IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Tech-Enhanced Infrastructure Will Promote Equity in Transportation

Recognizing the opportunity that technology-enhanced infrastructure presents is key to combating an inequitable and crumbling transportation system.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The state of disrepair of the infrastructure in the United States is well documented. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country has repeatedly received a failing grade when it comes to roads, aviation and dams. On top of the already struggling system, there are several factors working against the future structure as well.

At the Smart Cities Week conference in Silicon Valley, an assortment of representatives from cities across the world gathered to discuss the future of smart communities and what concrete steps should be first. Vinn White, former deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), knows a thing or two about next-generation communities. Now with Deloitte’s smart city team, White provided a look at how basic infrastructure will be met with smart technology.

Painting the picture, White described an aging legacy system of roads and highways that will continue to serve a growing population. “The population is expected to grow by 70 million people by 2050,” he said. The current system will not be able to handle this sudden influx. While White was at the U.S. DOT, the agency released Beyond Traffic 2045, a report that recognized the stresses that will be put on the transportation system in the next 20 years.

Not only will the increase in personal vehicle use be a strain on infrastructure, but freight also is growing at a rapid pace. With the digital marketplace promising increasingly quick delivery speeds, large semi-trucks are constantly rolling along the pavement. This trend is expected to continue to rise. According to White, freight volume will increase by 45 percent within the next 20 years.

Another increasing concern for city and public officials will be the effect climate change has on the network. “Thirteen of the hottest years on record have occurred within the last 15 years,” said White. This will have a detrimental effect on transportation infrastructure as “rails will buckle, roads and bridges will wash out. … How are we going to meet this challenge?”

One issue White prioritized while at the DOT was transportation's impact on equity and potential displacement. Former DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx led the agency well aware of how highways divided historical communities into neighborhoods of haves and have-nots. “Well planned infrastructure can exacerbate or relieve income gaps,” White said. An aged infrastructure could threaten to worsen mobility access for underserved areas.

Redesigning infrastructure to include smart sensors and Internet-connected devices and designing an equitable system need to go hand in hand, he explained. Connected and autonomous vehicles are just the start of what is possible. While research shows that autonomous vehicles could reduce crashes by more than 80 percent, connected vehicles could add value back to an infrastructure system by alerting law enforcement and tow trucks immediately of an accident on a highway.

That is why the department launched the Smart City Challenge in 2015. The DOT sent out a request for medium-sized cities to address pressing needs and propose solutions for how transportation funds could address and alleviate the hardships. Columbus, Ohio, was chosen as the winner, with one of the driving factors being its commitment to equity and reconnecting communities.

White spoke about the proposal to introduce an on-demand ride service for pregnant women who have difficulty finding transportation to pre- and post-natal appointments. The infant mortality rate for the underserved Columbus neighborhood of South Linden was more than four times higher than the national average. “By analyzing several sets of data, officials were able to recognize a fire problem and propose a solution driven by data,” he said.

The Smart City Challenge was a mix of competition, collaboration and experimentation of what is possible, White explained. The pilots and demonstrations throughout the country are an example of what's possible and how the system can be improved.

“Adaptive connected traffic signals, detecting pedestrians and vehicles entering intersections in real time, wayfinding applications that enable commuters to decide instantly on one platform the cheapest and most convenient way to move around using common payment systems that lets users travel easily across modes,” are a glimpse of what is possible, said White. Increasing mobility while improving the nation’s infrastructure system will be difficult, but it is possible.

"With government investment, we can save more babies," said White. When we "discover scalable solutions, and transpose those over multitude of communities, that is how smart technology can win the future."

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.