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What to Expect from Smart Columbus in Year Two

Brent Warren Brent Warren What to Expect from Smart Columbus in Year Two
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It’s been a little over a year since Columbus beat out six other finalists to win the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City challenge. The win came with a $40 million grant from the US DOT as well as a $10 million grant from Vulcan, Inc. Local corporate and institutional partners have chipped in significant additional resources, and the Columbus Partnership is helping to staff and lead the initiative alongside the city.

In an interview with Columbus Underground in September of 2016, Aparna Dial provided many details on the different projects that were being planned, as well as thoughts about what winning the award meant for Columbus. Dial at the time was the Smart Columbus Program Manager, but that title is now held by Mandy Bishop, who formerly worked at GDP Group and for the Ohio Department of Transportation. The city also announced in February that it was bringing in Michael Stevens to fill a new position – Chief Innovation Officer – that would oversee the Smart Columbus effort (Dial is still at the city, working on other sustainability issues).

Columbus Underground recently sat down with Stevens and Brandi Braun, Assistant Director for the Columbus Department of Public Service, to get an update on Smart Columbus as it heads into its second year. Read on for an edited transcript of that conversation.

CU: Can you start with an update on what has been done so far and where the project stands now?

Michael Stevens: We’re coming up to the end of year one at the end of this month, and we’ve done a lot in that time…we’ve done a lot of foundation building and looking at how we are going to implement these projects and what the user needs will be. So we’ve been identifying really what the issues are, what the problems are, and then building a solution around that.

Brandi Braun: Yes, end user engagement and stakeholder engagement. So in the application, we made a lot of assumptions about what led to the projects we proposed, and so, we’ve spent a lot of the past 11 months reaffirming those assumptions, engaging with what will be the end users and key stakeholders.

CU: And those are residents?

BB: It’s unique for the four districts, so for the residential district, yes, we’ve spent time with the residents, in the commercial district we’re working with the businesses and COTA, because the pilot program there is in autonomous vehicles, so we have to understand the way people will use it and what the possible route should be. In the logistics district we’re engaging with the companies that would be using the truck platooning technology, so it’s very specific for each district.

CU: What are some of the first tangible projects that people will see to come out of this project?

MS: So, we’ve got 15 projects from the USDOT side, and four priorities as part of the Vulcan funding, on the electrification side – that’s the $10 million in funding that came from the Paul Allen family foundation. So initially, in the next three to six months, it’s a lot of the electrification work; we’ll be doing ride and drive events to encourage consumer adoption, and with the investments that will be made in the charging infrastructure, I think that’s probably going to be the most visible early stage.

You’re not going to really see a lot of the USDOT projects out on the road until 2018, so towards the end of year two of the grant.

BB: Specifically, one of the priorities is around consumer adoption, so getting consumers to start to drive electric vehicles. We have contracted with the Columbus Partnership to lead that piece of the grant implementation, and they are finalizing a contract with CivitasNow, and they’ll be doing a robust series of ride and drives, where they’ll go to public and private venues and host events where people can learn about Smart Columbus, learn about our electrification goals, and test drive a range of electric vehicles.

CU: So the idea is to encourage a shift to electric vehicles?

MS: Yes, that’s exactly what it is, how do we get more individuals in Franklin County and the surrounding counties to buy electric vehicles and change their use habits? The ultimate goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

CU: In Ohio most of our electric power we still get from coal, so there’s still a greenhouse element to that, isn’t there?

MS: I think what AEP’s talking about with the grid modernization work, is they’re looking at other renewable energies, so that’s part of the overall solution. They’ll modernize the grid, and put a charging infrastructure in place, so more electricity is going to be supplied through renewable energies. Coal will still be a part of it, but cars have become the largest producer of greenhouse gas – we’ve hit that threshold – so even reducing the amount coming from combustion engines, even if it’s all coal-supplied, that’s going to have an impact.

CU: Is part of the effort directed toward individual home owners, and making it easier to install things like solar panels?

MS: I don’t believe that the individual renewable energies are a part of the plan from AEP. As part of the consumer adoption piece, we’re making sure they understand what type of home chargers to get, what are the costs associated with that, how do you get it installed, and answering those types of questions. That’s what the ride and drive events are, it’s not just the vehicle itself, it’s the whole package.

