It’s been a very good week for the state of Ohio. First, the Cleveland Cavaliers win their first-ever NBA title. Now Columbus is named the $50 million winner of the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge. This is an exciting development for a couple of reasons.
First, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has uncovered a very visible way that the federal government can portray itself as valuable and spur the kind of inspiration to get cities battling to become the next great places – the places where future generations want to live, work, and play.
Second, Columbus’s win allows a city in the Midwest – which is much more car-dependent in general than the coasts – to illustrate how auto-oriented places can develop a new blueprint for moving around a city, whether people are travelling by car or not. And as BikePortland editor Michael Anderson notes, Columbus’s average-size metropolitan area will offer a lesson for the numerous other medium American cities.
Although more will be known tomorrow when USDOT officials visit Columbus to present the award, it appears the winning application’s focus on transportation equity was a deciding factor. Within its proposal, the city made explicit a goal to connect a low-income, high-unemployment neighborhood with the area’s job centers. Columbus beat San Francisco, Austin, Portland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Denver in the finals, as well as the dozens of other cities who had previously been eliminated.
Ultimately, the grant should help improve access to jobs, healthcare, and education for people in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. This reinforces the city’s priority to provide mobility services to the people who rely on public transportation the most.
It’s also great news for Columbus’s growing community of startup businesses, notes Jay Donovan in TechCrunch: “It’s not hard to imagine many of the logistics and machine-learning startups in town being able to get involved, since autonomous vehicles appear to be a big output focus of the competition.”
Among the tentative plans for Columbus, which actually will receive closer to $140 million when matching contributions are included:
- A transit pass payment system that could be used for multiple forms of transportation
- Kiosks for reloading transit cards, or a smartphone app as a universal payment system
- An autonomous vehicle test fleet that can deliver passengers from a Central Ohio Transit Authority train station to the Easton Town Center shopping area
- Increase electric vehicle access in the city, and
- Improve communication between vehicles and infrastructure, which could help reduce crashes.
Columbus has long been on a slow progression to demanding better transportation options. In a 2014 commentary in the Columbus Dispatch, Eric Davis of advocacy group Transit Columbus wrote:
In the past six to eight months, transportation demand and behavior has made a remarkable shift: New bike- and car-sharing options have sprung up through CoGo and Car2Go respectively; more than 5,400 people of have signed a petition in support of the return of passenger rail to Columbus; and, more than 100 voluntarily have become involved in activities related to “designing” the transportation system of the future for central Ohio.
In part, these shifts respond to an obvious deficiency of public transit and mobility options for this metropolitan area of nearly 2 million people, an area that continues to lag the rest of the nation in terms of options.
Davis went on to note that a 2011 poll of local young professionals found many citing the lack of transportation options as a major reason they were leaving for places like Portland, Denver, and Chicago.
It will be interesting to see how much the ability of Buckeyes to move about their city is improved – and how many future young professionals decide to stick around in what could become a booming Columbus.
Photo: Downtown Columbus (wyliepoon, Flickr, Creative Commons).