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More Details Unveiled on “Smart Columbus” Transportation Program

Brent Warren Brent Warren More Details Unveiled on “Smart Columbus” Transportation Program
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Columbus was named the winner of the federal government’s Smart City Challenge in July, beating out cities like Austin, Portland and San Francisco for the $40 million prize (as well as $10 million from Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc.).  Civic and business leaders made a strong push to secure the grant, including a pledge to leverage the grant money with additional $90 million raised from local institutions and corporations.

Columbus Underground recently sat down with Aparna Dial, the Smart Columbus Program Manager and Deputy Director of the city’s Department of Public Service. Dial provided more detail on some of the specific program initiatives while also weighing in on some big picture questions about what the award means for Columbus, how it will be used to create “ladders of opportunity”, and how the process could affect the rail transit discussion in Columbus.

CU: Can you catch us up on the timeline? How far out are we from having something tangible out there as a result of the Smart City initiative?

AD: That’s a good question, let me start at the very beginning to provide some context. The announcement for the competition came out in December 2015 and we got the award on June 23rd. We had a meting in July with the federal government and they told us to submit a revised proposal by the end of July, with a new budget, and then we spent the first week of August going back and forth with them.

Concurrently, there were some requirements for the Vulcan folks, so we set it up so that we could get the initial funding from them, to hire Battelle and get rolling on the details of planning. Since then we’ve had a series of workshops, created a program management office, conducted a public procurement process, hired a team of consultants to help with the planning phase, and had a lot of technical workshops with the US Department of Transportation (USDOT).

The idea is now to spend the rest of this year really evaluating all of the initiatives that we put in the application process and making sure that it is the best that it can be, because it will serve as the foundation for everything else. Having said all that, there may still be opportunities for some early wins, but the grant is four years, so we should have most things in the ground by late 2017 and 2018. The whole idea is to finish deployment by mid-2019, and then maintain and test for 2020. And the Vulcan grant is only for three years, so it’s even more of a compressed time frame.

What I ask is just give us till the end of the year to finalize all of our planning, and have a better idea of the prioritization and the implementation schedule, and hope that we should be able to share all that with everybody by the end of the year or early January.

CU: Who makes up the team at this point?

AD: The city has dedicated seven full-time staff members to create the program office, housed in the Department of Public Service. We’ve hired three consultant teams, one is focused on planning for USDOT, one is focused on planning for the Vulcan grant, one is focused on communication, outreach and engagement across the board.

We are fortunate we live in Columbus – we have a number of partners that are going to help us with this. The Columbus Partnership has leveraged $90 million from our partners, in addition to the $50 million we got. I am looking at the best and the brightest in the city to help us with this, to draw upon AEP, Battelle, and Ohio State, and companies like Cardinal Health and Limited Brands (I’m just naming a few, I don’t want to leave anybody out!).

CU: The proposal for small, driverless buses in the Easton area – is there something like that you could point to that it’ll be similar to? Or is this totally new?

AD: Autonomous vehicles have been around for a long time, if you’ve been in any large airport you’ve seen them. The difference is, those driverless shuttles are on guided rail, they take you from one terminal to the other. To my knowledge, employing autonomous vehicles in a mixed-use environment, even in a fixed loop, would be new for the United States.

CU: What kind of changes would be made to either the road or the infrastructure, to accommodate these vehicles? Or is that still not quite known?

AD: It’s still not quite known, but we are going through a very rigorous and systematic process creating a project management plan, a system engineering plan, a concept of operations. We are going to identify a whole bunch of opportunities and risk, and then look at potential solutions to mitigate these risks…like what happens under very snowy conditions. Federal guidelines for autonomous vehicles were just released, so we need to review the policy and determine what are the impacts to the project. And of course it’s not just autonomous vehicles, but all of our projects.

CU: The application refers to something called the Connected Columbus Transportation Network, with 3,000 vehicles – which vehicles will make up that network?

AD: CCTN is equipment on vehicles, on traffic lights, on the side of traffic equipment, that collect all this data. We then have that data in what we call an integrated data exchange, and we use and analyze the data to make smart choices. In terms of the breakdown of the vehicles, it’s all the COTA buses, it’s about 400 city vehicles including 50 trucks, we have plans to include 100 school buses, and then, potentially, another 2,100 personal vehicles would be volunteers.

CU: Can you talk about the proposals for Downtown?

AD: The number one complaint about downtown, if you can imagine it, is parking. The idea is to not add more parking, but to manage what we have more effectively. You’re not going to build your way out of it.

It’s my understanding that the commercial office vacancy rate downtown is about 12 percent and that real estate brokers claim that they can’t fill space because tenants can’t find parking for their employers. We could have much more efficient parking – we’ll add RFID tags so you’ll know who is in what space, and then at some point, we’ll have a database that can show people in real time where the parking is available before they leave.

Currently, some parking garages have a sign that displays whether the lot is full, but you also have some lots where you put a cone out when the lot is full, so we have to put all of the data together in real time. That way if you want to come here for Red, White and Boom, and before you leave your house you check this app and it says no parking available, so maybe you take a ride share or ride the bus.

