Creating Digital Infrastructure

The digital revolution in transportation continues to accelerate, transforming how agencies design, operate and optimize their systems. What does it take for agencies to get on board?

HNTB shares how digital infrastructure is reshaping the ways in which we envision, create, manage and optimize the physical transportation infrastructure that serves our cities and towns. Agency leaders understand the need to build digital infrastructure — but what does it take and where should they start?

Across the nation, leaders of transportation agencies face challenges that have a very familiar ring, such as funding constraints, deteriorating infrastructure, traffic congestion and transit service gaps. Compounding certain issues is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has compelled agencies to tap into new wells of creativity to keep their systems running safely and efficiently.

Emerging in parallel with these challenges, however, is an opportunity that can be hard to grasp, let alone act upon. This opportunity is digital transformation, which in the transportation context means combining traditional steel and concrete systems with data-driven technology to both resolve many current mobility issues and anticipate and address future challenges as well.

You may be familiar with these cited benefits of digital transformation:

  • Increasing capacity on highways without building new lanes
  • Reducing traffic accidents and highway and roadway congestion
  • Preparing for the coming wave of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs)
  • Integrating vehicles, transit, microtransit, rideshare and other modes more seamlessly
  • Improving mobility options to more neighborhoods and more people
  • Giving travelers better tools to access information, make decisions and pay for services
  • Equipping transportation managers to fine-tune their systems for optimal efficiency

Any agency would embrace such benefits, but it’s not quite so simple. Every city and region is unique, so their pursuit of digital transformation ranges significantly when you get down to the details. As noted above, many other priorities compete for agencies’ attention and they may have major gaps in their technology capabilities and access to data science expertise.

However, regardless of a particular agency’s starting point, we must all recognize that the future of transportation will demand a more balanced approach to infrastructure, in which the physical and digital dimensions merge into one, unified solution.

Michigan’s Innovative Approach

In southeast Michigan, the birthplace of the automobile industry, a new concept is taking shape that may light the path forward for the future of transportation around the world. Through an innovative public-private partnership, Michigan is now moving forward to create a first-of-its-kind roadway that will help connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) travel safely and seamlessly between two major metro areas while greatly improving mobility for residents in between.

To create the Michigan Connected Corridor, the state is working with a major infrastructure finance and development company, automakers Ford, GM, BMW, Toyota and others, and numerous innovators and academic institutions. As envisioned, the 40-mile corridor will connect Ann Arbor and Detroit while incorporating in its path the University of Michigan, Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport, Ford’s Michigan Central Development, and other transportation innovation centers in the region. Additionally, the Corridor will thread its way through multiple Opportunity Zones, expanding economic potential and facilitating job creation throughout the region.

“The project team made a conscious effort to capture a parkway feel by blending design with the rolling terrain and maintaining the area’s rural character.”

Jeffrey Jones | Co-Founder & Lead, AV Mobility Corridor Team, Ford Motor Company

Embracing digital infrastructure

At a high level, digital infrastructure involves collecting, analyzing, distributing data to empower agencies and their partners to elevate the performance of a transportation system:



Data is often gathered through physical sensors on or near infrastructure, such as inductive loops, video cameras and other installed units. Data also may come from individuals (e.g., anonymously from their smartphones), connected vehicles, mobility tracking applications, data brokers (such as StreetLight), private transportation providers and other sources. New devices and data sources are coming onto the market every year, so the question facing agencies today is how to allocate their investments among these data sources to ensure they have the right information to meet their specific needs.


Even with the vast amount of data available, agencies often struggle with how to make such data useful. Data scientists and computational platforms play an essential role in generating meaningful information out of billions of data points. But, it’s up to agency leaders to provide strategic guidance as to how the information should be analyzed and organized to meet specific local or regional mobility objectives. Data is brought together into a vast repository — referred to as a backbone, platform or operating system — which often is made available to a broad group of stakeholders to enable greater collaboration.


