Three Things to Know About the Other Smart Cities

In December 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched the Smart City Challenge, aiming to help one mid-sized U.S. city address the challenges of growing demand on transportation infrastructure through technology. From a total of 78 applicants, USDOT narrowed it down to seven finalist cities and awarded the $50 million prize to Columbus, Ohio (for an overview of the seven finalists, check our article from last March).

Although one city received the award, another goal behind the initiative was to encourage cities to actively engage with local partners and develop a pragmatic vision for the role technology would play in their local transportation system. To discuss the progress among the finalist cities after the Smart City Challenge, Eno convened a panel of representatives from three of these cities at its recent Capital Convergence: Portland, OR; Kansas City, MO; and Washington, DC, as well as a representative from the technology consultancy Cubic. Three main ideas emerged from the panel on how cities would go about implementing a Smart City:

The focus should not be on the technology itself, but on the outcomes

While technology is exciting and everyone, including city officials, likes to show off the latest gadget, implementing agencies need to make sure that the technology is not used only for technology’s sake, but to also achieve programmatic goals. Establishing appropriate metrics (level of congestion, safety levels, etc.) within the context of a comprehensive plan ensures efforts remain focused.

There is a need to pay attention to equity issues

All the panelists agreed that these investments have to avoid exacerbating inequality issues. While technology has the potential to help alleviate inequality within a city (the Capital Convergence panel discussed how transportation network companies can be used to serve neighborhoods that were underserved by traditional cabs), investments that concentrated in areas with already-good transportation infrastructure would exacerbate the divide. Agencies need to keep this in mind and demonstrate a concerted effort towards focusing investment and energy on neighborhoods that have historically been underinvested.

Involve the public and all government agencies in the process

While local transportation departments may be very enthusiastic about implementing forward-looking initiatives, sometimes that enthusiasm doesn’t translate into practical results due to a lack of public interest or lack of collaboration with other agencies with the government.

To avoid this, transportation departments need to approach their communities and explain how these initiatives will help with their problems, be it accessing jobs or a local library. Within government, transportation departments need to explain to the elected officials and to other departments within government why transportation matters, and need to involve them in all stages of the process. The panel noted that in preparing for the Smart City Challenge, it brought together staff members from different agencies that had never met before. Now, they are seeing a more active level of collaboration and knowledge sharing, and the political buy-in for this vision been trickling upward to their mayors and department heads. The institutional changes also came from creating new positions focused on the Smart City goals, such as a “deputy director of regional strategy” or a chief innovation officer.

These three cities show that pursuing transportation technology has benefits beyond the technology itself, encompassing a broader range of institutional changes. But for technology to have a meaningful and positive impact on the local level requires outlining specific outcomes and developing partnerships between both the public and private sector.


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