What Is Transportation Engineering?: Definition and Career Outlook

What Is Transportation Engineering?

What is transportation engineering? It is a subdiscipline of civil engineering that involves planning, design, and management of transportation systems that provide for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.

Transportation engineers focus on designing new transportation systems and upgrades to highways, urban roads, airports, railroads, and water transport networks. To facilitate their designs, engineers need to collate and analyze data on traffic flows, accident rates, and other statistics. They also have to take future demand for transport into account while considering the results of impact studies and local, state, and federal transportation policies.


The Scope of Transportation Engineering

To understand what transportation engineering is, it’s important to understand the scope of the field. Transportation engineering is vast and can allow for excellent career opportunities. Of the 18 technical divisions within the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), six are related to transportation engineering:

  • Aerospace
  • Air transportation
  • Highway
  • Pipeline
  • Urban transportation
  • Waterway, coastal, port, and ocean

Graduates with a master’s degree in transportation engineering can concentrate on one of several specialties. For example, highway engineers develop their expertise in the following areas:

  • Analysis of traffic patterns, traffic flows, and collision rates during highway and road design
  • Planning, design, construction, and operation of highways and roads, as well as their associated bicycle and pedestrian facilities
  • Alignment, design, and construction of pavement and other roadway elements
  • Estimation of public transportation requirements and the associated costs
  • Design and construction of bridges, retaining walls, and tunnels

Railroad engineers focus on the design, construction, and operation of railroads and mass transit systems. Their goal is to develop a safe railroad transportation system to meet future demand, working with federal officials to ensure the rail system meets the nation’s transportation requirements.

Airport engineers become experts in the design and construction of new airports and upgrades to existing facilities. This is a special transportation engineering application where engineers must fulfill the following responsibilities:

  • Take into account the physical impact of aircraft and air traffic volumes to design airport facilities
  • Analyze wind patterns to determine runway orientation
  • Design the size of runway borders and safety areas
  • Determine wingtip clearances for boarding gates

Port and harbor engineers specialize in the design, construction, and operation of ports, harbors, and canals. As with the other branches of transportation engineering, the analysis of traffic volumes and maritime forecasts is essential for the design process.

The Transportation Planning Process

For any transportation project, engineers cannot take a purely clinical look at moving people and goods when planning new developments. Any new facility may have an impact on an area’s growth and economic activity, as well as the quality of life of the surrounding community. This means that transportation engineers must also consider the well-being of society in their plans.

Most local governments have a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), which is a policy-making body consisting of representatives from local government and transportation agencies. An MPO has the following main functions:

  • Establishing an impartial setting for regional decision-making
  • Identifying and evaluating alternatives for transportation improvement, using appropriate planning studies
  • Preparing and maintaining a long-term transportation plan for the metropolitan area
  • Developing a short-range program for transportation improvement
  • Involving the public in transportation planning

Career Prospects and Pay

Now that you have an answer for the question “What is transportation engineering?” let’s take a look at career prospects in the field. To be successful in transportation engineering, strong organizational and analytical skills are required. Typically, a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering is a prerequisite for entry to a master’s degree program in transportation engineering, although many schools enable prospective students to complete bridge courses to qualify.

Transportation engineers typically secure employment with private engineering companies or engineering consulting firms. State and federal governments also employ transportation engineers in their relevant departments and agencies.

Transportation engineers earn an average salary of just over $63,000. At entry level, the average pay is $58,000 across the United States. This increases to $74,000 with five to 10 years of experience. Transportation engineers with more than 10 years’ experience can earn $83,000 per year, while at the top scale, the average salary after 20 years’ experience is $86,000.

Transportation engineers can improve their earnings after gaining relevant experience and move into project management. Pay scales in this field are usually higher because of the demands and pressure associated with the job.

Learn More

Find out how to expand your engineering expertise while developing the leadership and project management skills important to advancing your career with the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program.

Recommended Readings:

The Components of American Public Transportation Systems

The Fast Future of Metro Transportation

The Basics of Temporary Traffic Control



Federal Highway Administration