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For Columbus, the Smart City grant is just the first step to becoming a tech leader

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The Ohio city is uniquely positioned to grow, but needs to be strategic about infrastructure and development to make the most out of the $40 million Smart City grant.

Even after Columbus, Ohio, was named the winner of the Smart City Challenge earlier this year— which comes with a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation to develop autonomous transportation systems and tackle issues of climate change and urban inequality—it may have seemed like a stretch to imagine the future of transportation emerging from a Rust Belt city with a population of 822,000.

But the fact that Columbus isn’t New York or Portland or Austin, rather a Midwestern city with unique resources and a bit of a blank slate, may actually make it a much better testing ground for developing next generation transportation for the country than one might think.

According to Reese Neader of Forge Columbus, a local business development organization, while the city may have more of an "eds and meds" profile right now (focused on insurance, banking, healthcare and education), there’s a large entrepreneur class here, and a number of companies and institutions focused on engineering, from Ohio State University to the Battelle Institute, a nonprofit devoted to applied science and the world’s largest private research institute,. When paired with the $40 million bet on new transportation technology, these advantages give Columbus a real chance to help shape a key 21st century technology still under development.

"Columbus can be a leader in transportation and technology, but this can only work if city leaders combine this project with traditional investment in mass transit," says Neader. "We need commuter rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit. It needs to happen."

The winning plan submitted by Columbus includes includes connected vehicles and smart infrastructure, and centers on a set of three self-driving shuttles, dubbed CMAX. These autonomous bus rapid transit systems will connect residents in underserved areas to jobs, and also help remedy poor health outcomes and the region’s higher-than-average infant mortality rate by improving access to clinics and healthcare. Rather than being a huge leap ahead to a future with no drivers, the plan offers incremental (and more realistic and widely applicable) developments of existing tech.

John Rayburn, a local urban planner who authored the Forge Ahead report, a blueprint for developing the city’s transportation and tech industries, says that Columbus was able to weather the storm of the most recent recession due to its diverse economy and population (one that’s expected to add a million people by 2050). The city has a varied history in technology and industry; it has alternately been known as the buggy capital of the world, for its dominant place in the horse-and-buggy industry, and Test City U.S.A. (due to its central location, many companies have also used it as a logistics center).

Columbus will become a center for innovation, Rayburn believes, but it’ll be one that looks different from many major U.S. cities. The Ohio city has the distinction of being the largest city in the United States without a commuter rail service, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. The city won’t have to worry about any legacy systems of decisions when charting a new course, which makes it even more valuable as a test track for technologies looking to be deployed elsewhere.

But, the city still needs to invest strategically in its own infrastructure to get the most out of new developments in autonomous vehicles, and built-out transportation in ways that have been suggested by local groups such as Transit Columbus. Service such as Uber and car2go already exist there, but the tech world and city planners need to work together to make sure both are supporting each other in a way that helps Columbus thrive.

"Transportation systems are like the bones of a city, and as it grows, you need more and more bones," says Rayburn. "We have the grant, but we need to the big bones, the spine, to thrive as a big city."

Neader believes the Smart City grant will attract transportation tech and healthcare companies to the region, who will all find that Columbus’ startup scene is more well-developed than they might expect. Like any tech companies outside of traditional capitals of VC funding, those in Columbus will have to work harder to get funding.

The city’s tech scene hopes this Smart City challenge grant serves as a vote of confidence for those considering investing in the region. The fact that the grant money is backed by a $90 million investment from local businesses via the Columbus Partnership, as well as donated services and technology from Sidewalk Labs, Mobileye, and Local Motors, a startup that 3D printed a car, doesn’t hurt.

The city also needs to do some of its own investment and reorganization to help nurture and encourage the businesses and new arrivals that will come with the grant money. Neader believes that without making some significant changes, the city won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities this grant is offering. Zoning ordinances need to be structured to help transit-oriented development, and policies need to be in place to protect housing affordability and limit traffic congestion, which continues to get worse as the city grows.

"I would definitely say the next two years are key to the future of the city’s development," he says. "When you’re looking at the outcomes of this project, autonomous cars are cool and awesome. But unless we use this to change the pattern of development in our city, it won’t help us."