Smart City finalists present formal applications

USDOT competition offers $50 million to build transportation system of future

Mayors from seven cities traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to present formally their cities’ applications for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Smart City Challenge. The competition will award the winning city a $40 million federal grant and at least another $10 million from the private sector to jumpstart its efforts to build a modern transportation system.

kc_streetcarThe finalists are Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco. All of them presented ideas that covered similar ground, which fall in line with the purpose of the challenge: to use technology to improve a city’s transportation system for all of its residents.

The goal of the contest is to affect a wide range of social issues through improvements to the transportation system. If a city can make it easier and cheaper to get to a job, then residents will have more choice of where to live and work. They won’t be as tied to one neighborhood or section of town, and those areas of the city won’t be so cut off from the rest of the population. Similarly, if a city can make it easier for residents to have access to mobile technology and make that technology more useful to their daily lives, those lives will improve. That mobile technology won’t just offer access to transit options; it also opens up new modes of employment, of commerce and of communication.

The USDOT’s intention is to integrate all of a city’s residents more fully into the life, commerce and business of the city — all through its transportation system.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James made the case that his city already has spent years developing smart corridors and would be able to do more with the grants than the other finalists because Kansas City’s leaders have the requisite experience. Its KC Streetcar system opened May 6 and is free to ride for the length of its two miles through the downtown area. The city’s application was built around the streetcar and presented ideas to build out the  system and its network of sensors.

Denver’s focused on an integrated data system that would draw real-time information from many sources, connecting smart vehicles to the street grid. City officials hope to build a network of ridesharing services and, eventually, autonomous vehicles that will serve Denver’s entire population. They intend for the city to pay for rides that start in underserved, usually poorer, neighborhoods. Portland’s application suggested the city would offer residents a variety of transportation and transit options and let them choose from the alternatives, make arrangements and pay fares all from within a single smartphone app. The city’s planners called their program “Ubiquitous Mobility for Portland,” and it would tie into a networked system various forms of transit and transportation that inform each other and respond to circumstances as they present themselves.

Austin’s intention is to build a series of smart stations that serve as high-tech park-and-ride facilities, for which rides could be booked via mobile app. City transportation planners are also readying a pilot program to test self-driving cars using the closed environment of the city’s airport. The city also plans to use the grant funds to build out its intelligent transportation systems with sensors installed throughout roadways that will convey data to a central transportation management source. That data will inform decisions made about traffic signals in an effort to manage the city’s flow of traffic.

Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto spoke about using the contest as a chance to allow technology to connect poorer neighborhoods to opportunities they don’t currently have. That city’s application revolves around plans for the Almono, a former steel plant that would be converted into a transportation  innovation hub, a sort of incubator for smart transportation technology. The Almono is located in the city’s center, near the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers: the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio.

The contingents from Columbus and San Francisco each boasted of commitments from public- and private-sector partners to add to the grant funding and boost the prize totals. Columbus officials have gathered an additional $90 million in pledged support, and San Francisco’s partners have promised to give the city’s efforts another $150 million.

The California city’s leaders want to expand the city’s network of municipal ridesharing vehicles and connect it to a multimodal system of rail lines, bike share program and other alternatives to single-driver cars. Mayor Ed Lee said the goal is to divert 10 percent of the city’s auto traffic to ridesharing and public transit options. Columbus is well on its way to creating a bus rapid transit system called CMAX, expansion of which the application focused on. Officials also spoke of an “autonomous circulator,” a system of autonomous vehicles that would ferry riders from a transit center to their places of employment.

The winning city will be announced by the end of June.