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Why Columbus Won the Smart City Challenge

The Ohio capital beat out 77 other cities, including techie San Francisco, with its plans to use technology to solve transportation problems.

A bus rolls through downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Thanks to the broad community support it received to use technology to solve some of the city's most pressing problems, Columbus, Ohio, has been named the winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge.

The city beat out 77 other applicants, and the designation is expected to bring in as much as $140 million to Columbus for transportation improvements. Columbus, the Midwest’s fastest growing city and the nation’s 15th largest city by population, beat out better-known tech centers such as Austin, Texas, and San Francisco. Its win is also noteworthy because Columbus, unlike most cities its size, doesn't offer commuter rail or other high-capacity transit beyond buses.

“The thing that distinguished Columbus was that they were able to connect the problems they identified with specific technology solutions that are measureable,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who had the final say in picking the winner. “We feel they have a very good chance of success.”

The competition challenged cities to propose ideas that integrate innovative technologies like self-driving cars, connected vehicles and smart sensors into their transportation networks. A major part of Columbus' winning pitch was increasing poor people's access to new transportation options, which is one of Foxx's major goals.

The city will use autonomous vehicles to link its Linden neighborhood, where unemployment is three times the city average, to a nearby jobs center. Officials hope the new service will also help poor families get better access to health care and other essential services.

Columbus also hopes to serve its low-income population by creating transit cards for them to use ride-hailing or car-sharing services, even if they don't have a smartphone or a bank account. Passengers may also be able to use those cards to schedule doctor's appointments. Columbus focused on health access because of high infant mortality rates in its poor neighborhoods. 

The city will receive $40 million from the federal government; another $10 million from Vulcan, a Seattle company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; and an additional $90 million matching funds from local companies, governments and non-profits.

The goal of the contest is to spur innovation among all the cities vying for the grant. The Obama administration has relied heavily on competitive grants and demonstration projects, like the Smart City Challenge, to encourage states and localities to adopt policies it advocates. In the case of this competition, it might just work.

Private companies and nonprofits have signed up to help not only Columbus but also the cities that didn't win. The participating companies specialize in fields such as urban innovation, cloud computing, telecommunications, solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles, engineering design software, wireless transmitters for vehicles and infrastructure, and pedestrian- and cyclist-detection for buses. All told, according to the Department of Transportation, 150 companies and nonprofit groups have pledged as much as $500 million worth of support.

The seven finalists -- Austin; Columbus; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco -- have also promised to “continue working together to support the use of technology to address issues that all cities face and to share best practices,” said the federal agency.

Mayors from the runner-up cities, meanwhile, said they would move forward with their ideas, even though they weren’t selected.

“Austin is an innovative, creative city," Mayor Steven Adler told local TV station KVUE. "We’re going to keep pushing.”

“We have been transformed through this process,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock told The Denver Post. “Win or lose, Denver is better off because of it.”

In addition to helping lower-income people access transit, Columbus also plans to build “smart corridors,” starting with a bus rapid transit route scheduled to open next year. The corridors would use wireless technology among and between vehicles and infrastructure to improve safety, efficiency and usability.

Another component of Columbus’ plan is to increase the number of electric vehicle powering stations throughout the city. In its application, the city said it would work with its electric utility to expand its smart grid and then incentivize the charging of electric vehicles during optimal times of the day.

At the official announcement of Columbus' victory, Vulcan president Barbara Bennett noted that 50 of the city's CEOs personally committed to buying and driving electric vehicles and installing charging stations for their employees.

“That's called walking the talk,” she said. 

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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