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Columbus Named America's Smart City: Public Transit's Essential Role

Central Ohio Transit Authority

On Thursday, June 23, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx awarded the Smart City Challenge grant of $40 million to the city of Columbus. Combined with a $10 million pledge from Seattle-based Vulcan Inc. and local business pledges of $90 million, a total of $140 million in new technology investments will transform mobility, access and transportation in Columbus.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) is a key planning and implementation partner in the Smart Columbus effort and commends DOT for selecting Columbus as America’s first “Smart City.”

Late in 2015, President Barack Obama and Sec. Foxx asked cities around the country to identify how they would use technology to meet the unique challenges they are facing. In particular and of great interest to me, cities were challenged to consider how to create ladders of opportunity and extend the American dream into every community.

Central Ohio is a fast-growing, economically vibrant and forward-looking region. Planners estimate that by 2050, the Columbus region will welcome an additional 1 million residents. Our region is often described as entrepreneurial, high-tech, highly educated, open, diverse and prosperous.

Yet, in many of our neighborhoods, the promise of technology, and all the advantages and opportunities that come with it, is often unrealized. The technologies many of us now take for granted, like high-speed internet and data connections, app-based mobility and payment options, as well as ready access to fresh food, health care and job training, still elude many of our residents.

On the day of Sec. Foxx’s historic announcement, as I was parking in Columbus’ South Linden neighborhood where the announcement ceremony was held, I encountered a neighborhood resident who asked me what was going on. I told her about the Smart Cities Challenge and the announcement that was going to be made at the event around the corner at the recreation center. She asked if I had a flyer or information pamphlet about the event, and I told her the event was announced via the Internet and email. Her reply: “That’s why none of us know about it. We don’t have those things in this neighborhood.”

It is ironic that many of the residents of this neighborhood, one that is proposed to benefit from the technological advances of the Smart Columbus plan, don’t have access to the basic technology that most of us take for granted. Nonetheless, I applaud Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther for his vision of elevating and improving neighborhoods throughout Columbus, and the Smart Cities team for using the Smart Cities Challenge to bring tangible resources to Linden and other neighborhoods to advance that vision.

I look forward to COTA’s participation in the Smart Columbus effort to elevate and advance our city and region while simultaneously improving our neighborhoods and the lives of the people in them.

In true Columbus fashion, innovative minds and city leaders came together in a collaborative effort to identify problems and challenges and propose solutions using the most promising and impactful emerging technologies available. The list of institutions, organizations and companies that stepped up to develop the Smart Columbus proposal demonstrates the commitment our community has to becoming the nation’s intelligent transportation hub.

Joining the city in this partnership are COTA, Ohio State University, Battelle Memorial Institute, American Electric Power, Honda of America, Franklin County, Ohio DOT, IBM, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and even the arts community. Other partners include Amazon Web Services, Mobileye, Autodesk, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, NXP, AT&T and DC Solar Solutions.

Columbus also will receive funding to acquire a fleet of electric vehicles from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc. Coalescing this partnership of leading research institutions and best of class technology innovators will transform mobility for residents and provide a model for other cities and public transit authorities for pursuing demonstrated and measurable technologies.

As COTA worked closely with the other local partners on the Smart City Challenge proposal, we were motivated by how public transit could participate by:

* Removing barriers to opportunity in communities that are transit-reliant;
* Introducing technologies to underserved populations, many of whom are COTA riders; Enhancing safety for riders, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists;
* Removing or reducing barriers for potential users; and
* Improving data collection and sharing to improve service and planning.

Transportation corridors identified in Columbus’ winning application are seeing significant COTA investment already. For example, in the Linden neighborhood (a key target for investment through Smart Columbus) construction is about to begin on CMAX, COTA’s $48 million BRT. With operations planned to begin in January 2018, CMAX will significantly improve connectivity and access to opportunity along Cleveland Avenue by connecting the Linden neighborhood with Downtown Columbus, educational institutions, health care and the many employment opportunities available in the fast-growing Polaris development.

COTA’s Easton Transit Center, located in the employment, retail and entertainment-rich Easton Town Center area, will be expanded to accommodate a significant increase in bus service in 2017. Smart Columbus calls for the deployment of a fleet of electric autonomous vehicles that will operate from the transit center. This “smart logistics” component of the project will enable job seekers to access opportunities with employers located throughout the area by connecting to bus routes serving the transit center.

In the Smart Columbus Logistics-Rickenbacker corridor, COTA is connecting residents to opportunity with increased service to this fast-growing employment center and expanding COTA’s partnership with the Groveport Rickenbacker Employee Access Transit (GREAT) that connects residents to more than 20,000 jobs. Deployment of other notable project components that involve COTA include Mobileye Shield+ collision avoidance system, traffic signal priority upgrades in the CMAX corridor, universal payment system applications and information data exchange providing access to COTA’s computer-aided dispatch/automatic vehicle locator and schedule data.

COTA’s extensive planning efforts over the past decade have positioned us favorably to offer a great deal as our community prepares to implement Smart Columbus. Since many of our planned enhancements are focused at the unique intersection of mobility and technology, deployment of many of the Smart Columbus technologies will bring added value to COTA’s system and to our customers for many years to come.

Winning the Smart City Challenge is an historic and transformative moment for our community as well as for public transit in our region. The success of Smart Columbus will serve as an example of how the thoughtful and strategic deployment of technology can improve the lives of our neighbors who, until now, have not enjoyed the many opportunities available in a growing, vibrant region.

COTA’s goals are closely aligned with the goals of our community, and consequently, the promise of Smart Columbus aligns with our commitment to transit customers and our other stakeholders.

We look forward to realizing significant benefits for Central Ohio and will work closely with our partners in the public transit industry to share what we learn. COTA is excited to put technology and innovation to work to improve transportation and mobility and provide ladders of opportunity in our community.

“Commentary” features points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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