Momentum Issue #97

May 9, 2022

The New Age of Digital Infrastructure 

by Laura Chace, President & CEO, ITS America

Next week is National Infrastructure Week where we educate Americans about the importance of infrastructure for our nation’s economy, workers, and communities, and where we advocate to support the critical role infrastructure plays in our lives. ITS America celebrates the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act’s (IIJA) historic investment in our nation’s infrastructure – however, even though advanced technologies are eligible for federal funding, we must all make strong commitments to invest in these transportation technologies that help save lives, promote sustainable transportation and climate resiliency, and grow more access and opportunity for all Americans. 

ITS America and our members are transforming transportation – our system has evolved from one of paved roads and concrete bridges to one that includes sensors, data, software, and algorithms. States and cities across the country are investing in technology to create a new age of digital infrastructure. Advances and rapid deployments in automation, connected technologies, mobility on demand, and sustainable and resilient technologies show that the future of transportation is about using technology and innovation to advance mobility that is safer, greener, smarter, and more equitable. 

This new era links the physical transportation system to a digital layer. This digital layer allows organizations to communicate, share, store, analyze, and use information. This digital infrastructure saves lives, provides faster emergency response, helps mitigate impacts of extreme weather, improves resiliency, reduces emissions, enhances mobility, and distributes services equitably. Examples of digital infrastructure from ITS America leaders include: 

  • Central Ohio Transit Authority’s COTA/Plus, which allows riders to schedule trips and pay for fares through a mobile application or call COTA’s customer service center to book a trip if they don’t have access to a cell phone. 
  • Google data helps states and local governments assess risk and prioritize infrastructure investment to plan for climate change impacts like erosion, flooding, fire, and drought. Google data also allows us to create metrics on how safe a road system is and how to equitably plan digital and physical infrastructure to connect communities and provide better transportation access. 
  • Los Angeles DOT’s new mobility wallet program creates the digital and financial infrastructure to create a digital ‘wallet’ for people to use and pay for different types of transportation more easily. The mobility wallet provides integrated access to bikes, scooters, buses, and EV car-sharing and will provide free access for residents in need. Doing this narrows the divide between those who have opportunities and access and those who don’t. 
  • Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute developed a first-of-its-kind flood warning system that warns travelers in real-time about locations where roadway flooding is likely to occur to avoid travel in those areas, saving lives and decreasing congestion. 
  • Washington State DOT’s deployment of an automated traffic management information system uses real-time data and digital signs through the mountainous Snoqualmie Pass to inform drivers of the need to use tire chains, stopped cars around blind curves, allowing better communications for emergency response, and saving lives in hard-to-reach areas. 

These examples are just a brief overview of the work ITS America’s 250 member organizations are advancing. This work shows that digital infrastructure like data, technology, sensors, and signals saves lives, creates sustainable solutions, and provides more access – often with a fraction of the cost of investing in physical infrastructure like roads and bridges. 

How can we ensure today’s investments are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s future? 

  • USDOT must fund digital infrastructure just as it funds concrete and steel. Doing so creates foundational opportunity for all communities. 
  • Public agencies must harness the opportunities in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to use this funding to advance their digital needs. 
  • We must broaden the historic definition of infrastructure to now include transportation technology and digital infrastructure, such as broadband, connected signals, roadside sensors, open-source Application Programming interfaces (APIs), and other technologies. This allows us to use technology to bring better outcomes to more communities. 
  • The Department must also recognize that digital infrastructure, like physical hard infrastructure, must be operated and maintained at certain levels. Technology has unique needs, such as technical support, software upgrades, and cybersecurity, that require ongoing investment and support. 

When you invest in physical infrastructure, you benefit one community – but when you invest in digital infrastructure, you benefit all. We are in the midst of a mobility revolution and must seize this opportunity to make meaningful positive change. After all, mobility is freedom. 

Building off the work of National Infrastructure Week, ITS America will be launching events to promote digital infrastructure investments later this summer. Only if we incorporate this new digital world of transportation into our physical infrastructure investments can we truly be looking to the future to transform American lives for the better.