Five Smart City Challenge ideas that cities should make happen

This summer, Columbus won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart City Challenge, and there’s no denying that the Ohio city is just one of many in the U.S. in need of a shift to solve its transportation woes.

Indeed, Columbus is the largest U.S. city without commuter rail, lacks zoning that could make transit-oriented development easier, and is missing policies aimed at easing traffic congestion and accessibility to jobs. The grant – not to mention concurrent awards from the Columbus Partnership and in-kind tech donations from the likes of Sidewalk Labs and Local Motors – should allow Columbus to get going on fixing all of those major issues.

But beyond Columbus, there’s even better news: the USDOT inspired 77 cities (and likely countless others that didn’t qualify under the challenge’s guidelines) to think about improving their transportation networks.

And, after studying all the proposals, it’s clear there are plenty of initiatives cities can get started on without waiting for federal or state funding grants. Many cities that entered the competition, unlike Columbus, already have relatively strong non-driving transportation infrastructure in place, and can fill in the blanks with lower-cost initiatives to make their transportation systems more efficient and accessible.

Here is our list of five ideas we like a lot within the Smart City applications (and how a few might be improved):

1. Outside-the-box bikeshare. Bikeshare, if simply because it’s less than a decade old in the U.S., is already outside-the-box. But Portland’s challenge entry goes above and beyond by seeking to create partnerships [PDF] for bikeshare data collection as a key part of learning about and monitoring its transportation network. It also proposed distributing electric Biketown bikes as a way to improve access in under-served neighborhoods.

Already, Biketown is thinking differently by paying users who help the bikeshare system rebalance its bikes. Usually all that entails is riding an extra block or two to park a bike at a station with more open docks than those at surrounding stations. The idea should make the system more usable (in theory, stations won’t be empty when you arrive to grab a bike), will add a bit of a game that helps the greater good, and might make it less expensive and more sustainable than having vans out rebalancing the system like what happens in other cities. Regardless of the impact on rebalancing costs, which remains to be analyzed, Business 101 also tells you that cash-back programs should be a quick path to customer loyalty.

2. Connect the corridors. City leaders need to identify the corridors that connect jobs, food, commerce, healthcare, and other basic needs and turn those into transitways with a heavy dose of bike- and walk-oriented amenities.

Columbus has this in its plan, with three self-driving transit shuttles that will improve under-connected areas to job centers and healthcare clinics, partially in response to the city’s high infant mortality rate. Along with biking and walking improvements, electric, autonomous, and shared vehicles can fill a (possibly subsidized) need that can plug those gaps and add first- and last-mile connections to existing transit.

Pittsburgh, which is turning into a city to watch for driverless-vehicle innovation, also included a focus on corridors in its proposal, identifying “smart spines” – routes that would include transit signal priority for buses. These signal controls allow transit to flow more freely at intersections, helping make it more reliable, competitive, and attractive.

3. Information everywhere. Kansas City’s proposal was one of many that leaned considerably on interactive digital kiosks that provide WiFi hotspots and information about nearby transportation options. While this might seem like a very small piece of the puzzle, think about how many of the signs throughout cities are so car-centric. Transit-related user information needs to become as ubiquitous as the billboards and green road signs that dot the landscape.

One of Columbus’s initiatives focuses on real-time information for traffic and parking, which may be useful for all of the city’s drivers, but hardly follows the idea of a “smart city,” which by an ideal definition needs to find ways that spread commuters out across modes.

Seattle TransitScreen, SDOT

Two TransitScreens in Seattle.

4. Bringing data to life. The world is full of data, much more data than we know how to handle. Looking beyond the typical sources of traffic sensors and transit ridership, Pittsburgh’s proposal included a campaign called “Citizens as Sensors,” which would “extract and scrub” relevant data from social media and analyze it through machine-learning classifiers. Other cities, such as Richmond, Va., also acknowledged this new truth of social media within their proposals: often, Twitter and Facebook are the first place riders go to alert others of issues, delays, and malfunctions.

Portland sought to unify its data collection across modes and aggressively apply what it discovers into practice. The city’s proposal aimed to create “ubiquitous mobility” for things like pricing and travel impacts that would feed data of how people are using the transportation network back to planners, who could use it to make better decisions. The plan included three key parts of the city: the main freight corridor, one that feeds into downtown, and one in a lower-income area east of Portland.

Perhaps as a next step, cities that employ new data collection methods could seek to make those data more visible and engaging to the public. A smart city doesn’t have to be a boring one.

5. Reworking the biking and walking fundamentals. U.S. cities were rebuilt in the last six decades to allow for moving cars as quickly as possible, even when it meant shoving non-drivers to the margins or the often-thin ledges we call sidewalks. Cities are tiptoeing into rethinking their networks to accommodate autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing platforms. If we’re not careful, that could mean people on bikes and on foot, as well as transit users, will become even more marginalized than they already are.

This definitely seems like the case in many of the applications to the challenge. For every mention of actually trying to shift people out of drive-alone vehicles into clearly beneficial options like biking and transit, there are a handful of plans to optimize traffic-signal timing to make it easier for cars to glide (speed) through cities.

Where are the smart-city ideas that encourage people to think about and try other options? Pittsburgh’s proposal included cameras that would optimize intersections for people walking and biking, while San Francisco’s discussed taking advantage of driving platforms like Waze to reroute traffic around streets that are dangerous to its more vulnerable users.

This is a solid start for future action. But to truly get smart about our cities, we need to step back, review what each place has to work with, and think very creatively about what would make people the happiest.

Heck, perhaps the smartest city of all will be one that applied to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s other, less-heralded challenge, Every Place Counts, and will look beyond driving-based transportation answers towards truly reconnecting communities.

Images: Top, the Columbus riverfront at night (Howard Jefferson, Flickr, Creative Commons). Two TransitScreens display transit information in Seattle (Seattle DOT, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Mobility Lab managing editor Adam Russell contributed to this article.

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