Smart Cities: Behind the Scenes With Austin, Portland, San Francisco

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

Under the leadership of Secretary Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Department of Transportation has taken unprecedented steps to rethink how future transportation projects will determine how widely opportunity will expand in America. DOT’s Smart Cities Challenge — the latest initiative in a string of programs focused on righting past transportation wrongs — is the asking cities to think outside the box and imagine communities where self-driving cars and electric fleets provide solutions to first and last mile connectivity challenges.

Last week, I spoke with teams from Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh about their visions for smarter, more connected cities.

This week, I got a close-up look at the plans for Austin, Portland, and San Francisco. Here’s what I learned about final three of the seven finalists' plans to make our cities cleaner, smarter, and more connected:

Austin, Texas

Building on its claim as America’s IT City, Austin is taking its commitment to tech-based solutions to the next level with its Smart City vision. Already recognized as a leader in smart transportation technology, Austin is the first mid-size test city for the Google Car, a first city for Google Fiber, and General Motors recently expressed interest in testing its automated vehicles in Austin in partnership with ridesharing company Lyft.

Despite its booming population and thriving entrepreneurial atmosphere, Austin has its fair share of challenges including some of the worst congestion in the country, sprawl, and economic disparity.  

Grounded in research, action on climate change, and a desire to rev up economic vitality, Austin is poised to tackle challenges that strain the city’s ability to provide accessible transportation options for long-time residents, students, and visitors alike. City leaders whole heartedly believe technology is the solution.

Rob Spillar, director of transportation for the City of Austin, shared with me the hallmarks of Austin’s Smart City vision:

Mobility Innovation Center

The Mobility Innovation Center is the foundation of our proposed Smart City network, consisting of four components, which will work synergistically to deploy our Smart City initiatives in a holistic and integrated fashion. Operating as an incubator for ideas and regional project management, MIC is also the home base for Austin’s five Smart City initiatives:

  • Automated and Connected Vehicles:  Through a partnership with Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority and tech partners who specialize in electric-powered automated shuttles, the City of Austin will deploy transit circulators and smart infrastructure to Austin’s international airport, as an early testbed for future full automation of the Austin transit fleet. The first component will be a low-speed automated and connected shuttle that moves passengers between the main terminal and a new mobility hub and staging area to be located in conjunction with a cell phone parking lot. 
  • Packaged Mobility Service: The city aims to accelerate the roll out of this type of service in the U.S. by piloting a “one-pass/one-app” program. It will be a fully functioning service system where users access their customized mobility service package (e.g., transit, car share, ride hailing services, bike share, etc.) with a single pass, paying for services through a single account.
  • Electric Fleets: In order to accelerate proliferation of electric vehicles, Austin has identified several public mass transit and high-mileage vehicle fleets as the next intervention point for electrification. Its approach will be to provide a first of its kind and nationally scalable “Fleet Electrification Marketplace” that connects fleet owners like taxi companies (many of whom have expressed keen interest in electrifying their fleets) to companies specializing in electrifying fleets which are just now getting off the ground.
  • Sensor Systems:  Comprehensive and coordinated intelligent transportation sensors will provide robust data and safety information to more efficiently operate and maintain the mobility network and communicate with travelers to make more informed decisions.
  • Travel Access Hubs:  We will remake the “park-and-ride” into a “one-stop shop” for a large number of mobility options including public transit buses, trains, car share, automated taxi/ TNC, bike share, and other services that have yet to be introduced.

Portland, Oregon

Known for its well-connected streets, bold planning and unique approach to just about everything, Portland understands well the benefits of a transportation system that works for all people — and yet, the city still struggles with providing mobility options for Portlanders living further away from its thriving downtown. As the vision statement points out, “a multimodal future is just not desirable, it’s necessary.”

To address the inequities of Portland’s current transportation system, the city proposes to launch Ubiquitous Mobility for Portland (UB Mobile for PDX), a technology and outreach initiative designed to provide mobility for everyone whether biking, driving, walking, or riding. The plan is built on a foundation of an open data cloud and analysts from the communities it will serve.  

