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The Future of Transportation Infrastructure is Happening Now

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Steve Cockerell, Industry Marketing Director, Rail & Transit


By the middle of this century, the United Nations expects the world’s population to grow by 2 billion people. With around 55% of people globally already living in urban locations, a trend that is set to continue, this creates a significant problem. The combination of a growing population with increased urbanization places a huge additional strain on aging infrastructure assets that support nearly every aspect of our lives. However, it’s our roads, railways, and bridges that will be most affected, as for the foreseeable future, they are the only way to keep our cities and countries moving.

Our Future Must Be More Sustainable

With carbon dioxide now widely recognized as the primary driver for climate change, around 70% of the world’s harmful emissions can be traced to infrastructure. Every asset, large or small, has a carbon impact when built – through their design, the materials used, construction methods adopted, but also throughout their operational life, via the carbon-heavy behaviors they support.

Figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate transportation accounts for a total of 8 billion tons, around one-fifth, of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Of that total, road vehicles account for three-quarters and nearly half, 45.1%, is you and me, with passenger movement including cars, motorcycles, buses, and taxis the offenders. While at the other end of the scale, our rail and transit networks emit very little – only 1%.

Chart showing the global transport emissions in 2018.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) report, around 70% of the world’s harmful CO2 emissions can be traced to infrastructure. Source: OurWorldInData.org 


So, whose problem is it? Rachel Skinner, past president of the United Kingdom’s Institution of Civil Engineers recently said, “There is no path to delivering net-zero by 2050 that doesn’t run through de-carbonizing transport,” and continued, “Significant reductions in carbon emissions need to start now.” While this requires political and economic support, as well as social change, it is the professionals that design, build, and operate the world’s infrastructure who have the greatest potential to make the changes necessary, reimagining the future of our transportation industry for a better tomorrow.

Our ‘New normal’ is Now, So Make Change Part of Your Strategy

Something we cannot ignore is the effect COVID-19 has had on all our lives over the last two years. Like it or not, the suffering, destabilization of the global economy, and upending of the lives of billions of people around the world has forced everyone to change.

No one could have predicted just how big of a negative effect the pandemic would have on our lives, but we must also recognize it created a lot of new opportunities and can be a business driver for change for the better.

How many of us had heard of Zoom when the cloud-based videotelephony service launched back in 2013? Yet today, other communication and collaboration tools like it – Microsoft Teams and, within our own industry, Bentley’s ProjectWise 365 – are increasingly important.

The global pandemic has been a wake-up call. Change happens and sometimes we have no power over it, but equally, the experience has shown what we can do when forced to change and is an indicator of the level of opportunity change provides if it is part of a strategy for delivering better business outcomes versus a reaction to challenges encountered.

“Now is the time to start reimagining our industry and how organizations can emerge in the next normal from a position of strength,” said McKinsey & Company’s report in May 2020 titled How construction can emerge stronger after coronavirus. We have to find safe, sustainable ways of overcoming the challenges we encounter in what is a very complex industry.

In the short term they advocate increased digitization, remote working, and a greater reliance on building information modeling (BIM) – advancing it to include 4D and 5D simulation to re-plan and reoptimize project schedules. Longer-term, they see the case for digital tools already proven to increase productivity becoming even stronger, an acceleration and automation of digital processes across design and construction, including the increased use of off-site and modular construction where working in more easily controlled environments makes it easier to keep people safe and drives quality improvements. The report also identifies digital-twin solutions as a means of providing current and ongoing feedback plus insight into the decision processes.

Digital Twins: Driving BetterDecisions in Transportation

Almost in parallel, how we design, build, and operate infrastructure has evolved along with how the professionals involved make decisions, and in turn the outcomes possible. Most, if not all, have moved from what they did on paper in 2D to CAD. Many rely less on drawings and reports, choosing instead to leverage 3D modeling, which has seen BIM standards and processes proven to deliver productivity and quality improvements across many sectors.

Infinity loop graphic depicting the infrastructure decision-making cycle
Digital Twins: The Backbone of Infrastructure Decision-making

BIM is of course much more than simply using 3D models during design, and many Bentley users are extending the value of well-managed information, standardized processes, and digital workflows to include 4D and 5D modeling for the “digital rehearsal” of construction, making time, cost, and carbon calculations an integral part of their decision-making process.

Moving beyond BIM, fueled by the increasing amount of data we collect, create, and consume, and in tandem with the burgeoning number of IoT connected devices delivering so-called big data, we’re already seeing more decisions being made using insight gained directly from data, and its why Bentley believes digital twins will be the next big digital disruption in our industry.

Bentley’s iTwin technology enables the federation of data and deliverables from engineering and design, with live or near real-time data streams from IoT connected devices in operations to connect the physical asset in the real world with its digital counterpart – its digital twin. From the conceptual stage, through planning and into engineering, design, and construction, and ultimately operations and maintenance, it’s that link – that connectivity – that really makes the difference.

