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Smart City Challenge: 7 Proposals for the Future of Urban Transportation

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The finalists for the $40 million prize from the Department of Transportation provide a glimpse of next-generation urban mobility

The U.S. Department of Transportation doesn't normally get mentioned in the same breath as hip startup incubators or insightful venture capitalists. But that doesn't mean the federal agency isn't finding its own way to be a catalyst for technological advancement. Using a unique contest to spur innovation in the chronically underfunded world of public infrastructure, it may actually be using government funding to usher in a new era of urban tech.

The DOT's Smart City Challenge, a startup-like contest offering a $40 million grant to the U.S. city with the best plan to tackle automation, climate change, and urban inequality, has producer dozens of concepts from urban planners and transportation innovators across the country (78 different municipalities created proposals). Last Thursday, the seven finalists released their final pitches, showcasing an array of different ideas on how to bring urban mobility into the 21st century. Before the winner is chosen later this month, here are highlights of the seven proposals, which would use the government prize as well as funding from private partners to develop next-generation infrastructure.

Denver, Colorado: City-Funded Ridesharing Closes the Gaps

To improve mobility and access to the city, Denver wants to augment its growing transit system with ride-sharing and eventually, autonomous vehicles. The city’s proposed pilot program would create a data management ecosystem to gather and share transit information, and work to link services like Lyft and light rail, bridging current gaps in the transportation system, all while tracking where gaps exist in current infrastructure. Denver would also pick up the tab for trips that start in poorer neighborhoods and pay equitable rates to drivers, hoping to spur service in underserved areas and bring more efficient transportation to all corners of the region.

Columbus, Ohio: Connected Bus Links Underserved Areas With Opportunities

To help develop the commercial corridor centered around Easton, a huge local job center, Columbus would use the grant money to invest in a autonomous circulator, an automatic transport system, accessible by card or app, that would simplify commutes and connect residents of underserved neighborhoods to employers. In addition, a new bus rapid transit system, dubbed CMAX, would use smart sensors, special lanes, and connected signals to create a more efficient, on-time bus route that makes transport more efficient and accessible.

Austin, Texas: Smart Stations Rethink Concept of Suburban Commute

The booming Texas tech hub has seen a growing population lead to sprawl, with satellite suburbs in Hill Country sprouting up everywhere, leaving longer commutes in its wake. Austin wants to combat this with a series of high-tech park-and-rides called Smart Stations. Each location would ferry passengers downtown using smart buses, as well as provide amenities and services (frozen coolers to pick up groceries, or medical clinics) to concentrate activity and make it more convenient for residents to share a ride downtown.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Smarter Streetlights and a Steel Plant Redefined

This steel city would invest in a Smart Spine of networked transportation options across the city, and rely on the foundations of a former industrial revolution to power a new clean energy future. The Almono, an abandoned steel plant located at the confluence of three rivers, would be transformed into a power generating station via solar and geothermal technology, and become an incubator for new transportation technology (connected to nearby universities via an autonomous shuttle). This would be a starting point for larger investments in smart traffic control technology, which use sensors and machine learning help control traffic and make driving throughout the area more efficient. Current tech already on the road, known as Surtrac, was developed by the local Traffic21 Institute at Carnegie Mellon, and has already made a significant impact: intersections using the system have seen a 40 percent reduction in wait times and a 21 percent drop in emissions from idling vehicles.

Kansas City, Kansas: A Smart Streetcar Connects the Neighborhood

Streetcars aren’t a nostalgic mode of transportation in this Midwestern city, which has invested millions in a smart streetcar network lined with sensors and a massive Wi-Fi umbrella. The proposal would expand this tech-laden "smart corridor" with a variety of services that would help build up an eight-mile stretch along Prospect Avenue. Community-building tech includes smart streetlights and lamps, smart kiosks, ShotSpotter gunshot-detection equipment that would alert nearby police stations, and tech to help the blind navigate the city.

San Francisco, California: Municipal Car Sharing Tackles Traffic Congestion

The seaside city historically suffers from a limited space, one of many reasons contributing to sky-high real estate prices. Of course, the extreme density also places a lot of pressure on the city’s roadways. The San Francisco proposal wants to help free up space by creating a network of shared vehicles, sort of a city-financed uberPool service accessible by a city-created app, that would cut down on the numbers of vehicles competing for space on the city’s hilly streets and, eventually, help reclaim some of the many miles of asphalt. The electric vehicles would be part of a larger multimodal network, connecting rail lines and a bikeshare system to help increase mobility through the city. Mayor Ed Lee has said that he think the "moonshot" plan can divert 10 percent of the city’s auto traffic to ridesharing and public transit options.

Portland, Oregon: Smart Streets Build a Safer, Healthier City

Efficient streets mean safer streets. Portland proposes to utilize the Smart City grant to develop a technologically sophisticated traffic system, dubbed Ubiquitous Mobility for Portland, that seeks to reduce emissions and traffic fatalities. Wired trucks and vans would be pre-programmed to slow down at certain busy intersections, to modulate traffic and reduce dangerous situations that may cause accidents. In addition, the city would invest in technology to create emission-free travel, such as letting cars plug into the grid via the streetlight and parking meter grid and recharge (the city has committed to achieving an 80 percent reduction of local carbon emissions by 2050). In addition, a personal app for Portlanders that measures both transit data, emissions saved, and calories burned would be created and distributed to encourage good behavior.

Designing Tomorrowland [Washington Post]

Sidewalk Labs Announces Plan to Build Connected Street Technology [Curbed]

The Future of Smart City Technology, From an MIT Professor[Curbed]