Transportation engineering is a broad field that can apply to work with roadways, waterways, railways and more. These engineers develop faster, safer and more efficient means of transportation. 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 explore what a transportation engineer does and how you can become one.
What is transportation engineering?
Transportation engineering is the application of modern technology and scientific principles to the design, development and maintenance of transportation systems. This is a branch of civil engineering. Civil engineering covers the broad area of infrastructure design.
The field of transportation engineering utilizes the latest developments in transportation and uses them to create the most efficient and effective systems possible for various locales. Transportation engineering applies to major terminals as well as 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 that include but are not limited to:
- Highways and roads
- Traffic control systems
- Public transit systems
- Railroads and depots
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Transportation engineering addresses the common issues that face 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:
- Managing proper maintenance of the roadways
- Handling traffic flow to minimize congestion
- Preventing transportation accidents
- Selecting the appropriate pavement and other materials for roads, highways and other types of construction
- Facilitating efficient trade routes
- Determining the fastest way to transport goods
- Ensuring compliance with state and federal construction policies
- Providing safe options for pedestrian traffic
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.
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.
Transportation engineers carefully evaluate the supply and demand in their sector. The supply for this type of engineer is the number of infrastructure components. Where supply is great, the engineer may have access to numerous roadways within a city. If supply is low, there are few roads, bridges and highways to work with. Engineers must consider the supply of materials and land for new structures as well.
Demand in the transportation industry is determined by the number of people and vehicles in an area. Trains, barges, commercial airplanes, commercial trucks and personal vehicles all contribute to the demand in various types of transportation engineering projects. These engineers are tasked with balancing the demand with the available supply to provide adequate transportation options for both personal and professional use.
A transportation engineer's job responsibilities may include:
- Supervising work on a construction site
- Determining the traffic impact caused by new development plans
- Setting forth goals and criteria for new projects
- Preparing work plans
- Creating transportation models or designs
- Researching and evaluating traffic volume, accidents, practices and efficiency
- Preparing reports on traffic and transportation matters
- Developing models of transportation scenarios
- Preparing budgets and schedules for transportation projects
- Identifying solutions for transportation problems
- Inspecting transportation systems for legal compliance
- Providing recommendations for traffic policies
- Designing new means of transportation
Transportation engineers typically spend a significant portion of their days in an office environment. They will work on a computer evaluating data, preparing reports and generating diagrams. These engineers also work closely with other engineers as well as management and stakeholders. They may attend meetings and give presentations. In some cases, transportation engineers will travel outside the office to assess traffic conditions or observe the progress on construction sites.
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How to become a transportation engineer
Transportation engineers need 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.
- Get a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering.
- Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.
- Complete an internship.
- Meet your state's requirements for licensure.
- Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam.
1. Get a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering
Transportation engineers should have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in either civil engineering or transportation engineering. Coursework will include calculus, thermodynamics, environmental issues and traffic control. A master's degree can increase your employment opportunities in this field.
2. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
The Fundamentals of Engineering exam is the first of two tests that you must 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.
3. Complete an internship
You must complete at least four years of qualifying work experience to proceed to the next test required for licensure. During your internship, you will work under the supervision of a PE.
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 must take any additional exams or submit other paperwork to gain proper engineering licensure where you live.
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 will receive your PE license. This allows you to work on public projects and seal engineering work for both private and public clients. Most government projects will hire only licensed engineers.