John Brady, director of communications for Portland Bureau of Transportation, explained key components of UB Mobile PDX like this:

UB Mobile PDX Demonstration Corridors: Focus, Understand, Innovate, and Measure

While UB Mobile PDX has city-wide components, a major piece of developing and testing mobility expansion will occur in three designated demonstration corridors. These areas were selected not only because they are home to Portland’s most diverse communities, but also because they are some of the most dangerous places for pedestrians.

Using connected vehicles, sensors, kiosks, and target mobile app deployment, the city will produce and capture data that will inform future transportation decisions in a very real way for residents. UB Mobile PDX will also build on existing outreach and education initiatives to provide free and low-cost smart phones and tech training for low-income Portlanders.

Engaging Corridor Residents to Help Design Solutions

eople are central to making UB Mobile PDX work. Technology experts and community members will work collaboratively to define needs, brainstorm potential solutions, and refine those solutions. This will push our technical experts to see emerging technologies in light of how they can improve people’s daily lives.

Recognizing that community capacity building supports meaningful outreach, we will engage community-based organizations (CBOs). We will work with CBOs who serve low-income, minority, immigrant, elderly, and people with disabilities to ensure their participation in the demonstration project, and will provide grants for technology training, Smart City-related job training, and employment programs.

Ladders of Opportunity

Portland’s plan to change the way people move throughout the city will increase access to education and jobs in a way it never has. Through workforce training and career coaching; safe, innovation connections to places underserved community members need to get to; and revitalization, Portland will build a stronger, more connected that city works for everyone.

San Francisco, California

For San Franciscans, innovation is a way of life. The birth place of ride-sharing and car-sharing companies, San Francisco is uniquely positioned to redefine — yet again — the future of transportation. Yet for all of its strengths, the city also has big challenges it must find a way to address including extreme congestion; lack of affordable housing resulting in longer commute times for people with limited financial resources; and a growing number of shared-mobility options with spotty regulations and policies that address accessibility, safety and sustainability.  

What’s the solution for the city’s growing list of challenges?

Phasing out single occupant vehicles by adopting a path toward Shared, Electric, Connected and Automated Vehicles (SECAV). Spaces historically used for parking will become home to mini-parks and affordable housing.

Timothy Papandreou, chief innovation officer, explained San Francisco’s phased approach this way:

Easy: Combine routing, scheduling and payment through a single, simple mobile device app for: transit, bike share, scooter share, car share, ride share, public parking facilities and public shuttles.

Opportunity: Provide low-income residents with access to smart phones and banking services so they can benefit from mobile payments. Free public Wi-Fi will connect the many residents who cannot afford mobile data plans from private companies. Transportation prices would be affordable to all residents. Service would be provided around the clock so late-night service workers would have safe and affordable means to get home. Low-income areas would be better connected to transit. Vehicles in the program would all be accessible to people with disabilities.

Safety: Eliminate fatal collisions through collision avoidance technology and connected vehicles, including after-market devices for cars and trucks that currently lack the technology.

Shared: Shared vehicles will always be available to take you where you need to go, eliminating the stress and expense of owning and parking a car. Since the vehicles would be in use nearly continuously, most parking could be turned into mini parks, relaxation areas and affordable housing.

Green: Vehicles would be electric to minimize air and noise pollution, including cargo vans and cargo bikes. The smart grid will be enhanced and more charging stations built.

Community: Some improvements will be citywide; for others neighborhoods would apply to participate in pilot programs. That way changes happen at a pace that communities embrace and benefit from.

Teach: Work with UC Berkeley and industry partners to test, analyze and disseminate best practices learned from these pilot programs to other transportation agencies, academics, and students across the United States and the world.

As the competition comes to a close this week, cities — and planners — across the country must decide how they will support the movement to build cleaner, smarter, more-connected cities.

RSVP to watch live on Thursday, June 9, at 2 p.m. ET as mayors of the seven Smart City finalists make their "final pitch" as to why their city should be selected as the DOT Smart City Challenge winner. A winner will be named shortly after that day.

About the Author

Emily Pasi is APA's community and outreach associate.

Top image: Shared hub transportation model from San Francisco: Meeting the Smart City Challenge, a report by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency.


June 7, 2016

By Emily Pasi