San Francisco Is ‘Moonshotting’ an Ambitious Connected Transit Vision for Its ‘Smart City Challenge’ Bid

Stockton Street in San Francisco

Stockton Street in San Francisco Shutterstock


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A city-led team of stakeholders, including UC-Berkeley and tech companies, want to create the “world’s first shared, electric, connected and automated transportation system.”

This is the first in a series of profiles on the seven finalist cities that are in the running to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, a program that will make $50 million in funding available to the winning city. Read our other Smart City Challenge finalists profiles on Austin, Columbus, DenverKansas City, Pittsburgh and PortlandOn Thursday, June 9, 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT, Route Fifty will host a livestream of the cities’ final pitches to the USDOT. | REGISTER HERE

At a recent press conference at San Francisco City Hall, Mayor Ed Lee pitched a futuristic vision of his city: One where at least 10 percent of San Francisco’s auto traffic would be diverted to mass transit or ridesharing services like Lyft or Uber, and a fleet of electric, possibly autonomous vehicles dispatches riders around the city. Shuttles would even ferry straphangers from bus stops in dense urban neighborhoods to outlying, more suburban residential districts.

Lee and his team are trying to sell the U.S. Department of Transportation on San Francisco’s bid to emerge as the winner from the six other Smart City Challenge finalists, Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Portland, Oregon. At the end of this process, there’s $50 million in funding available—$40 million from USDOT and an additional $10 million from Seattle-based Vulcan—to the winning city to implement its Smart City plan.

Addressing U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Tim Papanderou, who heads the Office of Innovation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said: “Our vision is really really bold. We’re ‘moonshotting’ it, Mr. Secretary. We want to launch the first shared, electric, connected and automated transportation system.”

But the Smart Cities grant is only part of it. The City and County of San Francisco is anchoring its strategy around a more elaborate $149 million master plan—and civic leaders plan to enlist the Bay Area’s tech sector.

San Francisco, as residents and visitors know, faces significant transportation issues. According to the city’s Smart City Challenge slide deck, 18 percent of household income in the city goes towards mobility and transportation. The city faces a larger issue when it comes to density and building, as powerful NIMBY community groups routinely make it difficult to build denser housing.

Adding to the challenge, quirky local building and zoning codes stymie the building of apartment buildings and multi-family units. San Francisco and its Bay Area neighbors also have aging infrastructure, as the operator of the regional Bay Area Rapid Transit rail network’s Twitter account famously reminded passengers in a blunt response that made headlines earlier this year.

The Ferry Building and the Embarcadero in San Francisco (Shutterstock)

In response, the Smart City San Francisco team—which includes the municipal government, the University of California-Berkeley, SFMTA and several other stakeholders—is calling for what they call the “world’s first shared, electric, connected and automated transportation system.”

The most important elements of the plan center around building a network of smart transit options that interact with each other via sensors that include autonomous cars, ridesharing services, buses, trains, electric vehicles, and bicycles. These would be augmented by a fleet of city-owned electric vehicles and shuttles that take riders from bus stops to outlying residential neighborhoods. Most importantly for many urban residents, they are also considering a sharp increase in late-night transportation options in the Mission, Castro, SoMa, Marina, Nob Hill, and Union Square neighborhoods. All of these would be integrated into a single smartphone app designed as a one-stop-shop for all transportation options in San Francisco.

Although they are only briefly described in the proposal, the electric fleet appears to be a way to ease San Francisco’s mass transit into the autonomous car age. The plan is to have the electric vehicles move passengers from any location in San Francisco to another within 20 minutes. Smart City San Francisco would also develop an overarching mobile app to connect ridesharing services, mass transit, bike rentals and all the other portions of the new transportation infrastructure together.

More ambitiously, it also calls for changes to urban planning when it comes to parking garages: Many parking structures and parallel parking lanes would be converted to green space and affordable housing.

San Francisco’s proposal largely centers around what they call the “10 Percent Pledge”—a pledge to shift up to 10 percent of single-occupancy vehicle trips to ridesharing, mass transit, and other alternatives (with the “up to” as a nifty hedge), reducing transportation emissions through 10 percent through electrification and demand management, reducing collisions and fatalities 10 percent through Vision Zero investments, and reducing the cost lower income residents spend on transportation by 10 percent.

(City and County of San Francisco)

Of course, all of this will cost a lot of money. This is why the Smart City San Francisco team hopes the region’s massively influential tech industry will come on board.

In a presentation attached to San Francisco’s proposal, “technology partners” are described as one of the four pillars of the proposed San Francisco Smart City Institute, along with the City and County of San Francisco, UC-Berkeley and “equity environment partners.” San Francisco’s proposal will cost approximately $149 million dollars—far more than the federal grant offers. That means bringing corporate partners on board to pay for the difference.

The Ford Motor Company, which is aggressively looking for ways to fortify their business against upcoming changes related to autonomous driving and electric batteries, has already signed on as a major partner. If San Francisco wins the Smart City challenge, the San Francisco Examiner’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez reports that Ford has pledged $50 million. Another stakeholder, autonomous driving startup Zoox (which was recently given a billion dollar valuation) has pledged $30 million. Much of the $149 million is devoted to building the new network of autonomous cars and other vehicles.

While the vehicle network is an ambitious first, there’s a precedent for the mobile app which Smart City San Francisco plans to use to tie it all together. Downstate in Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles, the L.A. Department of Transportation, and corporate partner Xerox partnered to build Go LA—a transit app which integrates real-time traffic information, ride-sharing services such as Lyft, and detailed information on walking speeds. Unlike rivals like Google Maps or Waze, Go LA was designed heavily with multi-modal trips—such as taking a subway to a station, and then using Lyft for the “last mile”—in mind. Xerox provided funding to build the app for Los Angeles.

For stakeholders such as Mayor Ed Lee and SFMTA, the San Francisco Smart City proposal is an easy way to retrofit the city’s transit infrastructure for the 21st century and take care of pressing needs for constituents. However, it remains unclear how much, if the plan is chosen, can be implemented in the near future.

According to SFMTA, the high-tech transit options would be phased in during three-year phases of the next decade if the plan is chosen. Planning documents indicate that Treasure Island, Parkmerced, Hunters Point, San Francisco’s central waterfront, Mission Bay, Balboa Park, and Glen Park are being considered as “Priority Development Areas” for resulting new transit ideas.

Neal Ungerleider is a Los Angeles-based journalist and technology industry consultant. His work has appeared in Fast Company, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and many other publications.

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