Why building smart cities in 2017 will begin with transportation infrastructure

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The smart city concept is not a new one. The main attraction at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair was the General Motors Pavilion’s Futurama ride that ferried visitors past incredibly detailed models, accompanied by the narrator’s welcome “and now, we have arrived at this wonder world of 1960.” Of course, because GM was the sponsor, the focus was on transportation. But if the entries to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 Smart Cities Challenge are any indication, modernizing our cities’ transportation infrastructures will be the primary focus of urban planners in 2017.

GM’s Futurama ride showed a future with multiple lanes of asphalt connecting cities and rural areas, and city streets teeming with cars. Sounds quaint today, but in 1939, that would have seemed like something out of a science fiction novel.

"You have to understand that the audience had never even considered a future like this," Dan Howland editor of the Journal of Ride Theory, told Wired magazine back in 2007. "There wasn't an interstate freeway system in 1939. Not many people owned a car. They staggered out of the fair like a cargo cult and built an imperfect version of this incredible vision."

Today, that grand vision of vehicles moving freely and efficiently down wide open highways and city avenues has devolved into mile after mile of traffic congestion and pollution. Modernizing our mass transportation systems is one of the primary obstacles urban planners face, and the U.S. has fallen behind much of the world.

Juniper Research’s “Worldwide Smart Cities: Energy, Transport & Lighting 2016-2021” report ranks the world’s top smart cities. 60 percent are in Europe thanks to innovations in reducing congestion and energy consumption. Singapore earned the top ranking due to its application of smart mobility policies and technology, particularly its fixed and cellular broadband services, city apps and strong open data policy.

“Congestion and mobility are almost universal issues for cities to address,” notes the report’s author Steffen Sorrell. “Facilitating the movement of citizens within urban agglomerations via transport networks is fundamental to a city’s economic growth. When addressed effectively, the impacts are substantial: higher economic productivity, potential for new revenue streams and services as well as a measurable benefit in reduced healthcare costs.”

Fortunately, it does appear that U.S. city planners received that message loud and clear in 2016. 77 cities submitted entries to the Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart City Challenge that detailed their plans to leverage new and developing technologies to solve their transportation problems.

Columbus, Ohio won the contest, and will not only receive $40 million from the federal government and another $10 million from Seattle-based Vulcan owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; it will also reap an additional $90 million in matching funds from local companies, governments and non-profits.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says a significant factor that contributed to Columbus’ win was its plan to increase and improve poor people's access to multiple transportation options. For example, autonomous vehicles will link neighborhoods where unemployment levels are higher than the city average to nearby jobs centers, health care and other essential services.

Additionally, the city’s application proposes leveraging data collection and analysis technologies to transmit real-time information about traffic and parking conditions and transit options to minimize traffic issues associated with major events or incidents. It also plans to build “smart corridors,” starting with a bus rapid transit routes that use wireless technology among and between vehicles and infrastructure to improve safety, efficiency and usability.

These efforts to bring an aging and obsolete mass transportation system network into the 21st century is a critical component to any smart city project. Like Columbus, most cities’ networks were built decades ago, and are based on proprietary solutions. These aging networks are expensive to operate and difficult to manage as more people adopt smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and other mobile devices. It creates a fragmented communications system, and the increases public safety risks.

Private companies and nonprofits have committed funding and their expertise to help not only Columbus, but also the cities that didn't win (or even enter) the DOT’s contest. These companies represent sectors such as cloud computing, telecommunications, electric vehicle charging infrastructure systems, and wireless transmitters for vehicles and infrastructure. The DoT reports 150 companies and nonprofit groups have pledged as much as $500 million worth of support.

All of these government agencies and private sector organizations came together in 2016 to begin building a new ecosystem for the design and construction of new transportation networks and capabilities, or the modernization of existing ones.

As a result, expect to see the visions like those several other cities presented in their DoT contest applications become reality in 2017, including:

Denver: Proposes building a new data management system to collect data from multiple sources to provide a real-time picture of travel in the city, including where people are moving and how they’re getting there. People will be able to access the information on their mobile devices, and make decisions on the best transportation options at any given time.

Pittsburgh: The Steel City’s plan includes a real-time adaptive traffic signal control system called Surtrac that will monitor traffic and control lights on the streets that feed into downtown. The lights will use sensors to identify transit and freight vehicles and allow them to move through the signals quicker, reducing pollution that would occur while the vehicles are idling at a stop light.

Portland: A cornerstone its plan is a mobile app that enables residents to compare transportation options, and pay for the option they choose within the app. The city also wants to build traffic sensors and signals that can receive and transmit data, and install technology in fleet vehicles to collect data on traffic conditions. New Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks will provide internet access and travel information at all transit stops.

For these amazing 2016 ideas to become reality in 2017 and beyond, there’s one critical component that all smart transportation networks must share: universal availability. That includes interacting with all contactless technologies (i.e., Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi) to provide an easy access to the information from the city objects and get data about the traveller’s journey pattern. No proprietary software that favors one hardware vendor, application developer or communications provider over others.

City planners must partner with technology developers and integrators that offer connectivity across all mobile devices to ensure the networks they begin building in 2017 can scale to meet the needs of residents, visitors, businesses and government 20 years from now.

To borrow from GM’s Futurama ride, “now we have arrived at this wonder world of 2038.”

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