As the state capital and the largest city in Ohio, Columbus has the distinction of being the largest US metropolis (2018 population 892,533) not to have a subway or light rail system.
The Smart City Challenge was slated for four years, and the deadline for completion is 2020. Has the project been a success, or has the Smart City Challenge been a mixed bag of hope, enthusiasm, inconclusive results, and a whole lot of cash? Getting drivers out of their cars also has been a relatively clear objective.
The Project Cash
In addition to the $40 million from the USDOT, the city was also awarded a $10 million grant from Paul G. Allen Foundation/Vulcan, Inc. for the development of electric car planning. The city, Franklin County, and the Ohio DOT provided $18 million in matching funds. Ohio State University donated $15 million, plus its School of Engineering provided substantial in-kind contributions. University researchers have been helping evaluate most of the projects.
The private sector chipped in with millions of in-kind donations. A nonprofit made up of 75 private-sector CEOs called The Columbus Partnership committed $90 million to help fund smart city efforts.
Smart Columbus Spokeswoman Jennifer Fening recently stated that organizations had also invested an additional $720 million throughout the region in mobility innovation and education. Projects include a wind tunnel and a smart mobility center at the Transportation Research Center between Marysville and Bellefontaine. A total of $110 million has been spent on smart roads and signals. Honda plans to begin testing pre-collision detection devices and connected car technology for traffic signals in fleet vehicles. The state DOT has also launched Drive Ohio, which serves as Ohio’s clearinghouse for driverless vehicles. It also created the Smart Mobility Corridor for AV testing on a 35 miles stretch along Route 33 north of Columbus.
Despite all the cash and community partnerships, the city has not yet entirely transformed itself into an innovation hub. The project time frame was four years, but the umbrella organization running the program, Smart Columbus, received a USDOT extension to continue the project through the middle of 2021. The extension is partly due to the pandemic, which caused some of the program efforts to be curtailed or put on hold.
President and CEO of The Columbus Partnership, Alex Fischer, recently said that there had been better progress with some projects than others, “Microtransit. Renewable energy. A carbon-neutral society. All are going to be platforms that the partnership will continue to build on.” He added, “The private sector is planning to make sure things started, don’t stop.”
Receiving this kind of cash and in-kind support can sometimes be a burden, mostly if the demonstration project was not entirely successful. How do you measure success with something like this, anyway? How can anyone know if all the cash poured into the project was worth it? Perhaps one idea of determining success will be what the project looks like in 10 years.
The vision of the project is clearly stated on the website: To empower our residents to live their best lives through responsive, innovative, and safe mobility solutions. The four areas of focus include connected, autonomous, shared, and electric.
In 2019, Andrew Wolpert, Smart Columbus project manager, said in an interview with Governing, “Columbus is essentially a living laboratory, so we will be able to show our results, lessons learned, to the country. And hopefully, they can take our lessons learned and use these projects, and modify and scale to however they need, so they can hopefully benefit their community.” As of June 2020, delegations from 80 cities and 20 countries have visited Columbus to learn about the programs.
The “Experience Center,” housed in a former downtown parking garage and along the banks of the Scioto River, is the nerve center for Smart Columbus. It serves as a project showroom and doubles as the project office. The biggest prize has been the project’s Operating System, which has developed an open-source code for other cities to use and aggregates data for public and software developers.
Seventeen projects in total are currently highlighted on the website:
- Smart Columbus Operating System (integrated data exchange of local data)
- Smart Mobility Hubs (interactive digital kiosks known as IKE)
- Smart Columbus Experience Center (showroom, test drive center, and project office)
- Multimodal Trip Planning Application & Common Payment System (plan and pay for travel in central Ohio)
- Self-driving shuttles (use of limited closed-loop shuttles to connect residents to jobs and resources)
- Expansion and adoption of multimodal transit (improve transit and improve access to mobility options)
- Acceleration Partners Program (partnering with largest area employers to change mobility patterns, i.e., get people out of their cars)
- Connected Vehicle Environment Pilot (connect vehicles to street infrastructure)
- Event Parking Management (an app that helps with Downtown and Arts District parking)
- Smart Columbus Ride and Drive Roadshow (host thousands of EV test drives)
- Fleet Electric Vehicle Adoption (help company fleets to switch to EVs)
- Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities Study (help the cognitively disabled to travel more independently on fixed-route bus service)
- Prenatal Trip Assistance Study (assist pregnant women without reliable transportation to attend prenatal doctors’ appointments)
- Electrified Dealer Program (increase goal of EV adoption by nearly 500 percent)
- Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure (grow region’s EV charging capability)
- Grid Modernization and Decarbonization (reduce greenhouse gases and modernize electric grid to support innovation and sustainability)
- Consumer Electric Vehicle Adoption (accelerate EV adoption among central Ohio drivers)
Obviously, millions of dollars have been spent on this living laboratory. Maybe some critical work has been done with area partnerships and figuring out what can work, but the question remains: are these projects scalable and was the return on investment worth the effort? The verdict is still out.