Another issue is inadequate loading zone space for deliveries. Sometimes they aren’t long enough so the truck sticks out into the alley or is double parked, or is driving around because they can’t find a spot. This is a small pilot, we’ll take like ten loading zones and monitor them so we know if it’s occupied or not (there wouldn’t be any personal information like license plates). The driver can check in prior to leaving, is that zone available or not available, so they don’t circle around.

CU: In the big picture, what do you think Columbus will gain from being the first? What if it’s the second or third iteration of one of these ideas that really catches on, and we’re stuck with version one?

Aparna Dial

Aparna Dial

AD: Somebody has to be first, and we are very, very lucky to be first. It’s relatively low risk because the upside is great, and the downside is pretty marginal. There will be some technological obsolescence, because technology is moving at a very fast rate, but on the whole I think it’s a very good thing for the community.

Think of this as bigger than the $50 million or $140 million, think about people wanting to travel here to look at our infrastructure, think about how we can leverage the money to attract the best of the best, and how we can leverage the innovation to drive technology – have people create apps, and have hackathons with all of the data that will be available. It’s not just for four years, think about the possibility that it brings to us, to have all this…because most cities look like us. For us, it’s about being not just replicable, I want it to be scalable up and down, because you have rural communities also that might need some of this technology.

The other key point is, these technologies have been deployed elsewhere across the world, but nobody has had a convocation of these technologies in one place. One of the reasons that we won this grant is because our focus is not just on transportation for transportation’s sake, or just because it sounds cool. Our process was about lifting people up and creating ladders of opportunity for our citizens – whether that’s better access to jobs, fresh foods, education, or health care – because a lack of mobility options really traps people in the cycle of poverty, from which it is very hard to escape.

We don’t really think about access to jobs or health care or education as a transportation problem but it is, and so the whole focus of our application is not just moving people back and forth, but how do we move them up the ladder of opportunity, and how do we do it in a way that’s sustainable and can stem greenhouse gas emissions.

So, instead of speaking randomly from a basket of solutions, we did what we think is a significant amount of public outreach, we reached out into the community. We then organized our USDOT portion of the application into four districts – residential (which is the Linden neighborhood), commercial (the Easton area), downtown, and logistics (Rickenbacker) – and the reason we did that is because each district has challenges unique to its type, but also are univerisal to similar districts across the country.

Linden is an underserved neighborhood – when we constructed I-71 along the western border of the neighborhood, we cut off our community members from nearby amenities and employment. Some of the challenges faced by them are low household income, lack of employers, even a lack of recreational amenities. Three of the top 25 crash intersections are in Linden, and the neighborhood has an infant mortality rate that is four times the national average. Despite all of that, there’s not one OB/GYN office in the neighborhood. Most residents report that they get their food from convenience stores, and internet services are marginal at best.

So here are the challenges, and one of the technological solutions we thought about is – what would happen if we had smart street lights that are LED and motion-responsive? It makes the neighborhood safer, it’s energy efficient, it makes the area more walkable, and then, you complement it with wi-fi internet access. A lot of educational resources are online, and how many employers now require online job applications? If you don’t have access to internet, or these career development resources, it’s tough, so that’s a potential solution.

The other thing is leveraging – COTA is a great partner in creating this bus rapid transit line, along the Cleveland Avenue Corridor. They’re going to upgrade the bus stops and the traffic signals to have signal prioritization, and we’re thinking about this concept of neighborhood hubs, which’ll have kiosks with multi-modal channel applications, and we want to also try a smart pass system.

Right now, to access a service like Uber you need a smart phone and a credit card or a bank account, so the whole notion is at these kiosks, we’ll take cash and convert it into this smart pass payment system, which would be accepted across all transportation services, like Uber, or Lyft, or a taxi cab, or bike sharing, or car sharing, or COTA. It opens up options for our residents.

CU: And these kiosks would initially be concentrated in Linden, or city-wide?

AD: We will start in Linden, and we are thinking about a number of possibilities throughout the city, but it’ll be in the neighborhoods primarily.

CU: There’s been a negative response in some quarters to the language in the Smart City application about “leapfrogging” light rail. What do you say to people who are really hoping to see rail transit become part of what we have in Columbus, but are concerned that we’re shifting our focus away from that and towards these new technologies, especially when there are a lot of unknowns about how they will work within cities?

AD: From my personal perspective, this is not a substitute, it’s a complement. There’s no silver bullet to address mobility issues, or affordable, reliable access, so for me, this a complement and not a substitute to rail. All of these technologies – the connected vehicles, the infrastructure that we’re going to put on cars and buses – can also be used on rail.

And also, just to keep it in perspective, the entire (federal) grant is $50 million, and I think the cost to put in one mile of light rail is close to that. The conversation about light rail and mass transit is a worthy one, but it’s a separate one from Smart Columbus.

For more information on Smart Columbus, see www.columbus.gov.

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