Setting up transportation engineers for success

By Chris McCahill 

Transportation engineering is a highly skilled job. Not only does it require the obvious technical expertise, but it also requires working closely with the public, speaking their language, and knowing how to assess tough tradeoffs in meeting their needs. Most engineers only learn these skills on the job, which raises important questions about how the educational system can leave them better prepared. 

After studying civil engineering in California and working for a few years in the U.S., Steffen Berr moved to the Netherlands where he is now a design engineer in the transportation field. Reflecting on his education and career, he writes in NextCity, “myself and most transportation engineers in the United States know almost nothing about transportation.” He explains that a typical transportation engineer studies the basics of civil engineering in college—i.e., structures, materials, soils, and water—and barely touches on transportation. What they do learn about transportation, Berr adds, does not prepare them to make tough tradeoffs between mobility, safety, and quality of life, or to answer difficult ethical questions when designing projects. 

Transportation is typically a focus area within civil engineering, but many undergraduate programs in the U.S. only require one transportation course, research shows. As an engineering student, I could have entered the field with just two introductory transportation courses under my belt. It took several more years to learn the basics of geometric design, traffic analysis, modeling, and planning.  

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has supported requiring a master’s or equivalent professional degree to practice civil engineering, but Professional Engineers are only required to have a four-year degree plus four years of experience. According to the job search website Zippia, 69 percent of transportation engineers have a bachelor’s and only about 16 percent have a master’s or doctorate. Moreover, only 58 percent of those with degrees studied civil engineering. 

While it might seem obvious that transportation engineers should be trained in the basics of the field, there is a lot that even the most advanced programs lack. Charles Marohn, who founded Strong Towns and wrote Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, has argued that while engineers are well-equipped for designing roads and highways, most do not have the right skills to design streets, which he calls “platforms for building wealth” rather than conduits for moving cars quickly. Designing streets takes a “collective endeavor” involving everyone in the community, says Marohn.  

Many transportation engineers likely enter the field because they are passionate about building streets and serving the public. But the problem with learning on the job, argues Berr, is that it further entrenches longstanding practices geared toward highway design. He writes: 

This means that our future American transportation engineer is learning how to navigate the impressive amounts of bureaucracy that have been built up in the industry, memorizing an impressive vocabulary of technical jargon, practicing with design software like AutoCAD to produce engineering plans, and how to copy the current engineering standards. There is no exposure to deep levels of theory than can help our future professional create original solutions to fundamental problems like safety, congestion, emissions, and ethics.

Reimagining the transportation engineering curriculum and acknowledging its unique requirements, distinct from other engineering practices, could go a long way toward advancing the field. Researchers who recently interviewed both academics and practitioners identified two broad areas that need more attention, particularly at the graduate level: 1) data management, analysis, and visualization, and 2) communication, project management, and interpersonal and teamwork skills. Given how few engineers pursue advanced degrees, however, these skills are critical throughout their education, from the earliest stages to later professional development. Transportation engineers also must be willing to recognize the limits of their expertise and work collaboratively with other experts in the field—those who specialize in data and newer technologies, communication, facilitation, and ideation—if they are going to meet the growing demands of the communities they serve. 

Photo Credit: Tamarcus Brown via Unsplash, unmodified.  License