Behind the Scenes: Smart City Challenge Finalists

This is the first part in a two-part series.

Increasing mobility options for a growing population; reducing the number of vehicle related deaths and accidents; and reconnecting marginalized neighborhoods separated by transportation infrastructure. These are just a few of the rather daunting transportation challenges of our time. How can cities hope to solve these issues? U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Foxx believes the answers are collaboration and innovation.

With less than one month until the announcement of the winner of the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, cities of all sizes are considering how new technology like self-driving cars and connected vehicles will change how people of all levels of income live their lives.

In the spring of 2016, a total of 78 applicants applied for the US Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge - a challenge that not only defines what is a smart city, but the future of transportation

I recently had a chance to talk with team members — and in some cases, planners — from the seven Smart City Challenge finalists. Here's what I learned about four of the seven finalists' plans to make our cities cleaner, smarter, and more connected:

Columbus, Ohio

In Columbus, the Smart Cities Challenge is an opportunity to address how local leaders can connect underserved communities to jobs, fresh, healthy food and transportation. The City looked to Linden — the poorest neighborhood in Columbus — to understand the real obstacles to building a fully inclusive smart city that incorporates minority communities like Linden.

Columbus’ plan also takes advantage of the city’s central location in the country. A major hub for cargo, rail, and highways, Columbus is positioned to reach the highest percentage of American population within 10 hours.

With these advantages and challenges in mind, Kelly Scocco, assistant director of Building and Zoning Services for the City of Columbus and central section director for APA Ohio, breaks down the city’s plan into the following five pillars:

Access to Jobs: Transportation isn’t just getting people from point A to B. It’s the central way for moving citizens up the ladders of success. Smart Columbus proposes autonomous vehicle deployment to address first mile/last mile challenges from the Easton Transit Center to Easton employers. We will also provide enhanced traveler information, broadband connectivity, and build smart intersections along the new CMAX Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Corridor from Polaris to downtown Columbus.

Smart Logistics: Building on our strength as a global logistics hub by optimizing the movement and delivery of freight through real time traffic, weather, and routing data for trucks.

Connected Visitors: Visitors to the Columbus Region provide an overall economic impact of $8.7 billion and support more than 71,000 jobs. Consistent feedback we receive from visitors is about transit and parking. We are working with Experience Columbus to provide real-time event, transit, traffic, and parking information to visitors and residents.

Connected Citizens: Implementing a smart pass will enable all citizens to have access and be able pay for all the transportation options in our City with a smartphone or pass. Unless you have a credit card, you cannot access Uber, Lyft, COGO, or car2go. Smart Columbus is an important component of the City’s CelebrateOne effort to address infant mortality. Mothers not accessing pre-natal care and the challenging social and economic conditions that exist in these neighborhoods are key contributors to infant mortality. Smart Columbus will improve access to pre-natal care and provide the ladders of opportunity to our residents to address the challenging the social and economic conditions in their community.

Sustainable Transportation: Smart Columbus will make investments, programs, and creative incentives for energy efficiency, transportation electrification, and greenhouse gas reduction that is environmentally and financially sustainable. The City will begin to electrify its light duty vehicle fleet and work with Columbus businesses to do the same. We will build more public charging stations to reduce range anxiety and accommodate those households without garages or the ability to charge at home and encourage businesses to build more as well for their employees.

Denver, Colorado

For the City of Denver, winning the Smart Cities Challenge means the opportunity to create a replicable, scalable world-class smart city model that inspires cities across the country to build transportation systems that work for all people. As it notes in its proposal, Denver believes connecting more people with less is the key to success. “Connect more with less” stems from the idea that a better-connected multi-modal system demands less of our time, energy, and money; reduces our reliance on cars; and takes up less of our public space ultimately resulting in a higher quality of life.

With support from its more than 50 partners, the City and County, Regional Transportation District, and Colorado Department of Transportation are proposing to build a data management ecosystem that will bring together in one place public and private sources of data that has historically been difficult to access. The data management system is the foundation for which the City will build out the proposal’s three main components — mobility on demand, transportation electrification, and intelligent vehicles.

Ryan Mulligan, planner and co-lead on the development of the grant, broke down Denver’s three Smart City proposal components like this:

Mobility on Demand Enterprise (MODE): MODE will become Denver’s bridge to mobility options by reducing the barriers to access and bringing it to our fingertips through apps and interactive kiosks.

Transportation electrification: Denver’s air quality issues will be improved by creating the infrastructure required for electrification, thereby making electric vehicles a more viable alternative.

Intelligent vehicles: Our intelligent vehicle component is a bold program that leverages regional cooperation to create automated connected vehicle hot spots on CDOT’s connected vehicle platform and infrastructure already underway.

Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City, Missouri currently holds the title of the world’s most connected Smart City. Leveraging its extensive existing electric vehicle charging infrastructure, emerging technology sector and support from partners like Google Fiber, KCMO is uniquely positioned to make its smart innovations accessible to the community at-large.

Tapping into the collective imagination was one of the first steps in envisioning a plan that will build on Kansas City’s success in bringing back to life forgotten parts of the city. Based on three pillars, the KCMO Smart City Proposal prioritizes economic revitalization, increased mobility, and physical and digital connectivity among residents of all ages.

Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer, shared with me what each of the three pillars means for Kansas City:

Prospect Corridor: Developing Ladders of Opportunity for Eastern Kansas City

This first pillar focuses on transforming the eastern third of the city along the Prospect Avenue Corridor. The eastern third of Kansas City is in need of revitalization to help improve the economic and social environment for underserved segments of the population and to address public safety concerns inhibiting growth and opportunity.

Kansas City and local organizations are already working hard to serve the economic and social development needs of low-income, urban core residents. One effort, funded through the FTA Prospect MAX BRT Small Starts Grant, the Prospect Metro Area Express (MAX) bus rapid transit line, aims to increase mobility throughout the corridor through faster bus routes and additional technology (e.g., interactive kiosks, real-time transit information, station Wi-Fi, and more). Our Prospect Corridor Pillar will build upon existing efforts, like the MAX line, to maximize the effectiveness of smart city technologies. We will increase Wi-Fi availability as well as add additional interactive kiosks throughout the corridor to better connect citizens with the rest of the city and the world, thus reducing digital isolation. We will work closely with community organizations along the Prospect Corridor offering digital access and training programs to help bridge the digital divide, including additional educational and training programs centered on the new technologies.

Automated Vehicles, Connected Vehicles, and Electric Vehicles: Advancing Safety, Mobility, Accessibility, and Clean Transportation

The second pillar focuses on deploying automated vehicle (AV), connected vehicle (CV), and electric vehicle (EV) technologies to advance safety, mobility, and clean transportation solutions within KCMO. AV and CV deployments will be focused around the airport, downtown, and the Prospect Corridor. A fully autonomous shuttle system will be deployed along 11th, 12th, and 18th streets. This AV shuttle system will connect the current streetcar and Smart + Connected City initiative with other city investments in the 18th and Vine Jazz District and the West Side community. The 20-mile corridor from KCI Airport to the downtown area will serve as a highway test corridor for connected and semi-autonomous vehicles in addition to connecting passenger terminals at KCI to the downtown area, and provide state of the art transportation to visitors and residents.

Connected and Empowered Communities: Connecting Citizens Spatially and Virtually

The third pillar focuses on connecting neighborhoods and groups of citizens both spatially and virtually. It will build upon existing city efforts, create an environment conducive for  innovation, as well as create infrastructure and digital connectivity that will holistically link the city together. The Smart + Connected City initiative is a current city effort that builds on the new 2.2 mile streetcar starter line. Select smart streetlights with video sensors are placed along the streetcar line to detect blockages and potential accidents. Twenty-five interactive kiosks are being installed along the streetcar line and provide public Wi-Fi, information about nearby activities, city services, and travel information.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

SmartPGH, the City of Pittsburgh’s solution for transportation challenges in the 21st century, is grounded in collective action. The partnerships leveraged in SmargPGH are the key to building a city that prioritizes people, place, our planet, and performance. For example, through an ongoing partnership with the US Department of Energy, the City plans to develop an energy platform that is compatible and complimentary with SmartPGH’s transportation network which will, ultimately, allow for autonomous vehicles to run safely along Pittsburgh’s “Smart Spines” on streets powered by clean, local energy sources better connecting residents of every neighborhood to where people of all ages live, work and play.

Alex Pazuchanics, Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto’s policy manager, explained the values behind SmartPGH like this:

“In Pittsburgh, we have a history of doing really great things when we bring people from a wide swath of industries and fields together to solve a problem. We're doing the same thing with our SmartPGH consortium. The first step to being a smart city for Pittsburgh is to not spend the same regional money twice or three times over, but to build partnerships that solve multiple problems at the same time. Pittsburgh's version of a Smart City isn't exclusively a transportation solution — it's a transportation solution that incorporates energy, and stormwater, and land use, and workforce, etc. The Mayor likes to say Pittsburgh is small enough to get everyone into a room and come up with an answer, and big enough that when we do, the world takes notice. That's why we feel like we're such a great fit for the Smart City Challenge.

One of the other values of our application is "if it's not for all, it's not for us." Transportation projects for a large portion of the 20th century led to displacement and exclusion. Our application deliberately tried to focus on solutions that build connectivity for residents, not just for vehicles. We also focused the geography of our application not on mitigating gridlock on freeways or limited access highways, but how to better balance the safety and efficiency of streets and boulevards that run through our business districts and residential neighborhoods.”

When asked about the role of planners in building a truly smart Pittsburgh, Pazuchanics underscored the importance of incorporating the planning perspective throughout the process:

“Planning plays a major role in the way that we think about our Smart City. Our Assistant Director, Strategic Planning was a key player in our internal City team. Concurrently to the process of this application, the City is developing its Complete Streets Guidelines, and we see them as mutually beneficial. Our Planning departments work on network planning and our partnership with Gehl on implementing tactical urbanism solutions in our downtown definitely informed our application. There's also been a lot of cross-pollination between the work of the Affordable Housing Task Force, which the Planning Department also manages, and the Smart City project, as we're thinking more strategically about the interrelationship between housing and transportation.”

The potential the Smart City Challenge has to dramatically change the way transportation is planned for is exciting for this country — and the world. Watch our website later this week for the second and final part of this two-part series.


May 31, 2016

By Emily Pasi