Smart City Challenge Finalists Share their Successes with Congress

March 17, 2017 

On Thursday, March 16, the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection (DCCP) held a hearing to review how communities are implementing emerging technology and sophisticated data collection methods across the United States.

The hearing was a continuation of the committee’s Disrupter Series, which investigates the federal policy implications of new and emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles and drones.

The subcommittee invited four city officials, an academic, and a telecommunications company to discuss how they are applying smart city technologies to improve city services, enhance mobility, and inform future planning efforts:

  • Brenna Berman, Commissioner and Chief Information Officer, Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (testimony unavailable)
  • Kyle Chisek, Director of Bureau Relations, City of Portland, Oregon, Office of Mayor Ted Wheeler (testimony)
  • Dr. Jennifer Clark, Director, Center for Urban Innovation, Associate Professor, School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology (testimony)
  • Jennifer Gallagher, Director, Department of Public Service, City of Columbus, Ohio (testimony)
  • Kurt J. Gruendling, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (testimony)
  • Alexander Pazuchanics, Policy Advisor, Office of the Mayor, City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (testimony)

“There are opportunities to improve education, traffic and health.  We can drastically increase mobility and access to jobs. From safety to sanitation to the environment, communities that wisely invest in technologies can make a real difference in American’s lives,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, Bob Latta (R-OH).

While the content of the hearing was crafted to be pertinent for essentially every American city and Congressional district, the dais and audience were nearly empty (this may have had something to do with the release of the president’s skinny budget just a few hours prior). The result was a lethargic hearing where a handful of Members scrolled through Twitter while witnesses struggled to capture both their attention and imagination.

The Smart City Challenge, which was launched by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2015, was prominently featured at the hearing. The competition challenged cities to develop and share their plans to create smart transportation networks that would optimize the movement of people and freight.

Chicago was the only city at the hearing that did not submit an application to the Smart City Challenge. Out of the other three, Columbus’ proposal ultimately won, while Portland and Pittsburgh were among the seven finalists.

Nearly 80 cities developed proposals that incorporated a variety of emerging technologies to reduce congestion, improve public transit services, and increase safety. Many of the proposals were focused on the applications automated vehicles, smart infrastructure, and transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft.

A number of cities also proposed innovations such as unified payment systems, on-demand buses, and robust data-sharing regimes targeted at reducing congestion.

(Source: USDOT Smart City Challenge)

“[The Smart Cities Challenge] federal grant has changed our city,” said Jennifer Gallagher, Director of the Department of Public Service for the City of Columbus.

After winning the competition, Columbus began pursuing two key technology initiatives: an integrated data exchange (IDE) and the Columbus Connected Transportation Network. The IDE compiles data from public and private entities in a cloud-based platform that allows city officials to access a multitude of information to inform their decision-making processes.

The Columbus Connected Transportation Network will integrate vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology to transmit information between vehicles and the built environment that will help to prevent accidents and mitigate congestion.

(Source: Smart Columbus)

In addition, Columbus plans to establish autonomous shuttles that will help to connect residents to public transportation options. Gallagher indicated that Columbus has already created a public-private partnership (P3) to launch an autonomous shuttle pilot project.

“Cities in the competition, including some represented in this panel, challenged themselves to push for innovative and sustainable solutions in the transportation and energy sectors.”

Gallagher provided the subcommittee with an overview of the Smart Columbus Demonstration Project and outlined its three objectives:

  • “Improve access to jobs through expanded mobility options in major job centers;
  • Connect Columbus residents to safe, reliable transportation that can be accessed by all; and
  • Develop a more sustainable transportation system.”

“We believe access to transportation is a key component of turning this vision into a reality,” Gallagher said before playing the video pitch Columbus used for the Smart Cities Challenge.

When Chairman Latta asked the panel whether integrating new technologies was already making cities safer, the answer was a resounding yes.

Gallagher explained that – thanks to the Smart Cities Challenge – Columbus has entered a partnership with Mobileye to install its Shield + systems on every municipal bus. The system will use up to four cameras to monitor the driving environment, which in turn informs bus drivers of potential collisions with pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists.

Kyle Chisek, Director of Bureau Relations for the City of Portland, explained that Portland is compiling data on traffic collisions and near-collisions at major intersections. In turn, the city uses this data to focus its traffic calming and safety efforts on specific problem areas.

Chicago is taking a similar approach, said Brenna Berman, Commissioner and Chief Information Officer for the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology. She indicated that collecting data on the location and causes of near-misses was an important component in the city’s efforts to reduce traffic collisions.

On a different note, Alexander Pazuchanics, Policy Advisor to the Mayor of Pittsburgh, said that Pittsburgh is exploring the use of truck platooning technology to increase freight truck safety and efficiency. Platooning uses sophisticated sensors and automated systems to maintain precise following distances between trucks, which can potentially reduce the risk of collision and improve fuel efficiency.

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), the vice chair of the subcommittee, expressed to the panel his great enthusiasm for the potential of autonomous vehicles. As he has noted in previous hearings, Harper became interested in AVs because he has a son with disabilities whose mobility options are extremely limited because he is unable to drive a car.

Harper then turned to ask Dr. Jennifer Clark from the Georgia Institute of Technology if rural communities currently have the opportunity to access and use the advanced technologies that were being discussed during the hearing.

Major cities are the main beneficiaries of new smart city technologies, Clark said. She clarified that companies often give large city governments new technologies to use – often at little cost to them – but that these same opportunities are not often afforded to rural areas.

Describing her research on solving this issue, Clark said, “I’m thinking about digital inclusion instead of the digital divide.”

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