The Nation's Marquee 'Smart City' Program Continues to Evolve

The city skyline in Columbus, Ohio.

The city skyline in Columbus, Ohio. Shutterstock


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Experts and people involved in the Columbus, Ohio project say it provides a chance for the city and others to learn more about what works and what doesn't with emerging transportation technology.

It was back in 2016 when Columbus, Ohio beat out 77 other cities to win a $40 million federal grant to deploy and test different kinds of cutting edge transportation technology, with the goal of tackling problems that ranged from traffic congestion to infant mortality.

A little over four years later, the Smart Columbus project is nearing its 2021 end date and remains a work in progress. Some projects have come to fruition, some are still pending, and others were set aside. And as with so much else in the country right now, the coronavirus has presented new challenges for the “smart city” initiative.

“Have we figured out how all these technologies actually impact peoples’ quality of life on a day-to-day basis? I think we’re still figuring that out,” said Jordan Davis, Smart Columbus director with the Columbus Partnership, a nonprofit group made up of local CEOs from businesses and other institutions that is working on the program.

“I think we’ve kind of gotten through the hype curve on some of this and now we’re iterating to think, okay, ‘The technology is good, the promise is right, we’re not there yet, but how else can we use it to bring about incremental change,’” she added. 

Experts say that the Columbus project—born out of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge—is a useful experiment. Looking beyond the city, they also note that issues such as limited funding, privacy concerns and inadequate internet connectivity have generally proven to be stumbling blocks for the widespread adoption of smart city technology.

Determining what even falls under the umbrella of “smart” cities can be difficult. Examples can include anything from self-driving cars, to dockless scooters, to sensors capturing weather data or bridge vibrations, to systems that collect trash through pneumatic tubes.

Another issue is that much of the technology that has emerged over the years has been industry-driven. In other words, companies have existing stuff or services that they’re looking to sell to cities and their residents, or that they want to test out in real world situations.

“I think that it makes a lot more sense for these to be citizen-driven priorities,” said Jennifer Clark, head of the city and regional planning section at the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University, and author of a new book about how smart cities might make existing inequalities in cities even worse, or cause new ones.

Clark points out, for instance, that while companies might push for self-driving vehicles because they present new business opportunities, that tech may not immediately solve many of the most pressing problems for people living in cities right now.

“The idea that that’s the first thing that your average person in a city says they want is hard to fathom,” she said.

When Columbus made its Smart City Challenge bid back in 2016, the city emphasized that one of its goals was to use emerging transportation technology to solve some of the problems faced by lower-income residents in the city’s South Linden neighborhood. A special focus was how to help pregnant women who face difficulties getting to prenatal medical care appointments.

The Columbus public health department says two to three babies in Franklin County, where the city is located, die before the age of one every week and the infant mortality rate for Black babies is 2.5 times that of white babies in the county.

As part of Smart Columbus, the city has a “prenatal trip assistance” study underway, called Rides4Baby. There are 142 women participating in that program. Researchers are looking at how satisfied the women are with different transportation services they received during the study and whether particular modes of transportation improve pregnancy outcomes.

Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager with the city, said that because the research is ongoing she couldn’t provide details at this time about the specific types of transportation assistance the women participating in the program are currently offered.

Bishop explained during a phone interview that most of the projects in South Linden had yet to deploy.

Self-driving shuttles did run for about three weeks in the neighborhood in February. But the city paused service after one of the shuttles stopped suddenly and a passenger fell to the floor. Bishop said that this service hasn’t resumed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that the shuttle service was being repurposed to provide food deliveries for people without cars.

From December 2018 to September 2019, a self-driving shuttle service did run in downtown Columbus, carrying over 15,000 passengers during that time.

A “smart mobility hub” project is still in the works for Linden. These hubs involve interactive digital kiosks, and are meant to be a centralized place for people to access transportation like buses, app-based ride-booking services like Uber and bike-share bicycles, as well as wireless internet and real-time information about transit. Columbus is planning to have six of the hubs citywide.

“Bringing that type of transportation together and accessible … in areas that have a higher zero-car population, that shows a great deal of promise, by consolidating where they can pick up their preferred type of transit, including bus,” Bishop said.

A “connected vehicle” project, where vehicles will be equipped with on-board devices that will allow them to communicate with each other and with traffic signals and other roadway infrastructure, is also planned for a corridor in Linden. The idea with this initiative is to cut down on the risk of collisions and other hazards and make traffic signal timing more efficient.

Here, too, the virus has posed difficulties, causing delays with equipment and cutting the number of people who are driving around, Bishop said. The city wanted to recruit about 1,100 private residents to participate, but has lowered that number to 350 to 500.

Bishop said that while the city spelled out many expectations for what it hoped to achieve in its grant application, the current demonstration projects were about learning what works and what does not when it comes to implementing smart cities technology.

She emphasized that at this stage the city does not have data to show that there’s been broad and measurable effects from the parts of the program focused on Linden, or that it’s been a great success in getting more people to and from work. “Because that’s not true,” she said. 

“What we really focused on was deploying technology to get a sense of how it could impact people’s lives and then ultimately help shape policy and investment down the road.”

A major component of the Smart Columbus program that is up and running is an “operating system,” which houses data for projects that are part of the initiative. It also serves as an “open data” platform for the Columbus region, enabling researchers, startups, app developers and others to access over 3,000 datasets on things like traffic, vehicle crashes, weather readings and parking.

Bishop also said that the city had success piloting an app called Wayfinder designed to help people with cognitive disabilities get around on their own, including on public transit.

An initial plan to try out truck “platooning” technology, where trucks are linked together with connected vehicle technology and travel in sync, was shelved. But Bishop said that the city determined that it was better if the state carried out this part of the project.

Columbus also wanted to get more electric vehicles on the road. 

Smart Columbus says it set up opportunities for about 12,000 people to take the vehicles for educational test drives. Figures the city released in May showed that between April 2017 and February 2020, electric vehicles sales in the seven-county area encompassing Columbus were on the rise and totaled 3,323, exceeding a program goal.

Davis said some of the efforts around electric vehicles involved highlighting to potential car-buyers that Teslas weren’t the only models available.

There are plans that have involved a local power utility to get hundreds of additional electrical vehicle charging stations installed in the Columbus area by the end of this year, as well.

In addition to the $40 million U.S. DOT grant, Columbus received a $10 million grant for electric vehicle and low-emission transportation projects from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Private companies also made millions of dollars in investments related to the initiative. 

State and local public sector funding for the program, including funds from the city and state of Ohio, totaled about $17.8 million.

The Ohio State University and American Electric Power have been two key partners in the program. 

Don Carter, a research fellow with the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, described what’s happening in Columbus as “essentially a research project.”

“We’re going to learn from what worked and didn’t work technically, what worked and didn’t work from a public policy viewpoint,” he said.

“The telephone was a research project originally,” Carter added. “We’re just getting to the threshold, the beginning of the race, as to what this smart city thing might be. The best time to look back on it would be 100 years from now.”

Bill Lucia is Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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