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Columbus, Ohio Wins $140 Million to Become the Transporation City of Tomorrow

The city beat out 77 others vying for the chance to update its infrastructure with the latest and greatest technology

Self-driving busses, cars that communicate with streetlights, and more will be headed to Columbus. (jpmueller99 /Flickr )
smithsonian.com

In a few years, the city of the future will emerge, with self-driving busses, cars that communicate with streetlights and electric charging stations on nearly every street. Or at least that’s what Columbus, Ohio, hopes its future looks like after winning the Transportation Department’s Smart City Challenge competition.

Columbus, with a metro population of about 2 million, beat out 77 other entrants and six other finalists to receive a $40 million transportation grant from the Federal government and $10 million from Vulcan, Inc., a company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The city has also secured matching grants that will bring the total investment in its transportation infrastructure to $140 million.

“This funding is a game changer for the City of Columbus and central Ohio,” Senator Sherrod Brown says in a press release. “I’m glad the Department of Transportation recognized what so many of us already know—Columbus is a smart city that deserves to win this challenge.”

Alex Davies at Wired reports that by 2045, there will be 70 million more people on the road and 65 percent more trucks. That’s a recipe for congested highways, apocalyptic traffic jams and an even lower quality of life for commuters.

That’s why Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx dreamed up the Smart City competition, which launched last December. The goal is to get municipalities and regions facing tough transportation issues to begin thinking about the future, and what innovations and strategies might help change things. It’s a new mindset for a transportation industry that usually focuses on pouring concrete and building bridges.

“It probably does seem a little weird,” Foxx tells Davies. “I’m standing on top of one of the crustiest, stodgiest sectors in America.”

The Challenge did get cities thinking. San Francisco’s proposal included getting more people to ride share in clean vehicles to get more cars off the road. Once accomplished, they proposed replace parking garages with affordable housing, something the city desperately needs, reports Michael Laris at The Washington Post. Austin, which has seen a huge population boom in the last five years, wanted to create “park and ride”-style transportation hubs in its suburbs to get cars out of downtown. Denver suggested partnering with rideshare services like Lyft to promote on-demand transit for poorer residents.

According to Rick Rouan at The Columbus Dispatch, his city’s plans focus heavily on Linden, a disadvantaged section of town where residents do not have access to cars and other transportation options. The plan includes creating a transit pass and universal payment system that includes the COTA bus system and would also work with rideshare services to help people without credit cards or bank accounts. They also want to field test an autonomous vehicle fleet that would begin at the Easton Town Center shopping complex bus terminal and deliver workers to their jobs at nearby stores, easing some congestion in the area.

“We currently don’t have a lot of job opportunities within the boundaries of Linden,” Donna Hicho, executive director of the nonprofit Greater Linden Development Corporation tells Simone McCarthy at The Christian Science Monitor. “[For some people] going outside the neighborhood is like going to a whole different city."

Columbus also wants to increase the number of electric charging stations in the city, and implement technologies that let vehicles and the infrastructure communicate, like changing lights for express buses.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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