How does infrastructure in the US compare to that of the rest of the world? It depends on who you ask.
On the last two report cards from the American Society of Civil Engineers, US infrastructure scored a D+. This year’s report urged the government and private sector to increase spending by US$2 trillion within the next 10 years, in order to improve not only the physical infrastructure, but the country’s economy overall.
Meanwhile, the country’s international rank in overall infrastructure quality jumped from 25th to 12th place out of 138 countries, according to the World Economic Forum.
The quality of infrastructure systems can be measured in different ways – including efficiency, safety and how much money is being invested. As a researcher in risk and resilience of infrastructure systems, I know that infrastructure assessment is far too complex to boil down into one metric. For instance, while the US ranks second in road infrastructure spending, it falls in the 60th place for road safety, due to the high rate of deaths from road traffic.
But by many measures, the US falls short of the rest of the world. Two of these characteristics are key to our infrastructure’s future: resilience and sustainability. A new class of solutions is emerging that, with the right funding, can help address these deficiencies.
Resilient infrastructures are able to effectively respond to and recover from disruptive events. The US is still in the top 25 percent of countries with the most resilient infrastructure systems. But it falls behind many other developed countries because the country’s infrastructure is aging and increasingly vulnerable to disruptive events.
For example, the nation’s inland waterway infrastructure has not been updated since it was first built in the 1950s. As a result, 70 percent of the 90,580 dams in the US will be over 50 years old by 2025, which is beyond the average lifespan of dams.
In addition, since the 1980s, weather-related power outages in the US have become as much as 10 times more frequent.
Several European countries – such as Switzerland, Germany, Norway and Finland – are ahead of the US in the FM Global Resilience Index, a data-driven indicator of a country’s ability to respond to and recover from disruptive events. Though these countries are exposed to natural hazards and cyber risks, their infrastructure’s stability and overall high standards allow them to effectively survive disruptive events.
The US infrastructure was built according to high standards 50 years ago, but they are no longer enough to ensure protection from today’s extreme weather. Such weather events are becoming more frequent and more extreme. That has a severe impact on our infrastructure, as cascading failures through interdependent systems such as transportation, energy and water will ultimately adversely impact our economy and society.
Take last year’s Hurricane Matthew, which was considered a 1,000-year flood event. The unexpectedly strong rainfalls broke records and caused damages equivalent to $15 billion. A better infrastructure that is modernized and well-maintained based on data-driven predictions of such events would have resulted in less impact and faster recovery, saving the society large damages and losses.
As the country’s infrastructure ages, extreme weather events have a greater impact. That means the recovery is slower and less efficient, making the US less resilient than its counterparts.
In terms of sustainability practices designed to reduce impact on human health and the environment, the US does not make it to the top 10, according to RobecoSAM, an investment specialist focused exclusively on sustainability investing.
Average CO₂ emissions per capita in the US are double that of other industrialized countries and more than three times as high as those in France.
The infrastructure in most EU countries facilitates and encourages sustainable practices. For example, railroads are mostly dedicated to commuters, while the bulk of freight moves through waterways, which is considered the most cost-effective and fuel-efficient mode of transportation.
In the US, however, 76 percent of commuters drive their own cars, as railroads are mostly reserved for freight and public transit is not efficient compared to other countries. American cities do not show up in the top cities for internal transportation, as do cities such as Madrid, Hong Kong, Seoul and Vienna.
To promote sustainable practices, global initiatives such as the New Climate Economy and the Task Committee on Planning for Sustainable Infrastructure aim to guide governments and businesses toward sustainable decision-making, especially when planning new infrastructure.
Smart Infrastructure as a Solution
To address challenges of resilience and sustainability, future infrastructure systems will have to embrace cyber-physical technologies and data-driven approaches.
A smart city is a city that is efficient in providing services and managing assets using information and communication technology. For example, in Barcelona, a city park uses sensor technology to collect and transmit real-time data that can inform gardeners on plant needs.
While there is no official benchmark to grade countries in this aspect, a number of American cities, such as Houston and Seattle, are considered among the world’s “smartest” cities, according to economic and environmental factors.
In order to prioritize dam restoration, the dam safety engineering practice is moving toward a data-driven process that would rank the dams based on how important they are to the rest of the waterway system. And last year, the US Department of Transportation issued a call to action to improve road safety by releasing a large database on road fatalities, which researchers can study to answer important questions.
Similarly, worldwide initiatives are seeking smart solutions that integrate communication and information technology to improve the resilience of cities such as 100 Resilient Cities and Smart Resilience.
It’s imperative that we pursue these types of new solutions, so US infrastructure can better and more sustainably withstand future disruptions and deliver better quality of life to citizens, too. Perhaps, by addressing these needs, the US can improve its score on its next report cards.