CU: One of the things I’ve heard from people, whether they work in transportation or other fields, is that Smart Columbus is sort of sucking the oxygen out of the room a little bit – so all of the energy in Columbus is focused on these new ideas centered on technology, when in the meantime the nuts and bolts projects like transit, or promoting bikes, are not getting as much attention because there’s all this looking ahead to the future with Smart Columbus.

MS: I would disagree with that characterization, I think you still see a significant amount of investment in our bikeways and bike lanes, and we’ve got partners like COTA that see the transformation in mobility that is coming. What they just rolled out in their redesign of the routes, they identified how people’s commuting patterns have changed. So COTA is responsible for that, and they’ve put out their NextGen vision also.

MORPC estimates that by 2050, we’re going to have a million more people, and they are helping to lead the way on not only the long term vision of how transportation changes in the region, but also in the short term, so I think there’s enough oxygen for both near-term solutions and long-term ones.

The Smart Columbus piece of it is about the huge disruption that is coming in how people get around, and I think that is something we need to be talking about now. It’s getting the attention it should, because this is going to be a huge change. The manufacturers, they’re already committing to go to electric vehicles, the combustion engine’s going away. And autonomous vehicles I think are closer than people realize, so, as policy makers, we cannot be behind the curve on this, we’ve got to get out in front.

CU: Do you think people are a little behind the curve in realizing how close we are?

MS: I think it’s already starting to happen, you see the manufacturers are creating products that have a level of autonomy to them, whether it’s a Tesla, or a Cadillac. That “Level 5” autonomous, where you get into a vehicle and you turn around and you don’t even have to face the road, and you don’t have to have your hands on the steering wheel and be ready to take control, we’re not quite there. But I’m of the school, maybe it’s because I’m so involved in the work, that it’s gonna happen sooner than we expect.

BB: We can debate all day when everything will be fully autonomous, but the answer is that it’s going there, and one of the things we talk about through our research, and something that drove our projects, is an acronym called CASE – Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric. The future of mobility is reflected in those four things, and so what we’re doing through the grant projects is learning about each piece of those – how does it work in Columbus and what does it mean for our city? And that’s why we’re doing it in demonstration projects, so then we can learn, and scale to the city as appropriate, and as that future of mobility unfolds, we’re prepared for it…we’ve been learning about it, and we’re helping to drive that future, rather than simply trying to respond to it.

CU: Our readers are always interested in the potential for light rail or streetcars in Columbus. What do you think about the future for those kind of technologies in Columbus, and how does that fit in with what Smart Columbus is doing?

MS: I think we’re really fortunate to have a partner like COTA, who in their Next Gen vision is looking at those potential corridors. I think so much in the mobility space is changing at a rapid pace and it’s only going to get faster, so I’m not sure you can say right now, “in five years we’re going to need to use x around transit.” I think COTA is leading the way, so they’re going to be nimble and flexible in figuring out the best course of action going forward.

CU: Are there things that Smart Columbus is doing that support COTA, or that support different modes of transit apart from autonomous cars?

MS: COTA is actively engaged in multiple projects – the multi-modal trip planning app, they’re one of those modes of transportation; they are helping to looking at common payment and how we integrate that; they’re the owner of the collision avoidance work. We’re also talking about the bus rapid transit line going up Cleveland Avenue, so they’re a key partner in providing the solutions.

CU: How soon will we be seeing common payment roll out?

MS: It’s one of the USDOT projects – the Vulcan money is going toward electrification, and that is being done first – so common payment is still going through its concept of operations, and then we’ll go to system requirements, and that’s going into year two, so we’re probably a year away at least.

CU: Do you think that when we get autonomous cars they’re not going to be privately owned, they’ll be shared?

BB: Yes, but even before that, look at CoGo, the bike sharing system that Recreation and Parks manages, which continues to grow and be widely used. That is shared, multi-modal transportation, so we can take what we already have and is successful, and build on that. And someday, yeah, embracing the fact that your autonomous vehicle may drop you off at work, and then pick up Mike, and take him somewhere. Right now, I think the stat is, our cars are only used five percent of the time. And that we have three public parking spaces for every car, I mean, that’s an unsustainable model, especially if we’re adding a million people by 2050.

