Innovation

How the city of Columbus, OH is turning itself into a smart transportation hub

The process of turning a city into a smart transportation hub is a process. Find out how Columbus is making it happen.

It's been two years since the city of Columbus, OH won the US Department of Transportation's (DoT) Smart City Challenge and officials are still in the midst of making their smart city dreams come true.

The DoT win in June 2016 came with $40 million in federal funding. City officials were able to combine an array of public-private partnerships to help leverage the DoT grant and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. into a current $510 million of funding. The purpose of the funding is to turn Columbus into a smart transportation hub.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the rise of smart cities, volume 3 (Tech Pro Research)

The Smart Columbus Experience Center

Last week, the city opened the Smart Columbus Experience Center to show visitors how officials plan to use technology such as connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles to improve mobility. NXP and Codha Wireless will be deploying a fleet of six electric vehicles in a test drive area at the experience center so that drivers can get a sample of this technology before it is used on the city's streets. The center includes an NXP-donated electric motorcycle and accompanying drone that alerts the driver to issues on the road; and a Ford Ojo electric scooter is also on display at the center.

"Residents can come to our experience center, test drive electric vehicles, and also see, feel and touch other Smart Columbus technology. There's an interactive app where people can see the different projects that are being planned or in flight, different technologies on display. So it's a really great way to take a concept that can be a little nebulous, or even esoteric, and put it in a place where people can actually see it," said Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer for the City of Columbus.

A push for electric vehicles and shared mobility

The Vulcan grant is a three-year grant and the city is in the midst of the second year of it. In the past year, the city has purchased 93 electric vehicles, with a plan to purchase 100 more over the next two years, Braun said.

The city also negotiated a contract for purchasing electric vehicles that other cities in the region can take advantage of, with rebates as an incentive, she said.

"We are in the process right now of installing the electrical vehicle charging infrastructure in our city facilities and we did an incentive program for developers of multi-unit dwellings to incentivize them to install electric vehicle charging infrastructure in those multi-unit dwellings, apartments and condos. And that was so successful that we're actually planning on doing another round of that. And then we just recently released a notice that we're doing incentive rebates to taxi companies to purchase electric vehicles," Braun said.

The city is partnering with Hyperloop One on a corridor study to look at shared mobility across the region.

SEE: Tech and the future of transportation (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Helping other cities learn about smart city tech

The city will soon be releasing blog posts, videos and social media posts that other cities can use as tools to learn about smart city technology that they might incorporate into their own plans.

"That really will be what other cities can look at and learn from and even our own stakeholders and residents will be able to look at the playbook and have a better understanding of the work that we're doing, why it's important and most importantly, what we're learning along the way," Braun said.

Developing a series of pilot programs

The city of Columbus has also been focused on developing a series of pilots for the smart city technology, as well as working on plans to figure out how to get people to adopt the new technologies such as shared mobility and electric vehicles, said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus.

Partnerships are key to the success of the programs, so Smart Columbus is working with the area's largest employers through an Acceleration Partner Program.

"We currently have about 50 employers committed to this effort. There are five commitments that each company makes to be a part of the program. So the higher-level objective is, on the adoption front, is to increase EV adoption in their workforce by 500% and then decrease single-occupancy vehicle commuter traffic by 10%," Davis said.

What's next for Columbus

For the next two years of the grant, there are five priorities city officials are working toward in the electrification plan. "We have a goal of having 300 public fleets, 300 vehicles in public fleets by the end of year three," Braun said.

The city is also working on an integrative data exchange that will support the smart city technology. The first version of that operating system launched in May 2018, and it will be built upon during the next two years to become a true regional data platform, Braun explained.

Another major project is the Prenatal Trip Assistance Project. Columbus has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, so the project works with Medicaid providers, managed care providers, the county, and the state to deploy a text-based application that would provide on-demand, flexible, round-trip transportation for expectant mothers on Medicaid, she said.

"Right now, one of the biggest barriers to expectant mothers making it to the doctor is the lack of flexible, round-trip transportation," Braun said.

Challenges are part of the process

Some of the challenges of getting the tech in place for the Vulcan grant has been due to it being a collaborative effort while working with partners such as Ohio State University and the Columbus Partnership.

"Sometimes things take a little bit longer than you thought they were going to do when you were writing your original plan," Braun said. "But at the end of the day the end product is better because of it and so I think it's a worthy trade-off."

Also see:

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Image: Smart Columbus

About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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