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These Places Lost the Smart Cities Challenge. But They Say They Ended Up Ahead.

Even though Denver and Austin came up just short in the federal technology competition, both are moving forward with their ideas.

The 16th Street Pedestrian Mall in Denver
Neither Austin or Denver won last year’s federal Smart City Challenge. But top officials in both cities say they are already reaping the rewards for competing, anyway.

Columbus, Ohio, ultimately walked away with bragging rights and $50 million in federal and private money. But transportation officials in many of the cities that didn't win say they're still moving ahead with some of the ideas they proposed for the contest.

Crissy Fanganello, Denver’s director of transportation and mobility, said the competition “energized” city staff and brought people together who normally don't work side by side. “In some ways, we might be better off not having won," she says. "We don’t have quite the lens on us. We have some freedom and flexibility to do some really interesting and good work, and still have some good partnerships with the private sector.”

Denver is using its own money, along with a $6 million federal grant, to work on several of projects it proposed for the Smart City Challenge, which was hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For example, the money will help Denver develop technology to detect pedestrians at crossings using video and lidar (which works much the same way that radar does, only using lasers instead of radio waves). Most pedestrian crossing systems rely on the walker to press a button, which activates lights for a set period of time based on the assumption that pedestrians move at 3.5 feet a second. But Denver wants to use technology to extend the time the lights flash if the pedestrian moves more slowly. The city will use the data gathered at those crossings to see whether the assumptions it uses when building pedestrian crossings elsewhere are correct.

The federal grant money will also go toward keeping 18-wheel trucks off neighborhood streets where children walk to school in North Denver. Between 12 and 14 percent of all traffic on arterial roads are trucks, and “right now it’s pretty much a free-for-all,” especially when the trucks leave congested through streets to try to find alternative routes through the neighborhoods, said Michael Finochio, one of the leaders on the project.

So Denver will work with one of the freight companies in the area to install wireless transmitters in the cabs that will communicate with traffic signals and give trucks priority at intersections on freight routes. “If they stay on a certain route of our choosing, at a certain time of day of our choosing, then we will give them priority,” Finochio said.

The truck prioritization project addresses some of the major emphases of the Smart City Challenge, too, by working with private industry and by using technology to address problems faced by low-income and minority communities.

Austin, too, plans to use other funding sources and new partnerships to roll out ideas they pitched during the contest.

One of the first improvements to come out of the city’s Smart City Challenge plan will be a new center where transportation officials from the city, state, toll roads and transit agencies can coordinate their day-to-day operations with each other. The Regional Operations Management Center will likely open within the next year, said Robert Spillar, the director of the Austin Transportation Department.

Putting all those people under the same roof could actually improve traffic in the notoriously congested city, Spillar said. Right now, if an accident causes major backups on a freeway, there’s no easy way to adjust the timing of traffic lights on major arterial roads that are likely to get more crowded as frustrated drivers leave the highways. That’s because the freeways are run by the state, and the arterials are managed by the city.

“Ultimately, I don’t care if it’s a state engineer that hits the button that automatically gets more green time on city arterials, or if it’s a city traffic engineering saying, ‘There’s an accident over there on the freeway, so I better put up information signs up and down the freeway so that people know what to expect,’” Spillar said. “That seems simple, but I will tell you it’s like trying to jump over the Grand Canyon.”

Another major component of Austin’s Smart City application will be put into place thanks to a voter-approved bond measure from November that included $482 million for up to nine “smart corridors” in the city. The improvements along those arterial roads will include a mix of old and new technology: turn lanes, bus bays and sidewalks will go in along with traffic and weather sensors and connected traffic lights.

The sensors will help traffic engineers better respond to changing conditions, as well help motorists and improve road networks. Texas universities, for instance, will use the information to improve traffic projections and troubleshoot the road network. The city has already done something similar using Bluetooth signals, which led officials to change a downtown street from one-way to two-way during major events to reduce traffic.

Many of the other projects Austin is still working on deal with broader societal problems. The city is exploring the idea of installing refrigerated food lockers at transit stops in food deserts, so grocery stores can drop off items for their customers to pick up on the way home from work. It is also looking into vanpools to help low-income and elderly residents get to medical services.

“When you start thinking of how technology might be used to answer [those problems], you get some really inventive solutions,” Spillar said.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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