MS: And think about it, if you’re only using your car five percent of the time, that means 22 hours of the day it’s pretty much parked some place, that’s a huge investment. And if we get to a point with autonomous vehicles, and it’s a shared environment, where you’re buying a mobility package and not a vehicle…that’s free. The cost is a fraction of what you’re paying now, and it frees up disposable income in other ares.

And the cost of transportation is one of the barriers for individuals who are economically and financially struggling, so if you can remove that barrier, you’re going to grow the middle class. The mayor talks about ladders of opportunity, and that’s what he’s talking about – making sure that we use these mobility choices or options, these improvements in technology, so that people can improve their station in life.

CU: How does Smart Columbus support a city that is still pedestrian friendly and bike friendly?

MS: Oh I actually think it’s going to make it safer. I was riding the bus home the other day, and I’m looking out the window, and three cars went by, and every driver was looking at their phone. To me, if you provide an opportunity to look at your phone and ride, it’s going to be safer for everyone on the road.

CU: What about in terms of the built environment of the city? Will autonomous vehicles just kind of enable more sprawl, with people able to live farther away, and farther apart, since it will be so much easier to travel from place to place?

MS: The way I think the adoption of autonomous is going to occur, it will start in the urban, higher density areas, and then go out to your suburban, your exurban, and your rural. That’s kind of how technology tends to be adopted, and that’s how I think you’re going to see it expand.

I also think it’s going to reduce some of the built environment. If we don’t need three parking spaces for each individual, and you have autonomous vehicles that can drop you off and then go out to park in the outskirts of the city, and charge up there, and then come get you, ultimately I think it’s going to reduce the infrastructure costs to continue to build, because we’re not going to build our way out of this.

There’s still going to be an infrastructure cost because we have to maintain it, but 87 percent of people who are commuting in Columbus now are single occupant trips. If you get more of a sharing environment in the mobility package you buy, you could be taking vehicles off the road.

CU: When I spoke to Sam Schwartz, he argued that even with all of the efficiencies you get with autonomous vehicles, you can still fit a lot more people on transit than you can people in their individual cars – so, even with shared vehicles, they still are not going to fit easily in a dense area like the Short North or Downtown.

MS: I wouldn’t argue with that. I don’t want to say I’m making the case that going autonomous is going to solve everything, I think it’s part of the solution. We want to make sure that, especially as we grow as a population, we are putting policies in place to encourage more use of the transit system.

Right now, when people work Downtown, they want parking – well, is parking a perk that is going to continue to have to be provided, or are there other perks to encourage people to use the transit system and other options?

CU: So that’s part of what you are thinking about with this whole project?

MS: Well I think beyond the project. Smart Columbus goes to 2020, and we have 15 deliverable projects, including the integrated data exchange, that we’re working on for USDOT. But it’s what’s beyond 2020, what are the changes in lifestyle that are going to happen, and how’s that going to have an impact? It can’t be done overnight, it’s got to be incremental, but it’ll be a good problem to have – if you have this growth and hopefully we continue to have a robust economy here in Central Ohio – to work towards these solutions.

CU: What about the autonomous shuttle at Easton, any update on that?

MS: We’re developing the concept of how we’re going to operate, then we’ll go to the system requirements, then, we’ll look at what solution we are going to use to run the shuttle, and what problems are we looking to solve. The goal is by 2020 to have an autonomous shuttle running a certain path, with real live traffic.

CU: I think of this as a transportation project, but I know it also has an economic development component, can you talk about that? Do you see companies or people coming to Columbus that wouldn’t have otherwise as a result of Smart Columbus?

MS: I look at it as a transformation project, so transportation, economic development, the community development aspect. From an economic development perspective, yeah, there’s going to be opportunities to work with partners and we will look to build upon our intelligent transportation system, and look at how we take advantage and get them to invest in Columbus.

Also, take a look at the internet of things, there’s a lot going on in that space. Columbus I think is well-positioned, just based on our talent pipeline, the foundation of corporations we already have placed here, and the public-private sector leadership that is making sure that they’re embracing the change in technology and positioning Columbus to benefit from that. So there’s tremendous economic development potential, and credit to Columbus 2020 and the Columbus Partnership, they see that, and they’re embracing that, and the whole region’s going to benefit from it.

For more information, visit www.columbus.gov/smartcolumbus/home/.

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