Smart Columbus Advances

Four years after winning USDOT’s Smart City Challenge, Columbus continues to take big risks — and adapt quickly — as it executes an ambitious plan to transform mobility for its residents while creating actionable models for cities everywhere.

By Mayor Andrew J. Ginther | City of Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio, is a thriving city with a racially and economically diverse population, living in urban, suburban and rural communities that stretch across 223 square miles. The city has been on a strong growth path for many decades. In 1975 we had approximately 550,000 people; today, we have more than 920,000 and the region is on track to reach 3 million by 2050. We have several city initiatives that are helping to address equity, health, education, housing, transportation, employment and safety in our communities. Our most ambitious — and one that is being closely viewed across the nation — relates to unleashing the potential of transportation to improve mobility and connection across the city.

Accepting the Challenge

At the end of 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced its Smart City Challenge, a grant competition designed to inspire the next generation of mobility solutions for the nation. We called our proposed initiative Smart Columbus, and it brought together a broad regional coalition of committed parties. The ambitious plan we submitted to the USDOT aimed to address challenges across residential and commercial districts of our city by testing transportation innovations such as autonomous vehicles, connected infrastructure, electric vehicle charging and data-driven service and safety improvements. In particular, we intended to show how mobility could create ladders of opportunity for people in every corner of our city.

In 2016 we learned Columbus was chosen for these reasons:

Strategy’s alignment with community priorities — We concentrated our smart city technology in Columbus’ Linden neighborhood, where residents have the poorest access to jobs, healthcare and transportation options. Our plan was designed to directly address the broken connections between these residents and the services and opportunities they need.

Proven ability to build strong coalitions — Our city is known for its ability to mobilize a broad group of stakeholders to get things done. There’s even a name for this quality: The Columbus Way. What’s unique about Columbus is how ingrained our spirit is: the leaders change, the institutions evolve, but the culture endures. It transcends time, project and community leadership.

Limited legacy transit infrastructure — Unlike most of the other cities, Columbus’ public transportation system is not built out beyond our buses. We have no commuter rail lines or other high-capacity transit systems. So we are not faced with trying to rebuild systems that are already in place, but rather have a somewhat clean slate.

Laboratory for the nation — As mentioned above, our status as a proving ground for American innovation made us a logical choice for spearheading this effort. We are committed to testing technologies — and measuring our results carefully — so that our successes can be replicated in communities across the country and, ultimately, around the world.

Advancing, learning and evolving

As Smart Columbus nears the four-year mark in its journey of innovation, we are proud of many important milestones. In mid-2018, for example, we opened the Smart Columbus Experience Center, an interactive showroom for the public to experience first-hand how their city may be transformed through such innovations as connected, electric and self-driving vehicles as well as other innovations.

In 2019, fulfilling our commitment to share what we learn, we released the open-source code for our Smart Columbus Operating System. This system brings together the data collected for all of our projects that fall under our USDOT grant and makes it available to the public and to software developers — so cities everywhere can harness it for their own mobility projects.

We’ve made excellent progress in advancing electric vehicles use in the region, which is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We recently surpassed our goal of having at least 3,200 electric vehicles adopted in the city by March 2020, and we are on track to meet our goal of creating 1,000 charging stations for vehicles in the region by the end of 2020. It’s so critical that these two aspects advance at the same time, because people won’t buy electric vehicles without feeling confident that they can charge them while traveling, and it’s difficult to sustain investments in charging stations unless there are an increasing number of users on the roads.

In July 2020 we launched an initiative designed to connect more people with the mobility options they need to access opportunities and services. The Smart Mobility Hubs serve as the physical embodiment of mobility as a service, creating first mile and last mile connections to the city’s first bus rapid transit line that operates on Cleveland Avenue through the heart of the city. Each hub has an interactive kiosk for looking up local information and various mobility options. The hubs also may have bicycles and e-bikes, scooter parking and charging, electric vehicle charging and other offerings, depending on the need. The idea is to make it more seamless and simple to get places — to and from work, school, healthcare and other day-to-day destinations.

This summer we launched a connected-vehicle experiment that’s aimed at improving public safety. Our city’s Linden section has several dangerous intersections, and this program intends to give us insights into how to reduce accidents and save lives. Right now we are seeking 500 community volunteers who are willing to have connected vehicle devices installed in their vehicles. These devices will give drivers real-time safety alerts so they have more information sent to them from such sources as traffic lights and other vehicles’ devices in order to make more informed decisions. We also plan to install these devices in 500 public vehicles, such as police and emergency vehicles. To further connect the community to this emerging technology, the project is also seeking connected vehicle “technicians in training”, which provides residents an opportunity to learn a new skill and be on the cutting edge of a technology that is expanding locally and nationally. These staffers will be paid to work alongside veteran installers to equip the 500 community volunteer vehicles with the devices.

Supporting life’s basic need

The pandemic has placed additional stress and hardship on community members. One such hardship is food insecurity. Smart Columbus learned that a food pantry in Linden had seen an increase of more than 400% in the number of households relying on it for sustenance. Distributing that food safely to community members was a major challenge. Since social distancing guidelines prevented the shuttle from carrying passengers, we commissioned the Linden LEAP shuttle to transport pre-packaged food through the neighborhood on a predetermined route. The shuttle is self-driving, but had a trained operator on board, and carries food rather than passengers. Families can meet the LEAP shuttle to receive a box of pre-packaged, nutritious foods along with facial coverings.

Final thoughts and words of advice

Pioneering work is humbling, even when you have good funding, a smart team and a committed group of collaborators. We have learned something about keeping momentum amidst a shifting environment and unforeseen headwinds. Here are three bits of advice for other cities that are attempting to innovate in the mobility arena:

Don’t be afraid to take risks
Experiment with new transportation technologies and approaches, which are not always going to work perfectly. There are going to be setbacks. So, the goal is to assess risks, learn from failure and empower people to try things a new way. It’s about the collective effort to advance mobility in ways that create greater equity and a higher quality of life.

Pivot and adapt
The profound effect the pandemic has had on the nation and the people of our city has been devastating on many levels, but we soon realized that we could alleviate some of our most pressing needs while still maintaining our momentum toward the Smart Columbus goals. It required that we adapt our approaches creatively, and that’s what we did.

Be wise enough to listen
When you’re looking at potential mobility improvements through an equity lens, there is no substitute for meaningfully and thoroughly engaging the community. No one will better understand what’s needed than the people who live in the neighborhoods and need and want to access those ladders of opportunity. Community engagement takes time to do right, but it can lead to a collaborative outcome that can be celebrated and accepted by all.

As we continue to build on our Smart Columbus initiatives, we keep in mind that transportation is about how people access opportunity and how they live. The strategies and technologies we advance are important, but we will measure our success by the number of lives we improve and the ladders of opportunity we create over time for the great people who make Columbus their home.

Andrew J. Ginther

ANDREW J. GINTHER was elected the 53rd mayor of Columbus on Nov. 3, 2015, succeeding Mayor Michael B. Coleman who was the longest-serving mayor in Columbus history. Mayor Ginther previously served on Columbus City Council from 2007-2015, and served as president of Council from 2011 until assuming the Office of Mayor January 1, 2016.