Columbus, Ohio: Is the Nation’s First Smart City Truly Smart?

Columbus, Ohio faces many of the same issues as other midsize and midwestern American cities: suburban sprawl, increased commute times, and a lack of accessible public transit and walkability. Will smart technology be enough to solve those issues and more?

By Anne Miller, Contributor

Can a transit app save babies’ lives? Columbus, Ohio will soon find out.

The infant mortality rate in South Linden, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, is about four times the national average, reports City Lab.

Travel times to distant doctors’ offices are an obstacle, especially when pregnant women don’t own cars, can’t afford taxis, and have young children in tow (a public service that provides transportation to prenatal appointments for low-income women won’t take soon-to-be-siblings). And if the patient is late, a doctor might cancel the appointment. Missing prenatal checkups has been tied to increased rates of infant mortality.

Could technology that offers a better transit option, including better ways to schedule trips, help solve those issues and reduce infant mortality in the city?

In 2016, Columbus won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) $40 million Smart City Challenge. Of 78 applicants, the DOT felt Columbus’ plans best met the goal of generating “ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.” Another $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation followed, and within a year Smart Columbus, the non-profit organization managing the push, grew that amount to $500 million from private partners, according to Tech Republic.

The grants run until 2021, meaning this year and next are the “biggest implementation years,” says Jordan Davis, Smart Columbus’ director.

The money has supported the creation of apps, including one that allows users to plan and pay for multi-modal transit trips in one application; an autonomous shuttle to solve a first/last mile problem; rebates for electric vehicles; public education programs around electric vehicles; and a dedicated operating system to pull as much transit and operational data as possible into one, open-code platform.

“The key thing to remember is this is a demonstration project,” says Michael Stevens, the city’s chief innovation officer. “When the DOT issued the Smart Cities Challenge, they were looking at a local-level city to go and test some of these emerging technologies and see what works and doesn’t work, and see how we can continue to adapt.”

He notes the availability of detailed articles and playbooks Smart Columbus has posted for public consumption on its website. “These are federal tax dollars paid for by everyone across the country, so everyone should be able to learn and benefit from this as well,” Stevens says.

Almost $900,000 of this budget has gone to a study in Linden, with a goal of helping pregnant women on Medicaid have better access to medical care. Launched this spring, women can schedule travel to their appointments by calling a number, and the service will automatically alert the doctor’s office if they’re behind schedule.

Growth and Gridlock

Columbus faces many of the same issues as other midsize and midwestern American cities: suburban sprawl, increased commute times, and a lack of accessible public transit and walkability. Columbus is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, growing by more than 12 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and welcoming more than 100 new residents per day, on average, Davis says. The city is projected to grow by 1 million by 2050.

“Less than 2 percent of our population uses public transit,” Davis says. “We have one of the highest single occupancy commuter rates. … We do not have the budgets and the financial means in order to build an infrastructure that will allow everybody to travel alone to work.”

In other words—Columbus can’t keep building roads, and more roads, and widening other roads, to keep up with the city’s growth fast enough so that everyone can commute to work in their own cars. Commute times have already ticked up by a few minutes in the past few years, and that’s just going to get worse as more people move to the city.

“Usually we make change based off of solving a problem. We’re saying, ‘This problem is going to exist, so how do we make change now?'”

— Jordan Davis, director, Smart Columbus

“Usually we make change based off of solving a problem. We’re saying, ‘This problem is going to exist, so how do we make change now?'”

Crunching Numbers

Dr. Harvey Miller, a professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, specializes in sustainable transportation and mobility data analytics. He’s studied data and transit around the world, and he’s working closely with Smart Columbus to create a transit data clearinghouse.

“Columbus really is, in many ways, a representative American city,” Miller says. “That’s part of the reason why the Smart Columbus project makes a lot of sense, because if it can happen in Columbus, it can happen in a lot of cities.”

He does worry there’s not enough focus on what he calls the “block and tackle” of on-the-ground transit options—the bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes, the taking away of real estate from drivers. But, he lauds the project’s focus on underserved neighborhoods.

Miller is most excited by the data opportunities, which he hopes will inform transit discussions well beyond Columbus. By creating apps and an operating system, Columbus will have a wealth of transit data. Tracking that data from the start provides a baseline against which any changes can be measured.

As an example, Miller cites the emergency shutdown of the entire Washington, D.C. metro system for critical repairs.

