What Is Transportation Engineering? (With Common Duties)

Updated July 29, 2023

Transportation engineering is a broad field that can apply to work with roadways, waterways, railways and other projects. These engineers develop faster, safer and more efficient means of transportation that ensure they're safe for people using them. Understanding the scope of this career path can help you understand what transportation engineering is and whether this field is right for you.

In this article, we discuss what transportation engineering is, including what problems this branch of engineering aims to solve, common duties and steps you can follow to help you become a fully qualified transportation engineer.

What is transportation engineering?

Transportation engineering is the application of modern technology and scientific principles to the design, development and maintenance of transportation systems. The field of transportation engineering uses the latest developments in transportation, such as autonomous vehicles and transportation management systems, and uses them to create the most efficient and effective systems possible for various locales. Transportation engineering applies to major terminals and the networks that connect them. Any product or system that moves people and goods from one place to another falls under the scope of transportation engineering.

Those working in the field of transportation engineering research, assess, design and develop new solutions for projects that include:

  • Highways and roads

  • Traffic control systems such as traffic signals

  • Public transit systems

  • Railroads and depots

  • Seaports

  • Waterways

  • Airports

  • Bridges

  • Pavements

Related: How To Become a Civil Engineer in 6 Steps

What problems does transportation engineering solve?

Transportation engineering addresses the common issues related to transportation systems and seeks ways to resolve these for safer, faster and more efficient transportation options. Some of the concerns that a transportation engineer might address include:

  • Manage proper maintenance of the roadways

  • Handle traffic flow to minimize congestion

  • Prevent transportation accidents

  • Select the appropriate pavement and other materials for roads, highways and other types of construction

  • Facilitate efficient trade routes

  • Determine the fastest way to transport goods

  • Ensure compliance with state and federal construction policies

  • Provide safe options for pedestrian traffic

  • Operations for transportation companies, public transportation and urban transportation

  • Assess the environmental effects of transportation projects

  • Develop response plans to mitigate the risks of natural disasters

Transportation engineering combines the science of construction with the creativity required to develop innovative new systems, installations and solutions. This is a broad career field with positions available in both the public and private sectors. Transportation engineers may work for the federal or state government, vehicle manufacturing companies, airline companies, railroad companies and trucking businesses. These engineers may also work as consultants for a variety of agencies, providing keen professional insights that can guide the development of new projects.

Related: The Importance of Creativity in Business (Plus Benefits)

What do transportation engineers do?

Transportation engineers plan, design, construct, operate and maintain transportation systems. They have a broad range of professional duties that begin with research for new projects and extend through the ongoing care of existing structures and systems. This ensures that future projects implement new technology in a safe manner and that people update past projects when necessary.

A transportation engineer's common job responsibilities may include:

  • Supervise work on a construction site

  • Determine the traffic impact caused by new development plans

  • Set forth goals and criteria for new projects

  • Prepare work plans, such as blueprints or contracts

  • Create transportation models or designs

  • Research and evaluating traffic volume, accidents, practices and efficiency

  • Prepare reports on traffic and transportation matters

  • Develop models of transportation scenarios

  • Prepare budgets and schedules for transportation projects

  • Identify solutions for transportation problems

  • Inspect transportation systems for legal compliance

  • Provide recommendations for traffic policies

  • Design new means of transportation

Related: FAQ: What Does a Transportation Planner Do? (With Salary)

Types of transportation engineering jobs

Transportation engineers can find roles in both the public and private sectors. Sometimes, they may work for transportation companies, while other times, they may work with the government at the local, state or federal level. Sometimes, transportation engineers pursue specialization for roles such as:

  • Highway engineers

  • Safety engineers

  • Traffic engineers

Related: 5 Types of Civil Engineering (With 14 Jobs To Explore)

Work environment for transportation engineers

Transportation engineers typically spend a significant portion of their days in an office environment. They might work on a computer evaluating data, preparing reports and generating diagrams. These engineers also work closely with other engineers, management and stakeholders to ensure the project's progress aligns with established goals.

They may also attend meetings and give presentations. In some cases, transportation engineers travel outside the office to assess traffic conditions or observe the progress on construction sites.

Related: 6 Different Work Environment Types (With Examples)

Transportation engineer career outlook

While the United State Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't have data for transportation engineers, it does list data for civil engineers, of which transportation engineering is a part. The BLS expects a 7% growth rate from 2021 to 2031 for civil engineers.

How to become a transportation engineer

Transportation engineers have a strong educational background and proven on-the-job experience to qualify as professional engineers. Follow these steps to prepare yourself for a career as a licensed transportation engineer:

1. Get a bachelor's degree in engineering

Transportation engineers have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in either civil engineering or transportation engineering. Students may pursue courses such as calculus, thermodynamics, environmental issues and traffic control. A master's degree can increase your employment opportunities in this field. Below are some topics that are useful for transportation engineers:

  • Advanced transportation planning

  • Sustainable transportation planning

  • Upcoming technologies

Related: 11 Architectural Engineering Bachelor's Degree Jobs

2. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam

The Fundamentals of Engineering exam is the first of two tests that you take to gain licensure as a professional engineer (PE) from the National Society of Professional Engineers. After passing this test, you're classified as an engineer-in-training or engineer intern. This enables you to start gaining valuable engineering experience and develop useful skills.

Related: Engineer in Training (EIT): Duties and How To Get Certified

3. Complete an internship

While not necessary, completing a four-year internship can help you gain important engineering experience. This also helps to prepare you for the final test to become a fully qualified engineer since you get to practice your skills in real-world scenarios. During your internship, you may likely perform tasks under the direct supervision of a fully qualified engineer, such as participating in traffic studies and collecting materials samples.

Related: How To Become a Graduate Engineer (With Types and Tips)

4. Meet your state's requirements for licensure

Each state has its own unique requirements for licensure. Check those in your place of residence to determine whether you take any additional exams or submit other paperwork to gain proper engineering licensure where you live. This can help prevent any delays in pursuing your engineering qualification.

Read more: How To Become a Transportation Engineer

5. Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam

Once you've completed the necessary work requirements, you can take the PE exam. After passing this exam, you receive your PE license. This allows you to work on public projects and complete engineering work for both private and public clients. Many government projects hire only licensed engineers.

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