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Transportation innovation in smart cities

Mary Scott Nabers / March 23, 2016

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Transportation innovation in smart cities

Seven mid-size cities in the United States are hoping they have the $40-million-winning solution for improving quality of life in their communities through transportation innovation. They are the finalists for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Smart City Challenge, and each hopes their project will transform the future of urban transportation.

Chosen from more than 75 applications, the seven finalist cities – Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco – were named last week by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Additional population growth of 70 million is expected in the United States by 2045. By 2050, USDOT predicts that emerging “mega regions” will absorb 75 percent of the nation’s population. Mid-size cities are expected to account for much of that population increase but their current transportation infrastructure cannot accommodate that kind of growth. Without change, the problems that will result are huge. Without efficiency in moving people and goods, business growth and economic development will be curtailed.

The Smart City competition is designed to encourage cities to find transportation solutions and lead efforts to solve municipal mobility problems. The original Smart City competition resulted in a multitude of diverse applications – all high-level overviews of various projects from city officials. Each finalist has now received a $100,000 award from USDOT to be used for further development and submission of a final proposal. The coveted prize of up to $40 million will be awarded in June…but that’s not all.

The winner will also be eligible for up to $10 million in additional funds from Vulcan, Inc. to support vehicle deployment and other carbon emission reduction strategies. Other partnerships with private-sector firms will be possible and the winning proposal will obviously receive high visibility and potentially more collaborative opportunities.

Innovation, collaboration and creativity are all a part of the proposals. Some projects are built around partnerships with other government entities in the community such as colleges and universities, mobility authorities and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs). Others expand on existing transportation infrastructure or various types of solutions to traffic congestion or air quality. Although designed with their respective cities in mind, the projects could be adapted for used in any mid-size city.

The Columbus project proposal is related to deploying autonomous (driverless) vehicles that will provide citizens better access to public transit. Autonomous and connected vehicles are part of several of the finalists’ projects. These new, highly-touted cars use technology such as radar and GPS as well as control systems that interpret data and sensory information. The technology ensures a correct path of travel while identifying and maneuvering to avoid obstacles and other vehicles. Connected vehicles “talk” to each other – exchanging information about travel time, route options and notifications of traffic accidents.

Pittsburgh submitted a project that would build on other successful partnerships, among them the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center formed by the city, Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh. One of the key elements of the Pittsburgh project is creation of “Smart Spines” that city officials say would use sensor information to gather data on transportation corridors. The information would in turn help provide new transportation options for underserved neighborhoods.

Officials in Denver say their Smart City project is designed to “connect more with less.” The city wants to provide a better multi-modal transportation system that will offer more options, cost less and reduce reliance on automobiles. City officials plan to rely heavily on data to connect the three core components of the project – a mobility-on-demand project that uses apps and kiosks to allow access to mobility options, an electrification infrastructure that promotes electric vehicles as an alternative in the city and collaboration with the Colorado DOT on a connected vehicle component.

There can only be one $40 million winner, but all finalists have meaningful, workable solutions that could significantly and positively impact their communities and others cities. The talent, innovation and futuristic thinking that are evident in all proposals is more than remarkable; it is historic.  Through collaborative efforts such as this, cities throughout the U.S. may become global leaders in transportation innovation.

Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., a business development company specializing in government contracting and procurement consulting throughout the U.S.

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