Denver Positions Its Role as a Hub City for Smart City Challenge Bid

Denver Union Station

Denver Union Station


Connecting state and local government leaders

Colorado’s capital has running start on putting digital technologies to work to address the challenges rapid population growth poses to aging transportation systems.

This is the seventh in a series of profiles on the seven U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge finalist cities, which will be in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 9 to present their final grant applications to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Read our previous Smart City Challenge finalists profiles on Austin, Columbus, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco. | REGISTER for the June 9 Smart City Challenge livestream

DENVER — Crissy Fanganello was sitting in a Washington, D.C.-area airport Monday afternoon after what sounded like an already long travel day. She was nevertheless speaking on a turbo-charged setting with Route Fifty about Denver’s bid for the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge grant competition, which will fund a pilot program that would creatively put data-collection and mobility technologies to work getting people where they want to go more efficiently and productively and in more healthy and sustainable ways.

“Our approach comes in the context of the efforts we’ve made on building a smart city overall,” Fanganello said. “For years, we have taken a comprehensive approach, which all begins with Denver’s Enterprise Data Management Ecosystem. That’s the component that allows the city to respond to residents. It’s the piece that makes the rest of it possible, including transportation. It’s the basis of our proposal and it’s what I think other cities see as a priority—they want to operate on a [similar data management system].”     

Fanganello is director of transportation for the City and County of Denver and head of the city’s Smart City Challenge team. She is in the nation’s capital this week to present Denver's proposal to the USDOT and its secretary, Anthony Foxx, along with representatives from the other six finalist midsize cities—Austin, Columbus, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco.

Fanganello's pitch is, first, that the Denver has a running start on putting digital technologies to work to address the challenges rapid population growth poses to aging transportation systems and the thinking that created them; and second, that Denver long has embraced the fact that it is a hub city in a much larger metro region, and so has adopted its transportation vision and work methods in a way that will be increasingly productive in a future where planners concern themselves more with urban areas and less with individual cities. Colorado’s capital, she said, presents a replicable model for city and regional planners around the country.           

“Denver is extremely collaborative. The cities of the metro region work together because we have to, because we know we will succeed or fail together,” Fanganello said. “Back in 2008, we found that 60 percent of trips in Denver start outside the city proper… Today, the population of Denver [which has 649,495 residents] swells by 200,000 people every day. We’re truly a regional place. And other cities know that, which is why 21 of the 78 cities that have participated in the Smart City challenge have endorsed our proposal.”

Denver lies at the center of a Front Range cluster of small cities, university towns, suburbs and exurbs that extend some 50 miles at least in every direction, depending on how you calculate. Every day commuters see the results of the big bets the Denver region has taken on—big money projects that many U.S. cities have struggled in recent years even to undertake.

Over the past five years, expanded highway express lanes with tiered pricing that charge commuters wirelessly, express and local bus routes, regional train lines, and new highway-side bike lanes that span hundreds of miles up against the foothill mountains have all come online.

Rental bikes near Denver Union Station

In April, the Regional Transit District opened its 23-mile electrified A Line commuter train that connects Denver International Airport to Union Station in downtown Denver. Similar lines running north and west are also scheduled to open this year.

“One of the strengths of our Smart City proposal is our relationship with our partners,” said Steve Hersey, ‎director of Denver traffic operations. “They’ve contributed dollars and time and research to the project. They’re not in it to just get a piece of the pie; they’ve put skin in the game.”

More than 50 partners have signed on to advance Denver’s plan, committing $34 million in cash and services to the project. They include private-sector contributors such as AT&T, Econolite, Evercar, Jacobs Engineering, MetroTech, Panasonic, Peloton, Qualcomm and Xcel Energy.  Colorado-based research facilities have also signed on, including the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden and Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy.

With those contributions, a winning bid for Denver would deliver $84 million in combined public-private sector funding. The USDOT has pledged $40 million to the winning Smart City Challenge city, subject to appropriations, while Seattle-based Vulcan has pledged $10 million in additional funding.  

To ramp up the use of network-connected vehicles, Hersey points to the wireless networks already running in the city and and the “hundreds of miles of fiber already in the ground in the metro region.”

“The network infrastructure is already there for the new technologies to ride on top of to make it possible for vehicles to communicate, convert and report data constantly.”

Denver has similarly been moving quickly on ramping up mobility on demand for residents. Along with Los Angeles, Denver has teamed with Xerox on its pilot “Go” city mobile application.

Hersey called the “Go Denver” app “state of the art,” and it does already seem a leap from the era of Google Maps and even still-popular traffic-monitoring apps like Waze. Go Denver pulls a larger-range of resources together and calculates the time, cost, carbon footprint and health benefits of available transportation options. The calculations include parking costs as well as first-mile / last-mile car-share / ride-hailing options.

The city has also been tilling the ground in administrative ways for the era of the smart city.  For more than a decade, Denver has followed and updated a land-use and transportation plan called Blueprint Denver, which is scheduled to be updated again this year.

The Blueprint aims to make roads multi-modal—in effect embracing congestion as a reality where roads can’t be widened. The city has put more people on the roads but with the aim of moving them to where they want to go faster through the use of walkways   and bike and bus lanes. The “Blueprint” is teamed with a developing Vision Zero no-traffic-fatalities plan and the Denver Moves Transit initiative, which sees the city team with the larger Regional Transportation District to make bus and rail travel more attractive and efficient.       

It’s a cluster of efforts that “smart cities” digital transportation technologies will improve upon, potentially by leaps and bounds.

Fanganello said Denver views the smart city as a place that uses digital advances in ways that make the city work better for all of its residents. She echoes the concerns of other of the Smart City challenge finalist representatives in pointing out that digital-age technology and consumer services have famously come with barriers to participation that can exacerbate inequalities. The vision of a smart city where streets, vehicles, traffic signals and wired commuters operate in concert off an electrified low-emissions network, a place where automated cars, buses, trucks and trains do a nonstop smooth-running dance, has rarely included the real possibility that crowds of residents may be left to participate only as stranded bystanders.

“The thing is, we have to change how we operate,” Fanganello said. “If you can’t collect the available data and read it and make solid decisions from it—if you can’t see how it will affect people in meaningful ways—it’s not that useful. The private sector can move fast. Our job then is to consider how it all translates for the entire community. Some business models won’t go into our communities, they won’t bring the business, education and jobs opportunities to those communities. We have to be concerned as we move to a more entrepreneurial and technical transportation system and a more entrepreneurial and technical government that we aren’t creating new barriers to participation. Many people remain ‘unbanked’ and ‘unphoned.’ We have to be alert to not creating new barriers that divide the city.”

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.

NEXT STORY: Emergence as Regional Tech Hub Reflected in Pittsburgh’s Smart City Challenge Bid