2016: A federal grant provides a windfall and national renown.

In 2020, Columbus will unveil its first connected vehicle environment. Dedicated short-range communications devices will be added to infrastructure along Cleveland Avenue, Morse Road and High Street, and similar onboard units will be placed inside COTA buses, city fleet vehicles and the cars of 1,000 volunteers. All the cogs will communicate. Emergency vehicles and COTA's Bus Rapid Transit line could be given priority at traffic lights, and braking cars will send signals to alert other drivers. The hope is that it will be safer and more efficient—a model of modernity.

That project is one of many underway thanks to Columbus' Smart City Challenge win in June 2016. Smart Columbus, the public-private partnership overseeing the bid, netted $40 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, plus $90 million in matching funds pledged by local governments and businesses. Instead of its familiar role as a test market for fast food or fast fashion, Columbus could serve as a nationwide prototype for an integrated, technologically advanced transit system.

“In the near term, it's been a tremendous brand boost for the city,” says Mark Patton, the vice president of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership, which is working alongside city government to manage the initiative. But the once-in-a-generation opportunity isn't just about exploring futuristic tech. The larger goal is to help solve the obstinate problems of present-day Columbus.

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Mike Stevens, the city's chief innovation officer and Patton's Smart Columbus counterpart, says the team has sought ways to remove transportation barriers for those who are lagging economically. In conjunction with Mayor Andy Ginther's CelebrateOne initiative to reduce infant mortality, a study called Rides4Baby launched in May to provide expectant mothers on Medicaid with transportation to the doctor, pharmacy and grocery store in eight struggling neighborhoods. In November, Smart Columbus plans to begin its second self-driving shuttle route, this one to help Linden residents with first- and last-mile gaps in the current system.

An open-source data management platform called the Smart Columbus Operating System serves as a foundational hub, collecting and disseminating information from various projects. In partnership with AEP, Smart Columbus also has installed charging stations for electric vehicles in parking garages, apartment complexes and at workplaces, while the Ride & Drive Roadshow got 11,300 people behind the wheel of electric vehicles at 120 test drives. The goal was to increase Central Ohio sales by nearly 500 percent, a mark exceeded in late 2018, though it slipped backward this summer. As Patton points out, electric vehicles are still largely a wealthy niche, not a solution to citywide transit.

Stevens anticipates the DOT grant work will be completed by early 2021. At that point, some projects will be passed to partners like COTA. Though funding has yet to be determined, Patton says Smart Columbus' executive committee is dedicated to sustaining the work—it's a long-term aspiration.

Many of these technologies are still in their infancy—autonomous shuttles, for instance—and a set plan for a comprehensive smart transit system has yet to emerge. For now, the city is working on a blueprint, yet it can't start from a blank canvas. The Columbus of the future will be bound to the struggles of the past—infant mortality, segregation—and providing solutions to those problems will be the measure of success.


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