Final Report Released as Smart City Challenge Comes to an End
Expectations were high when Columbus won the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge in 2016, beating out a host of other cities, including Austin, Portland and San Fransisco.
The win unlocked $40 million in federal grant money and a $10 million grant from Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc., but local leaders talked up the potential for a much bigger impact, touting a plan to leverage the grant money to secure more funds and support from local institutions and corporations.
At an event held in 2016, before the announcement, Mayor Andrew Ginther said the goal of the Columbus proposal was to “help connect the disconnected,” and to be proactive in exploring how new technologies emerging in transportation could be used to do so. At the same event, former mayor Michael Coleman said that winning the challenge would “impact Columbus dramatically.”
Five years later, the federally-funded portion of the project is officially coming to a close (the Vulcan-funded portion ended last year), and the city has released a final report on its accomplishments, including plans for some of the initiatives to live on under the Smart Columbus name.
Although the report outlines progress on several fronts, the overall impact of Smart Columbus has been less dramatic than the picture painted by leaders in the early days of the challenge.
The highest-profile proposal from the initial Columbus grant application – a self-driving shuttle that was to run in the Easton area – ultimately did not end up happening as it was originally outlined.
Small driverless shuttles (with an operator on board ready to take over the controls if necessary) started running in a loop Downtown in late 2018 and continued until September 2019. A neighborhood shuttle in Linden, made by a different company, started operations in early 2020, only to be shut down soon after, following an incident when the vehicle stopped suddenly. That shuttle was cleared to run again, but shifted to delivering masks and food during the pandemic.
Changes made to the original lineup of Smart Columbus projects in 2017 meant that some of the 15 items listed on the application were dropped, while a new initiative focused on improving access to reliable transportation for expectant mothers was added. That update also resulted in a new focus on building out the Smart Columbus Operating System, a clearinghouse for local mobility and transportation data.
New features were rolled out in December on the Pivot and ParkColumbus apps, the final two Smart Columbus projects funded by the US Department of Transportation. Pivot, a multimodal trip planning app, has been downloaded about 1,100 times, while the ParkColumbus app has had over 30,000 downloads.
Plans to implement a common payment system that would be accessible from within the Pivot app were dropped in 2020.
Another program, focused on truck platooning (where multiple trucks move in tandem utilizing connectivity and autonomous driving technologies), was dropped in 2019 “because the systems engineering process identified user needs that existing technology could not meet,” according to the report’s executive summary.
Despite the downgrading of some of the programs – and the lower profile that many of the initiatives ended up having compared to the attention Smart Columbus received at the very beginning – officials from the city and the Columbus Partnership have been highlighting its accomplishments.
“Through the Smart City Challenge, we’ve led the country in deploying new mobility technologies, but we’ve never been interested in tech for tech’s sake. These innovations served to advance prosperity in our community, help expectant mothers access health care and food, distribute meals and masks to neighbors in need, and help essential workers get to work during the pandemic,” said Mayor Ginther in a statement. “When we deploy technology in partnership with the community, we can address some of our most pressing challenges.”
Smart Columbus also made strides in boosting the use of electric vehicles in the region. Funded through the Vulcan grant, initiatives included rebates for apartment building owners who installed charging stations, a new fast charging station Downtown, incentives for local governments to electrify their fleets, and lots of test-drive events designed to promote the purchase of electric vehicles.
A press release marking the end of the federal grant and the release of the new report emphasized that the organization’s work will continue, but not necessarily be limited to transportation projects: “Smart Columbus will be sustained as an agile, collaborative innovation lab that benefits the Columbus Region by anticipating and advancing what is new and next at the intersection of technology and community good.”
What that means in practice is not completely clear, although late last year Smart Columbus announced the creation of a new entity – called Smart Columbus Energy – that will serve as an aggregator for commercial and industrial electricity users.
For access to the final report and executive summary, see smart.columbus.gov.