced techniques to be leaders in their industry.

Discover how to advance your engineering career with Ohio University.

Recommended Readings

How Augmented and Virtual Reality Can Boost Productivity in Construction

Why Engineers Need Strong Writing Skills

Women in Engineering: Scholarships, Statistics & Tips for Advancing


American Road & Transportation Builders Association, Federal Investment Helped Advance 22,000 Highway Improvement Projects in 2020, New Data Reveals

ASCE, 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure

Bloomberg CityLab, “The Unstoppable Appeal of Highway Expansion”

CNBC, “President Biden Unveils His $2 Trillion Infrastructure Plan – Here Are the Details”

Indeed, What Is a CAD Engineer?

Jobsite, “What is Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Why It’s Important”

Journal of Traffic and Transportation Engineering, “Review on Evolution and Evaluation of Asphalt Pavement Structures and Materials”

McKinsey & Company, “Road Work Ahead: The Emerging Revolution in the Road Construction Industry”

Mobisoft Infotech, “Intelligent Transportation System – Best Option for Smart Cities”

Transoft Solutions, The Revolution for Roundabouts

U.S. Department of Transportation, Traffic Congestion and Reliability: Linking Solutions to Problems

USA Facts, What does America spend on transportation and infrastructure? Is transportation infrastructure improving?​

World Resources Institute, “6 Road Design Changes That Can Save Lives”