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Columbus wins DOT’s Smart City Challenge

Columbus wins DOT’s Smart City Challenge

Columbus, Ohio, receives $50 million to implement smart transportation systems, including a self-driving transit line, smart transit corridors and a transportation app

And then there was one.

Out of the seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, Columbus, Ohio, emerged the winner this week. The city will receive $50 million in grants from the DOT and Vulcan Inc. to implement its smart city plan.

Columbus will also receive about $90 million in local matching funds, including $19 million in public money. That gives the city a total of $140 million to upgrade its transportation network.

“This grant, combined with its public-private investment, will help reshape the transportation sector in central Ohio for decades to come,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said in a statement. It “will help meet the transportation needs of Ohioans who live in the low-income neighborhoods in and around Columbus to ensure they can get to their job, or receive a good education.”

Columbus beat Austin, Texas; Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco in the final round for the prize. Seventy-eight cities total participated in the challenge. Also of note, in 2015, Columbus won the Intelligent Community of the Year award from the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF).

Columbus’ smart city initiatives

With two smart city awards under its belt, what is Columbus doing that makes it stand out among other cities? It could be its focus on improving access to jobs, training and healthcare for low-income residents via shared cars and autonomous buses. People in poorer communities are being left out, the city says. 

In its Smart City Challenge application, the city said it wants to tie together all of its neighborhoods to connect people to jobs, training opportunities, higher education and healthcare. It also wants to design safer streets, ensure all residents have access to quality and affordable transportation, and reduce consumption and emissions.

“Improving access to jobs, the efficient movement of goods and increased access to services is critical to the sustained growth and prosperity of the Columbus region,” said Mayor Andrew J. Ginther in the city’s application. "Columbus neighborhoods, new Americans, disadvantaged residents and visitors to the region will all benefit from a smarter, safer and more accessible community.”

Columbus’s initiatives include:

  • A self-driving fixed-route transit line in Easton, one of Ohio’s largest job centers. Self-driving electric vehicles will circulate on a fixed route from the existing Easton Transit station and include residential, commercial and retail facilities in the Easton office/shopping park and Port Columbus areas of the city. 
  • Smart corridors to improve transit service and efficiently. This may include traffic information boards and electronic signs warning of incidents and providing detours.
  • Expanded usage of electric and smart vehicles.
  • Real-time information about traffic and parking conditions and transit options to minimize traffic issues associated with major events or incidents.
  • A smart card and app that allows people to pay for bus fares, as well as ride- and car-sharing services.

Columbus also may have had an advantage because it is seen as representative of typical U.S. cities and makes it more likely to be emulated by other cities. It has a mix of worker types—white collar, blue collar and older workers—and it has a diverse population.

Because of that, many companies and brands consider Columbus “the test marketing capital of the world,” Ginther said in a Washington Post blog post. Now the city wants to be the place other cities turn to when they begin implementing smart city initiatives.

As it says in its video for the challenge:

“We will set the pace for smart city transportation. We will lift a low-income community out of poverty, give students of all ages unprecedented access to education, give more expectant mothers access to prenatal care, and get more children to pre-K. We will clear congestion and improve safety like never before.”

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