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What is Transportation Engineering?

By Matthew Brodsky
Updated May 21, 2024
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The discipline of transportation engineering is the branch of civil engineering that focuses specifically on the movement of people and goods. Practitioners of transport engineering focus on making this movement as easy, convenient, predictable and environmentally friendly as possible. Transportation is a major facet of modern life, so it makes sense that transportation engineering is a major branch of civil engineering. This branch has several subsets within itself, including aerospace, waterway, air transportation, urban transportation and highway engineering.

The preplanning stage, before the project is begun, is when a large part of transportation engineering takes place. The structural engineer must analyze the existing transportation system and evaluate the area that will be affected by the planned transportation project. The engineer must create what is known as an inventory or a database of information, such as the size of the population in the area, the way in which the land is used, the existing patterns of travel over the transportation network, the expectations of the community, the financial resources of the project and any applicable laws.

The sub-discipline of highway engineering involves the design, construction and repair of highways and neighborhood roads. Highway engineers might be called upon to fix a particularly high-traffic and high-danger intersection. They would have to gauge how best to improve that intersection through new signage, construction, traffic patterns or lights, taking into account driving behavior, the kinds of vehicles on that particular roadway and the existing roadway itself.

Another type of transportation engineering is airport engineering, which is concerned with designing, building and repairing airports. When constructing an airport, airport engineers must account for a number of factors, such as typical wind patterns and speeds and the size of the airplanes that will use the airport. They can then determine in which direction to build the runway, how large it must be and how to space the safety zones and airplane gates.

Whichever branch of the discipline they practice, transportation engineers follow a set of procedures for every project they participate in. Generally speaking, transportation engineering involves the planning and design of a given transportation project, followed by its construction and maintenance. Each project is different, depending on how large it is, how much and what types of a given construction material it will require and what its final function will be.

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