Technology applications will allow us to develop a 21st century infrastructure

This column published as "Building a System for Our Time" in January 2021 issue

Shailen Bhatt / January 06, 2021 / 3 minute read
Shailen Bhatt

In 1919, a young Dwight Eisenhower was part of a convoy that drove from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. The trip, which took 62 days, is said to be a key reason he pushed for a nationwide system of paved roads.

After World War II, despite the negative impact on many urban neighborhoods, the U.S. Interstate System opened up an unrivaled century of prosperity that connected people across the country to jobs and services in a way that could not have previously been imagined. 

The system was one of the most significant infrastructure investments of the 20th century and was critical to defining the United States as a leading global force. In the 21st century, it is not just about building roads and bridges—it is about applying technology to operate our transportation systems much more effectively.

How do we do that? With a vision of a better future transformed by intelligent mobility—one that is safer, greener, and smarter. For a safer future, we start by decreasing fatalities on U.S. roadways—nearly 38,000 people die every year on our system. One of the best tools in our toolbox is broadly deploying vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies so that vehicles can communicate not only with each other, but also with pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. It is connecting vehicles with infrastructure—and these vulnerable users—in a holistic way that makes 5G deployment so critical.

We also need to look at how to use predictive analytics and machine learning to bring a higher level of “intelligence” to “intelligent transportation systems”—understanding what factors cause breakdowns, so we can respond to incidents more quickly and manage traffic in more intelligent ways.  

The transportation sector is responsible for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., so that is our starting point for looking to “green the future”: Investing in electrifying our system through equipping our infrastructure, deploying solar generation within highway right-of-ways, and building a charging network that will minimize range anxiety.

Then there is the endless traffic—Americans spend an average of 100 hours a year in traffic, so how can we use technology in this century to help transit become more effective in providing connectivity across the network? On the micromobility front, we must work toward integrating trips across the system and figure out ways in which people can seamlessly plan and pay for multimodal travel. Just as shared scooters and bikes came on the scene and changed commuting patterns in many urban areas, it won’t be long before urban air mobility arrives with drone delivery of freight and passengers. It will be important to do more scenario planning to help us better understand how these advances, along with more people working from home, will allow us to reengineer and reimagine our cities. 

The interstate system was a technological revolution in the 20th century. Technology applications to our transportation system will allow us to develop a 21st century infrastructure, and in turn help us become more resilient and more intelligent in how we move people and goods across the country. One hundred years after Eisenhower made that cross-country journey, we have an opportunity to make a positive impact on mobility and commuting patterns throughout the U.S. 

About the Author

Bhatt is President and CEO at Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America).

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