The analyzed data is distributed in ways that intend to drive action across all transportation modes, from achieving asset management efficiency to in-the-moment system agility. Information about a major accident or severe congestion on one highway allows a real-time response on adjacent roadways, such as alerts on variable-message signs or allocation of additional travel lanes. Longer term data about transit ridership may drive changes in routes, hours of service or pricing. By accessing data before, during and after decisions, agencies and private companies can fine-tune their operations to increase efficiency, safety and access.

"Gadgets may grab attention, but it's the people who drive change."

Not all transportation technology falls neatly into these three categories, of course. As one example, an emerging concept — edge computing — puts processing, storage and analytics together in one unit, right on the periphery of a highway or rail line. This concept allows for collection, analysis and distribution to happen much more quickly than roadside-to-cloud-and-back approaches.

What’s the best approach?

We see many examples of transportation leaders who are building digital infrastructure to address near-term issues while preparing for a future in the growing array of vehicles — from scooters to CAVs to minibuses to platooning trucks that will need to share roadways efficiently and safely. In this edition of THINK we are featuring the viewpoints of three of these leaders, each of whom is helping to advance comprehensive programs to effect digital transformation to improve mobility in Columbus, Ohio, San Diego, California and greater Detroit, Michigan.

The benefits of such transformation are significant, but agencies may struggle to find the best path forward for their specific city or region. While no two situations are identical, consider these five factors — conveniently, Five Ps — as you envision how to move forward with your digital transformation efforts:


In 1914, the world’s first electric traffic light was installed on a busy street corner in Cleveland, Ohio, a bold attempt to use technology to tame an unruly swarm of vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. Notably, the signal was operated remotely by a police officer in a roadside booth. This symbolizes an enduring truth about innovation: gadgets may grab attention, but it’s the people who drive change.

Today’s transportation agencies often do not have the people and skills necessary to drive digital transformation. The information technology units traditionally have focused on buying and maintaining computer systems, rather than creating a knowledge base for what’s coming next. Agencies must bring in new talent — data analysts, data scientists, chief technology officers — to bridge their capabilities to the next generation of infrastructure.


By having expertise on the team, agencies can be more strategic about how they plan and orchestrate broad-based digital initiatives. The most successful transportation agencies develop long-range plans that include specific plans and budgets for acquiring and integrating digital technology into the anticipated projects and programs.

The pace of technological advances make it difficult to predict exactly how an agency will invest in its digital capabilities 10 years hence. But the goal is to make room in the budget for a specific line item — digital infrastructure — and to purposefully map out investments in staff, capabilities and partnerships that will ensure that data and technology are always part of the dialogue regarding transportation strategy and funding priorities.


“Slow is steady, and steady is fast.” It’s a bit of wisdom attributed to special military forces, but it also speaks to the need for clear, well-considered policies for collecting and sharing data across the transportation system. Most industry discussion focuses on preserving the privacy of individuals, particularly since agencies are counting on collection of billions of data points every hour from the traveling public via smartphones and other sources. The policies for handling such data must be bulletproof, and you must create mechanisms for ensuring compliance from every partner, and from the technology providers behind those partners.


As mentioned above, agency budgets must accommodate significant investments in digital platforms to support data storage, analysis and distribution. It’s not critical to build a massive data processing capability all at once. What’s important is to work with outside consultants (or, inside experts, if you have them on staff) to scope out the requirements for a digital platform, from the hardware and software, to types of human and financial resources you’ll need to generate actionable data from that platform. Always keep your eye on the prize: structuring data to create a scalable data architecture that can serve today’s needs while adapting to the future’s unknowns.


The more complete your data set, the greater your ability to optimize the transportation system. This means that no single agency can go it alone. In many cities, various agencies within a transportation department determine real collaboration based on shared mobility goals. Many agencies look to private companies to share their data, which can help agencies improve their service offering. Academic institutions are often eager to become partners in highly innovative initiatives, as well, to bolster their credentials and offer their researchers meaningful projects. In other words, reaching out for partners is not only essential for success, but will also breathe new life into any agency.




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