On June 23, Columbus, Ohio, was officially announced as the winner of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Smart City Challenge, which provides funding for innovative transportation initiatives that fully integrate self-driving cars, internet-connected 'smart' vehicles, and smart road and traffic sensors. The Department of Transportation will grant $40 million to Columbus, but the challenge also stimulated interest from the private sector. Vulcan, Inc., a company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to manage his holdings and philanthropic activities, will donate $10 million, and an additional $90 million—of which only $19 million are public funds—will be provided by a variety of local interests.

Columbus was chosen as the winning city out of 78 applicants and seven finalists. The other finalists were Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco. In his unofficial announcement of the win, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said, “This funding is a game changer for the city of Columbus and central Ohio.” Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther added, “Smart Columbus will deliver an unprecedented multimodal transportation system that will not only benefit the people of central Ohio, but potentially all mid-sized cities.” And, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) stated that the competition “illustrates the power of Congress, the city and other partners working together.”

The winning design was particularly impressive because of its focus on expanding access for underserved communities. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) noted, “This grant will help meet the transportation needs of Ohioans who live in the low-income neighborhoods in and around Columbus to ensure they can get to their job, or receive a good education.” The plan targets the Linden area, where many residents do not have access to transportation, jobs, or health care. Columbus intends to use driverless cars to bring passengers from these communities into job centers like Easton.

Improving access to health care is particularly crucial. Columbus has a high infant mortality rate that city officials hope to improve by connecting mothers and pregnant women to the health care they need. Linden in particular has an infant mortality rate four times the national average, and three times higher than the rest of its county. According to Mayor Ginther, there is a close relationship between health concerns and transportation options: “Some people say, ‘What the heck does infant mortality have to do with transportation?’ I say, ‘Everything.’ . . . That’s a reflection of the quality of life in the neighborhood.”

Columbus also intends to implement a “smart card” that can be used for various public transportation options, allowing easier access for the many residents without credit cards. Future plans include improving access to electric vehicles and introducing broadband on bus routes. Columbus already has 300 electric vehicle charging stations and intends to introduce more, which will hopefully encourage ride-share services to switch to electric fleets. Charging stations for on-street parking will be prioritized.

The other finalists had impressive plans, too. Denver is seeking to address its crippling congestion—its spectacular setting and growing economy have attracted plenty of newcomers. The city proposes to work with ride-sharing services, such as Lyft and Uber, to provide convenient transportation for the "last mile" between a commuter's destination and the nearest mass transit hub. Making it easier for people to reach bus and rail stations, particularly in low-income communities, will encourage them to use public transportation to connect with employment opportunities and community services. EESI's recent Congressional briefing, Advancing Mobility Sustainably: Ridesourcing and Public Transport Together, explored how shared mobility technology is transforming transportation services and enhancing urban mobility.

Austin, which also suffers from intense congestion caused by a rapidly rising population, proposed creating multiple transportation hubs around the city to minimize downtown car traffic. From the hubs, people could move into the city center on bikes, driverless cars, or electric buses. Austin also plans to focus on a currently underserved area, the Rundberg neighborhood.

Portland, historically a leader in transportation, proposed putting in place safety measures in low-income areas, which have high rates of traffic-related fatalities. Assistant Transportation Director Maurice Henderson noted, “The traffic violence here, and we don’t use that term lightly, is significant.” Driverless, electric vehicles could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow traffic to safer speeds. A proposed app would show users various transportation options, and allow them to see the emissions they could save and the calories they could burn by taking public transit and walking.

Kansas City has an ambitious strategy to merge their public transportation with a digital infrastructure, connecting residents to resources to help them find jobs and education opportunities. The plan also includes several technological aids for blind residents, as well as transportation to a job agency serving the blind. Speaking of their proposal, Kansas City Mayor Sylvester James, Jr., said, “It’s transportation to enhance people’s lives, not just getting them from home to the ice cream parlor.”

San Francisco proposed reducing car congestion by offering shared electric vehicles and faster carpool lanes, in neighborhoods chosen by residents. Excess parking garages would be replaced with inexpensive housing. Finally, Pittsburgh, which has seen population declines, proposed connecting the low-income Hazelwood area with a revitalized steel mill. Driverless shuttles would link the area to nearby universities and tech companies, promoting local jobs.

Thanks to the Department of Transportation’s contest, the seven finalist cities raised a total of approximately $500 million from more than 150 outside funders. With this financial assistance, many of the other cities intend to go ahead with their Smart City plans. Prior to the official announcement by the Department of Transportation, Austin spokesman Jason Stanford said, “. . . whether or not we win, we’re still going to do it.”


Author: Rebecca Chillrud