It was a couple weeks before Christmas, and the federal government dangled a $40 million prize in front of America’s cities.
Find ways to use new automated driving and sensor technologies and big data tools to cut traffic and auto emissions, and the U.S. Department of Transportation will fund the best of the bunch as a model for the country.
Seventy-eight cities, or teams of cities, jumped in, representing more than 30 million Americans from Anchorage to Tallahassee. But after all that enthusiasm, what happens to the 77 cities that don’t win?
Citing the “overwhelming response,” transportation secretary Anthony Foxx on Saturday named seven finalists in the “Smart City Challenge,” rather than the five originally planned. San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Denver; Columbus,Ohio; Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Austin will get $100,000 each to further flesh out their ideas, Foxx said in a session with selected mayors at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.
The plans are ambitious and varied, from Columbus’s push to build a network of on-demand driverless shuttles to Portland’s plan to connect electric vehicle charging stations to its streetlight system.
The winner will be selected in June, and given up to $50 million, including $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
“We were expecting 15 to 20 cities to apply and to get 78 was just astonishing to all of us,” said Spencer Reeder, senior program officer for climate and energy at Allen’s Vulcan Inc., one of several technology-focused companies partnering on the competition and advising participants. “The last thing we want is to see all these great ideas stay on paper.”
Reeder said he’s met recently with like-minded philanthropists about finding new money to aid cities that didn’t make the cut, and to help local officials ferret out existing federal funds. There are limits, however.
Despite passage of a transportation funding bill in December, “a huge hole” remains, said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group Building America’s Future. A group of civil engineers pointed to trillions of dollars in needed infrastructure spending by 2020, Rendell noted.
While the seven selected cities hone their proposals, officials in many of the rest of the cities say they will try to keep the ideas from their applications alive.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
The city’s vision includes a network of self-driving transit vehicles for seniors and the disabled. WiFi kiosks would be set up for travelers to check the routes and pay fares. Cars repeatedly skidding on an ice patch would automatically summon salt trucks.
“We need WiFi, and we need it more readily available throughout Washington DC, and we’re focused on that,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at a SXSW event Monday where she touted the city’s transit plans.
Transmitters would be installed widely, including on bikes and buses, in private fleets and on thousands of city owned vehicles, to feed information to central servers – then pipe it back out to help people and their vehicles make more efficient travel choices.
Despite population soaring to nearly 1 million by 2045, people will get to museums or federal government jobs “with minimal delays and without loss of life,” according to the city’s proposal.
“Vehicles are routed around incidents and major events automatically, without the operator even realizing. Infrastructure is maintained in top condition because of automated feedback from roads, traffic signals, and transit vehicles,” it reads.
John Thomas, a top official at the District’s Department of Transportation, said the city’s plan now is to “go back to this document, tear it down, and look at the individual pieces that make sense.”
Planners want to develop a phone app that would tap real-time congestion information to offer transit discounts. Would-be drivers would receive enticements during particularly severe traffic snarls, say during a Colts game.
“The app will automatically say, ‘Take IndyGo now, and you save a dollar on your fare,’” said Brad Beaubien, a long-range planner with the city, using the name of the local transit service.
Officials also want to morph their existing car-share program – which has pre-determined pick-up and drop-off points at the airport, downtown and other locations – into a self-driving system.
“You can stay in the car and say, ‘Take me to this hotel downtown,’ and it’ll drive you there,” Beaubien said.
As a step in that direction, they want their coming fleet of battery-powered electric buses to use “automated docking” when they come to a station.
“The driver would pull in, then it would glide more like a train,” said Meredith Klekotka, a transportation integration planner.
Addressing traffic deaths, which total about 45 a year, is a key goal.
Planners want to install street sensors in retail areas and near schools that will alert cars when people are in the road. Crash avoidance systems would kick in to save lives.
“City leaders envision a parent not worrying about a child crossing the street,” they wrote.
Same with a grandmother trying to park at her favorite café in winter. Her car could park itself away from icy sidewalks, and allow family members to check up on her. The proposal was inspired by a woman in her 80s, who was struck and killed in similar circumstances.
Viplava Putta, a regional transportation planner, said channeling funds toward technology improvements makes sense given the vast costs of even ordinary fixes.
“$45 million could get you one mile of expansion of a highway. Instead of doing that, we want to do things that would enable people to flow the same kind of traffic in a much more intelligent way,” Putta said.
He’s also eager to borrow from his former competitors’ proposals.
“We would like to see what rises to the top in each of the cities,” Putta said. If Detroit is doing something smart, Tulsa can grab pieces of that, and vice versa, he said. “The best form of flattery is to simply copy it.”
Brian Fung contributed to this report.