Rust Belt city Columbus, OH, emerged as the high-tech winner among 78 U.S. cities competing in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Smart City Challenge. DOT will award $40 million to Columbus for programs ranging from smart intersections to autonomous vehicles to vehicle electrification.
Columbus's response to the Challenge also drew a $10-million grant from Vulcan, Inc., the private investment company run by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.
The DOT grant extends over four years and will fund a variety of projects shared by the city and a number of high-tech corporations. The idea is to develop and integrate applications that will help citizens get to their jobs, provide transportation-related information to citizens and visitors, facilitate the shipment of goods, and generally make transportation in the city quicker, more cost-effective and less polluting.
Columbus won high praise from DOT and from independent observers for its plans for the Linden Neighborhood, a mostly low-income section of the city where many residents do not own cars or have Internet access. A technology-enabled bus service through the area will bring residents to jobs downtown via a "smart corridor," which gives buses priority at traffic signals, provides online transportation information and payment kiosks at convenient locations along the route, and puts Wi-Fi hot spots in street lamps for access by people without Internet connectivity at home.
Linden has one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the U.S., and Columbus aims to reduce that by 40% by 2020, both by getting better healthcare information to Linden mothers and by removing the "transportation barriers" that make it difficult for residents to reach healthcare professionals.
Columbus did an exceptional job at assessing its problems and coming up with solutions, said Mark Dowd, DOT's deputy assistant secretary for research and technology. For example, the city has teamed with Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company, to help get pregnant mothers to medical clinics, to exchange information between doctors and patients, and to automatically reschedule missed appointments. These kinds of applications will be developed as open-source, and other cities will be encouraged to try them, Dowd said.
Jeff Ortega, the city's assistant director of public services, said the proposal to DOT was based on the idea of connecting a number of disparate applications into a scalable, seamless network. "Columbus has been a test market for everything from hamburgers to politics, so we are looking for approaches that can be scaled across different areas of the city, and also replicated in other parts of the country," he said.
The city plans to connect 1,200 traffic signals via optical fiber into a smart network that can do everything from giving priority to emergency vehicles to advising truck drivers how to get their cargoes to the airport most efficiently. Ortega said a key selling-point for the ideas was strong and early involvement from local residents and businesses.
Asked to assess the DOT-Columbus programs, Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said the technologies for some of the program elements are readily at hand. "For instance, real-time traffic, weather, and truck-routing information helps us utilize road infrastructure in a more efficient way. Today, the problem with traffic is not a problem of capacity, but of peaks, and knowing in real time the status of the infrastructure can help us reduce them. Real-time information is becoming pretty much a reality today."
On the other hand, Ratti said, the city's deployment of electrical vehicles would take considerably longer. "Electrification will require many years and major investments – with the deployment of a pervasive [battery]-charging infrastructure."
Ratti said he was especially impressed with the city's plan to deploy autonomous vehicles. "They promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life," he said. "They will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. Your car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family—or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community, or city."
Cars are idle 95% of the time, so they are ideal candidates for a sharing economy, which can save tremendous amounts of both energy and urban space, Ratti said. "According to research done at MIT, we know that, thanks to a driverless car system, it would be enough for 30% of vehicles on the road today to cover the mobility needs of citizens in a big city."
Columbus is not the only innovator in the Smart City Challenge, according to DOT's Dowd. He explains: "We [DOT] are usually prescriptive: if you want X, you must do Y. Also, we tend to spread the peanut butter pretty thin; we sprinkle grants around and hope that we will spur some innovation along the way. And we don't typically give money directly to cities."
In its Smart City Challenge, DOT invited mid-sized cities to define their own problems and map out proposed solutions. Seventy-eight cities responded and seven (Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco) were chosen as finalists. These cities were then invited to meet and collaborate on ideas, tailoring each proposal to DOT to each city's resources and needs.
DOT urged the cities to come up with "agile" solutions, not big, long-term infrastructure projects. For example, Columbus submitted its smart-bus system, rather than proposing an expensive fixed-rail transportation network. DOT also specified that federal funds must be used for open source data and open source software.
Finally, said Dowd, "We made sure that the underserved communities–the social equity piece–was not added later, but was included in the front-end plans."
Asked what advice he would offer other urban areas that wish to evolve into Smart Cities, Ratti said, "Don’t think that you need to have the ultimate solution before implementation. Conversely, it is important to experiment–and to engage citizens."
Gary Anthes is a technology writer and editor based in Arlington, VA.
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