Reimagining Infrastructure in the United States: How to Build Better

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a report on the United States’ infrastructure. At a high level, the 2021 Report Card shows that while we recognize the need to repair aging and inferior infrastructure, we’re still not investing in what it calls the ‘backbone of our economy’. In real terms this failure to act costs every American household $3,300 a year. Multiply that by the roughly 132 million U.S. households today, and you are talking about significant costs and consequences to the nation’s economy.

In the case of roads, which ASCE scored a grade D, over 43% are in poor or mediocre condition. The U.S. has been underfunding roadway maintenance for years, resulting in a $786 billion backlog of road and bridge capital needs, but the bulk of this, some $435 billion, is in repairing existing roads. As the backlog of rehabilitation needs grows, American motorists are forced to spend nearly $130 billion every year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs, while congestion means each commuter pays over $1,000 annually in wasted time and fuel.

While bridges scored slightly better (grade C), an incident that brought the health of America’s bridges into sharp focus was the crack discovered through routine inspections of the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi River, in Memphis, Tennessee, in May 2021. While fortunate a potential disaster was averted there, regrettably, it is not always the case, and when bridges fail the results can be catastrophic. Today, the repair backlog is estimated at $125 billion, and ignoring further degradation over the same period, at current investment levels, it would take 50 years to clear.

Rail and transit fared no better, scoring grades B and a D, respectively. As with many countries, the U.S. rail network is divided into two categories, freight rail and passenger rail. While freight is able to maintain a strong network using shippers’ fees to invest an average of $260,000 per mile of track, passenger rail relies on government investment and has a current state of good repair (SGR) backlog of $45.2 billion. With transit, the situation is much worse, at $176 billion its SGR backlog is nearly four times that of rail, with the deficit expected to grow to $250 billion by 2029.

Failure to address the shortfall for these critical transportation networks and assets will only mean that congestion increases, and reliability issues become more frequent. It is a downward spiral unless we make a change and reimagine the future of our transportation industry.

Over the past decade, China has invested more in infrastructure as a percentage of GDP than any other country, spending 5.6% in 2018 versus the 0.5% spent in the U.S. Recently though, with the World Economic Forum ranking the U.S. 13th in its Global Competitiveness Report, it appears decision-makers at all levels of government have recognized the critical role America’s infrastructure plays in supporting the quality of life for citizens and the country’s economy.

Described as a once-in-a-generation investment in the nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness, November 06, 2021, saw Congress pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). With President Biden promising to work across the aisle to rebuild America’s roads, bridges, and rails, it appears that now really is the time to level the playing field and ensure America’s infrastructure is again, competitive on the world stage

Work to Improve the Future of Transportation is Happening

Stone Arch Bridge Rehabilitation Project, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Stone Arch Bridge Rehabilitation Project,
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Today, there is clear evidence within the projects our users around the world are engaged upon, that going digital, including with the use of digital twins, is already helping to reimagine the future of our transportation industry. Bentley’s most innovative and visionary owner-operators, and their supply chains, are leading the way in terms of delivering different and improved business outcomes across the transportation infrastructure asset lifecycle.

Take Minnesota DOT and Collins Engineers who are harnessing the power of digital twins to transform the bridge inspection process, making the measurement of cracks and defects possible in the safety and comfort of the office, and saving up to 40% in total costs as a result.

Or Arcadis, who quadrupled the speed at which they could adjust design models on the Hurontario Light Rail Transit project, providing dynamic visualization capabilities that helped team members identify and resolve clashes ahead of construction.

The Hurontario Light Rail Transit project
The Hurontario Light Rail Transit Project,
Ontario, Canada 
Rendering of roadway revitalization project in Cedar Falls, Iowa
Roadway Revitalization, Cedar Falls, Iowa

And Foth Engineering, who with a digital twin approach, optimized data accessibility and increased the efficiency of interactions with the public and stakeholders, to deliver a multimodal roadway design in Cedar Falls, Iowa, that is projected to realize $32 million (USD) ROI for the owner over the next 25 years.

Digital Twins: The Key to Building Back Better

Even with President Biden’s $1 trillion (USD) infrastructure bill signed into law, and an industry mobilizing behind it to deliver new roads, railways, and bridges, our future must also include how we extend the life and throughput of assets in years to come. With infrastructure investment typically part of a 10-, 20- or 30-year plus strategy for assets that support every aspect of our lives, it follows therefore that building better infrastructure must include improving the long-term resilience and adaptability of assets over the same period.

It’s why at Bentley we believe that digital twins will be key to building back better. Through the examples highlighted above, I hope it is also clear that digital twins are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Not only do they exist, but digital twins have already helped organizations adopt more collaborative working, provided more timely access to trusted data, offered new levels of insight to infrastructure professionals as they strive to overcome challenges in a changing world. In short, helping to deliver a better tomorrow in the form of a greener, safer, more adaptable, more future-proofed transportation industry for everyone.

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