A Civil Engineer’s Look at Roads and Highways

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Roads Highways

Recent studies conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), found that more than 42 percent of America’s highways are operating at capacity, which translates to an annual economic cost of more than $100 billion due to wasted resources, such as time and fuel.

Much of this congestion is due to a lack of road repair and expansion. For example, ASCE research shows that from 1990 to 2009, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) increased by 39 percent, yet new constructed road mileage increased by only four percent. Furthermore, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that a $170 billion investment would be needed in order to improve overall roads and highway conditions. Much of this investment would be directed toward the design, repair, and advance of current and future highways – responsibilities that are handled mainly by civil engineers.


Civil Design Software

With the advancement of technology, a large majority of engineers are designing roads and highways using civil design software. There are myriad design technologies, some of which include singular platforms that utilize civil-engineer-oriented CAD technologies, while others are multi-software platforms customized to fit basic design needs.

In considering the most appropriate civil design software, it’s important for the engineer to know exactly the type of works that are being proposed and match these with the abilities and outputs of the design software. To help with this process, teams should decide upon factors such as how often they plan on using the technologies, 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 other factors:

  • Client preference – Some clients may have particular requirements in regards 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 exactly meet their needs. Note: Some of the 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 that the industry offers.
  • Cost – Civil engineering design technologies can be extremely expensive, so teams should keep in mind what offers the best long-term return on investment.
  • Technological resources – CAD files can be quite massive, and if computers don’t have enough bandwidth, these large files could slow down overall performance. To prevent this, teams should consider their overall technological resources, such as computer hardware, external hard drives, bandwidth extension, and memory upgrades.

Road and 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 32 percent of these roadways are considered to be in substandard condition. These inferior roads alone are costing American travelers $67 billion a year, a number that doesn’t include gas, repairs, and general operating expenses.

In addition to the design aspect, civil engineers are responsible for the continuous maintenance and upgrades to the existing road infrastructure. Engineers utilize some of the most recent trends in the industry.  As an example in the pavement materials sector, the three most popular pavement types have been:

  • Precast pre-stressed pavements
  • Roller compacted pavements
  • Asphalt

Of these, the most popular has been asphalt, as its strength and durability offer suitable protection from a variety of destructive factors, such as weather and vehicle weight.

Human Factors

While engineers can design and maintain the roadways, one must not forget the component of human beings driving on them. Considering this important factor, engineers must hold themselves responsible for the safety and efficiency of the roadway. To accomplish this task, engineers must thoroughly test designs for safety and practicality. Roundabouts, for example, come in multiple models, many of which provide equal levels of safety. Therefore, to make a decision, engineers must also consider practicality and efficiency, as some drivers may not know how to navigate some of these roundabouts.

To help quicken the testing process, engineers are now using simulation software to test their designs in a faster, safer, and more efficient manner.

Advancements for Future Travel

Conventional approaches to solving the nation’s 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 right-of-way. Considering that our national debt continues to expand, government officials feel that major finances need to be allocated to areas of immediate concern, rather than our roads and highways that, although inadequate, are still able to be traveled upon.

Yet, 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, falling under the umbrella term of Intelligent Transportation Systems, 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.

As one may infer, our nation’s need for overall road repair and improvement makes it a great time to be a civil engineer. With highway travel remaining as one of the most important elements supporting the country’s economy, federal funds will continue to be allocated for road design, repair, and construction, federal budget concerns notwithstanding. Civil engineers will play a progressively important role in the development of our transportation system, regardless of whether it’s in the reconstruction of current roads or designing a faster, more sustainable method of travel in the future.

About Ohio University

For more than a century, Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology has been teaching engineers how to create for good – how to engineer a better future with responsible and sustainable design. Learn more about our online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program and master how to effectively supervise, plan, design, construct, and operate the infrastructures essential to connect the modern world.

Additional Reading

Improving the Asphalt Pavements Sustainability
Technology and the Future of America’s Infrastructure
Civil Engineering Resource and Career Guide


g2crowd.com, “Best Civil Engineering Design Software”
Infrastructure Report Card, “A Big WIIN For Water Resources”
Sustainable Highways.dot.gov, “Advancing a Sustainable Highway System: Highlights of FHWA Sustainability Activities”
Research Gate.net, “Current Trends in Design and Construction of Concrete Roads”
Pavement Preservation.org, “National Trends in Pavement Design” (PDF)