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Greater Ohio Policy Center

07/27/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 07/27/2021 10:15

Five Years on: Reviewing the progress of the 'Smart City Challenge'

Five years ago, Columbus was awarded a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the 'Smart City Challenge '; an initiative that was conceived as an opportunity to jump-smart the transition to a more technologically-advanced transportation network within a midsize U.S. city.

June marked the official end of the smart city challenge, and much has been written and said about what the city was able to accomplish over the five-year period of the study which faced considerable hurdles, including a global pandemic that forced program administrators to rethink many of the projects that were underway as part of the study.

There is no doubt that much has changed in the transportation landscape in the past decade. When the Smart City challenge was initiated, ride-hailing and car-sharing services were in their infancy, electric scooters and bike-rental kiosks were just starting to pop-up in major cities across the country, and autonomous vehicles were being tested in a number of places and it was just a short matter of time before everyone would own one…or at least that is what the conventual wisdom said.

It was out of this that the smart cities challenge originated. Columbus defeated 75 other cities to win a $40 million federal grant, along with a further $10 million from the Paul Allen Family Foundation, to study and test all of these new technologies and how they could fit in to a modern American city. The city, county and state contributed an additional $19 million in matching funds and the local business community pledged $500 million in private promises for assistance or parallel projects to be worked on simultaneous to the Smart Columbus project.

Technology was front and center as a part of the smart cities challenge. The new technology invest in throughout the project was not just about making a 'giant leap forward' as many have embraced, but rather about finding ways to address challenges involving a 'lack of access to mobility options' in underserved communities.' Among the new services launched included:

  • Multi-Modal Planning App. Developed locally by Etch, the Pivot app provided a multimodal transportation planning service to help users plan trips around Central Ohio using public transportation, car-hailing, carpool, micro mobility, or personal transportation. Using open-source tools and crowdsourcing information, Pivot was developed through a $1.25 million federal grant and has been downloaded by 3,849 users who continue to use the app after the end of the Smart City Challenge.

  • Park Columbus. Another app, Park Columbus was developed by Atlanta-based ParkMobile to help users find daily and event-based parking and to help free-up traffic and pollution from cars by assisting users find, reserve, and pay for parking all on the app. Developed with a $1.3 million grant, the app has been downloaded by more than 30,000 users by March of this year and the city continues to promote the app with on-street parking notices.

  • Smart Mobility Hubs. Interactive digital kiosks designed by IKE Smart City, the hubs provide information on transportation options in the area (including public transit information, locations of pedal and e-bikes, bike racks, dockless scooters, ride-hailing pick-up and drop-off locations and locations of EV charging stations), along with access to free WIFI, listing of activities, news and weather, and other real-time information.

  • EV Charging Stations. In support of the goal to increase EV adoption by nearly 500% in the region, Smart Columbus is working with AEP Ohio to install more than 900 electric vehicle charging ports across Central Ohio. To date, 36 multi-unit dwelling charging ports, 75 public access charging ports, 248 workplace charging ports, and 175 fleet charging ports, for a total of 534 new charging ports since initiation of the project, have been installed (58% of the target goal).

  • Smart Shuttles. Working in partnership with DriveOhio, Smart Columbus launched the Smart Circuit, Ohio's first self-driving shuttle along the Scioto Mile in downtown Columbus in 2018. Over a one-year trial, the 1.5-mile-long shuttle route provided more than 16,000 rides between the Smart Columbus Experience Center, Bicentennial Park, COSI and the National Veterans Hall of Fame. The shuttle allowed both Smart Columbus and DriveOhio to test autonomous vehicle technology and study issues of first-mile, last-mile connectivity.

In addition to studying how the new, emerging technology could be incorporated into a modern city, the goal of Smart Columbus was to study how technology could be used to help to reduce social inequity. One of the goals issues raised in the city's application for the grant was the high rate of infant mortality in neighborhoods around the city, particularly the Linden neighborhood. It was in Linden that Smart Columbus wrapped-up its work, and was forced to pivot as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Linden LEAP was intended to further the research conducted as part of the Smart Shuttle program downtown and to help provide rides for local residents along a route designed to transport residents to social service programs, healthcare, last mile connectivity to the Linden Transit Center, healthy food, childcare, recreation and more. Linden LEAP launched in February of 2020 and operated for about two weeks before an on-board incident paused passenger operations (the shuttle stopped suddenly and resulted in minor injuries to riders).

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ohio in March of 2020, the program pivoted to a food pantry delivery service in July 2020. This service distributed 3,598 food pantry boxes, equivalent of almost 130,000 meals. Though the program was originally intended to wrap at the end of April, the City of Columbus has allocated $30,000 in federal CARES Act aid to extend the program through the end of September.

While the official Smart Cities Challenge work has come to an end, Smart Columbus will live on, with the city pledging the keep the program operating as 'an agile, collaborative innovation lab' focused on 'what is new and next at the intersection of technology and community good.'

Was the project a success? There are a mix of opinions about that. However, the program certainly has made significant changes throughout the community which will continue to enhance mobility options throughout Central Ohio which can be replicated in other communities across Ohio and the nation.

Cover image courtesy of the City of Columbus