“If the data apparatus was set up, we would have a grand experiment,” he says. “We could gather some really good data about people’s mobility patterns and how they change.” For Columbus, he envisions an ability to track transit data if an interchange floods or slows a highway.

“When the world changes, can we measure these greater outcomes and how well are we doing tracking progress to a better, more sustainable community?”

—Dr. Harvey Miller, professor, Ohio State University

“How does this affect people’s transportation behavior?” he posits. “How does this affect people’s access to jobs and healthcare? What are the environmental impacts? When the world changes, can we measure these greater outcomes and how well are we doing tracking progress to a better, more sustainable community?”

For example, in June, Smart Columbus released the open source code for its operating system. Making the code, and the data, public gives researchers and other experts a chance to analyze what’s occurring in Columbus, and perhaps build their own operational tools.

Miller will lead a workshop this summer, funded by the National Science Foundation, to start planning his database project, which he expects to launch in 2021.

“It’s going to be a combination of a data archive—whether that’s going to be in a data warehouse that’s fully integrated or a data lake—and a dashboard with interactive maps and visualizations,” he says. “Tools to access a longitudinal research database with ways of making the data available to community stakeholders and citizens.”

One Ride, No Drivers

One project launching this fall that will be very closely tracked is the driverless shuttles in Linden as well as Downtown Columbus. The Linden shuttles are manufactured by the firm EasyMile, a France-based company that has supplied more than 100 self-driving shuttles around the world. Shuttles have been dispatched in business parks, public parks, and to connect transit options—uses on a public street to solve a first/last mile problem is rarer, says Lauren Isaac, the director of business initiative for EasyMile.

The shuttles have a max speed of 12 to 14 mph and cannot drive on streets with a speed limit of more than 25 mph, says Isaac. It operates on a pre-set route that the bus spends two weeks traversing so it’s computerized systems can “learn” the topography of the route.

“The vehicle is creating a reference map, so it’s creating a picture of where it needs to be operating; it’s making sure it’s operating on the same map every time,” Isaac says, of how the vehicle “learns.” Included in creating this picture is understanding where traffic signals are and how to communicate with them, for example, as well as understanding traffic patterns, using everything from LIDAR to GPS.

The shuttle is also programmed to judge and react to obstacles.

“If a cyclist were to pull in front of the vehicle, the vehicle uses the LIDAR to sense there’s an obstacle. Cameras, radar—it’s using all of those. It’s making the assessment: What is the distance to decide if the vehicle needs to stop abruptly or just needs to slow down? It’s also making the assessment of which type of obstacle it is. A snowflake would be read as an obstacle, but through our technology, we can discern it’s something that it’s okay to drive through.”

A continuous network of 3G and 4G technology must exist, with WiFi as a backup, so the shuttle has uninterrupted access to GPS and server communication throughout the route, as well as traffic signals that can communicate with the vehicles. Isaac says the Columbus route has that connectivity. “All of the technologies work together to always know exactly where the vehicle is, to a few millimeters, and it’s constantly reading the world around it, to sense any obstructions,” Isaac says.

“It’s through the use of all these redundant technologies that we are able to operate pretty much everywhere,” she continues.

Every shuttle has an employee aboard, to provide safety backup if necessary and to address concerns from a local union. “The third reason, and it’s the biggest one, is customer service,” says Isaac. “People come on and they have a lot of questions, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

At a time when autonomous vehicles generate a lot of press but a limited number have come on the market, the shuttle projects represent public pilots—can these shuttles do what bus systems, taxis and ride shares haven’t accomplished?

It’s not just the lower-income neighborhoods where Smart Columbus could have an impact, Davis says. Say a business has 10,000 employees, she explains. If even 10 percent of those employees shift from single-occupant vehicles to another form of transportation, such as from carpooling to walking, that’s enough of a difference that the company may not need to build a new $40 million parking garage.

“It is a stretch goal,” she says. “That is a hard goal for people to hit because they don’t have the systems and the policies and the incentives in place, because it’s just not been a priority in the past.”

“The [Smart Cities] challenge had something to do with it,” Davis says. “You created a blue ribbon moment, you created this energy for a lot of people to rally behind with a goal to rally behind. It really created a catalyst.”

The questions remain: Will it be enough to positively impact the environment, to slow the gradual increase of commuter times, to decrease the infant mortality rate, to change mindsets? That could take decades—for Columbus, and the nation.

But there’s no better time to start than today.