In smart mobility contest, a preview of tomorrow’s streets

How can we harness new technologies to make cities easier to navigate — while simultaneously improving safety, equity, and sustainability? Setting its sights high, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Smart City Challenge recently asked cities around the nation to answer this question. The results provide urban planners and others working in the built environment with new insight into how our streets will evolve in the coming decades.

More than money

The most ambitious and broad-reaching smart mobility initiative seen to date, the competition asked midsize American cities to provide their own definitions of “smart,” specifying how autonomous vehicles, networked sensors, and other new tools could help address current and anticipated challenges.

USDOT pledged to give the winning city $40 million, accompanied by $10 million from Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan. Additional partnerships formed at the national and local levels led to hundreds of millions of dollars more in financial and in-kind pledges.

Despite these impressive figures, however, the competition’s greatest value arguably lies in motivating cities around the country (nearly every eligible municipality entered) to explore the potential of emerging technologies.

My team speculated that ideas appearing frequently in the competition will be common features of future transportation systems. To understand the trends it revealed, we analyzed proposals submitted by the seven finalists: Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, and the winner, Columbus.

Variations on a theme

USDOT’s call for submissions, released in late 2015, prompted cities to describe how they would meet three overarching goals — improving safety, enhancing mobility, and addressing climate change — by incorporating ideas from a list of 12 vision elements.

Although each city addressed all 12 vision elements in some way, there were interesting variations in interpretation and prioritization.

Urban automation

Given the buzz around driverless cars, it’s unsurprising that every short-listed city promised to begin or expand automated vehicle (AV) trials upon winning the competition. Most discussed testing cars and buses; tech capital San Francisco, which has already seen extensive AV testing in the surrounding region, looked ahead to the possibility of automated light rail, street cars, and even ferries.

Many finalists agreed that AV airport shuttles were a logical first step, proposing to test them on airport grounds and city streets. Austin wrote that it would offer travelers AV rides to destinations near the airport, thereby “present[ing] automated vehicle technology to a large audience, including the early adopters and innovators that are a crucial part of the Austin culture.” Kansas City envisioned an automated shuttle running between downtown and the airport, timed to align with flight schedules.

Applicants also discussed the potential for AVs to address what planners call the first-mile / last-mile problem — essentially, the connection between a transit stop and a traveler’s origin or destination. Their plans often focused on improving conditions for disadvantaged and disabled populations. Columbus proposed to locate fixed-route AV shuttles in a major suburban employment center, helping low-income people without cars access jobs in the area.

Easton, a major employment center in Columbus, Ohio, that will soon host AV shuttles

Easton, a major employment center in Columbus, Ohio, that will soon host AV shuttles

Connected vehicles and infrastructure

Finalists described a wide variety of applications for sensors embedded on everything from bikes to street lights. Rationalizing traffic flow using a new technology called dedicated short range communications (DSRC) was perhaps the most common. DSRC enables real-time information exchange between vehicles, as well as between vehicles and their surroundings. Pittsburgh described tests confirming that DSRC radio connections between buses and traffic lights made bus journeys faster; other cities discussed plans to deploy the technology in the near future.

Pittsburgh bus

Pittsburgh bus

Improving safety was another common goal. San Francisco linked connected vehicles and smart infrastructure to its Vision Zero initiative. Focusing on streets with high collision rates, the City promised to partner with companies like Waze to reduce injuries by warning drivers of high-risk locations, providing real-time alerts to problems ahead, and rerouting drivers when necessary. Pittsburgh described vehicle-to-vehicle communications that would enable city buses, Uber vehicles, bike-share bicycles, and other road users to sense one another and generate safety alerts when needed. Taking another slant on safety, Kansas City proposed to equip police patrol cars with gunshot-detection technology.

Electric city

Switching municipal fleets to electric power was a common response to USDOT’s request to consider climate change. Pittsburgh, whose government has already set aside funds for electric vehicles (EVs), envisioned a downtown parking lot with a photovoltaic-powered smart-charging station featuring energy storage and microgrid infrastructure. Austin, like many other applicants, proposed to target a specific corridor for electric bus rapid transit trials. It plans to install a cutting-edge refueling station that can charge 12 EVs in 10 minutes.

Cities also discussed strategies for increasing the percentage of private cars that are EVs. Denver stressed the importance of Colorado’s $6,000 alternative-fuel-vehicle tax refund and pledged to develop complementary strategies, while Portland proposed to buy used EVs in bulk and distribute them to low-income residents.

Electric vehicle recharging station

Electric vehicle recharging station

Prioritizing people

In announcing Columbus’s win, USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx praised its application for “put[ting] people first.” The Ohio capital interpreted the “user-focused mobility services and choices” and “connected, involved citizens” vision elements largely in terms of social equity. Its plan honed in on Linden, a neighborhood that struggles disproportionately with challenges ranging from poverty to infant mortality — issues that can be traced in part to transportation policies adopted in the past.

Making it easier for Linden residents to navigate the city, Columbus posited, would greatly increase their access to good jobs, healthcare, and other critical resources, leading to potentially transformative knock-on effects. To this end, the City will launch a bus rapid transit line equipped with the latest technologies on Cleveland Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus, Ohio

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus, Ohio

The application discussed creating a smart-card payment system allowing those without smartphones or bank accounts to use car sharing and other mobility services; the cards could be topped up with cash at kiosks located at common transfer sites. The application also offered AVs as a potential solution for first-mile / last-mile challenges.

Cleveland Avenue

Cleveland Avenue

Columbus wasn’t the only city with creative ideas for helping disadvantaged communities. Portland, which also discussed cash-based smart cards, promised to provide affordable smartphones with data plans to residents of select low-income neighborhoods and discussed paying community organizations to carry out training and outreach efforts. Austin proposed a similar plan, creating a new job function — the smart ambassador — to help overcome language and cultural barriers and the digital divide.

Not all suggestions for user-focused mobility and connectivity targeted low-income communities specifically, however. Many cities discussed creating or expanding apps to improve all residents’ access to information about their mobility options. Pittsburgh’s proposed MovePHG app would give locals the ability to select travel routes and modes in real time based on factors such as affordability, safety, and accessibility for the disabled. The Go Denver app, launched earlier this year, bills itself as a “one-stop shop that will meet all traveler needs.”

Denver bike share station

Denver bike share station

A competition’s afterlife

Over the next four years, Columbus will use the $50 million challenge funding, plus $90 million raised from private partners, to implement and evaluate its plan. But Columbus isn’t the only city pushing ahead with its smart mobility agenda. Other entrants have also promised to pursue the ideas developed during the competition, keeping a close eye on the Ohio capital for lessons learned.


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