Seventeen U.S. cities have partnered with a Washington-based transportation group and Google’s Sidewalk Labs to figure out how best to tap technology to get people around more smoothly – and help tune up local communities in the process.
It’s the latest riff on an effort bubbling up in cities around the world: In an era of scant government resources but bountiful private-sector advances in automation, mapping and other technologies, officials want to learn everything they can from tech companies – and each other. And they want to do it – and act on that knowledge – faster than they’ve sometimes done in the past.
“We want to get some pilots out there. If we can share and we can learn from others, that saves us a lot of time,” said John Thomas, chief performance officer for the District’s Transportation Department. “This is going to be a great way to collaborate with other cities that are in the same boat as us.”
Transportation for America, with funding and tech expertise from Sidewalk Labs, on Tuesday announced the first crop of participants in their “smart cities collaborative.” The cities will break into working groups to wrestle over the next year with the challenges and opportunities of three hot policy realms: automated vehicles, ride-sharing and big data.
That includes looking into how driverless cars might affect transit, traffic snarls and issues of economic equity, and how to analyze more and better transportation data to improve the efficient use of networks marked by dizzying complexity.
Transportation for America, which is a program of the group Smart Growth America, advocates more transportation funding, with an emphasis on environmentally sustainable projects. Sidewalk Labs is seeking urban markets for its data analysis and other tech tools but says learning from the cities, sharing its expertise and trying to find solutions are their priorities in the collaborative.
The other communities are Seattle; Boston; Denver; Madison, Wis.; Los Angeles; San Jose; Sacramento; Austin; Nashville; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Portland, Ore.; Centennial and Lone Tree, Colo.; and Miami-Dade County.
“Often, I hear from cities, ‘I’m interested in working on X. I don’t know who else is doing that,’ ” said Russ Brooks, the transportation group’s director of smart cities. “They’re really tired of starting from scratch every time they want to get a project going.”
By meeting up, preparing pilot projects, coming up with shared policies and even seeking to standardize agreements with the private sector, Brooks said, everything the officials learn will become a common resource for a broader universe of communities to use. “The cities have all agreed to open-source their projects,” Brooks said.
The precise projects will stem from the cities themselves. The range will become clearer after an inaugural meeting next month in Minneapolis.
In the District, Thomas said officials are keen to explore ways to link vehicles wirelessly with digital receivers on streetlights or elsewhere, a field known as vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. It could potentially be tested out on city-owned vehicles as part of a pilot, he said. Eventually, Thomas sees a broader network of private vehicles sending in data on the location of icy roads to precisely target salt trucks. Communication between cars and signals could also eventually reduce car idling and pollution, he said. But important questions remain to be worked out, including which technology standard makes the most sense for any equipment installed along roads so cities don’t end up with the equivalent of a Betamax in a streaming world, he said.
“We’d have to figure out where they go. … In the big, grand scale, you need a lot of these things out there to really leverage it all,” Thomas said. “We’re on the cusp of things. We want to learn on a smaller scale and take that to a larger scale,” Thomas said.
Seth Hoffman, city manager of Lone Tree, Colo., a small city in the greater Denver area, said officials hope to use the opportunity to help find a private partner for a project to connect light rail stations to local business centers.
Right now, they use a traditional shuttle system to do that.
“Our big idea is to try to figure out how to make that a more dynamic, demand-based system, rather than just having buses go in loops,” Hoffman said. Instead, city officials want “the buses to go where the people are and then take them where they need to go at that moment. We’re looking for a tech partner to leverage what we have and make it more efficient and reach far more people.”
If they’re successful, “it would be something that could be replicated in many, many places,” Hoffman said.
Rohit T. Aggarwala, the Sidewalk Labs’ chief policy officer who was a New York City official under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said “it’s a two-part game of having a very big, ambitious vision, and also being very pragmatic.”
“In the spirit of a real hack,” Aggarwala said, the network of cities will be able “to do stuff on a test basis and see what works.”