The city prepares to add smart tech enhancements to its transportation infrastructure.

By Erin Brereton

Columbus, Ohio, won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Smart City Challenge in 2016, which tasked midsized municipalities with proposing a transportation system with increased efficiency that incorporated data, applications and technology. So, it’s not surprising that much of the city’s Smart Columbus technology implementation initiative centers on transportation

The challenge presented the perfect opportunity to aim for grant funding — $50 million in total — that could help catapult the city’s plans for the future into motion, says Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership, a nonprofit, membership-based CEO organization focused on improving economic vitality in the region.

“We think about smart city as a platform — how we reimagine how the city will look in 30 to 100 years,” Davis says. “The grant was the perfect springboard for us to get started and try to innovate inside of our own communities.”

Fiber-Optic Cable Sets the Foundation for the Future

Hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable installed along Columbus’s roadway network to help the city migrate to a new traffic signal system has positioned Columbus to incorporate a number of tech enhancements, including a connected vehicle pilot project scheduled to begin in July 2020.

“Essentially, the fiber was launched to connect traffic signals,” says Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager for the city of Columbus. “That’s why we have so much to transition from independent operation of pretimed signals to an integrated traffic management system. All signals are connected to a centralized hub, the traffic management center.”

Roadside units, which are roughly 12 inches by 12 inches by 4 inches and include a Global Navigation Satellite System receiver to pinpoint locations, will be installed in 86 intersections, including more than a dozen locations considered to be intersections with high crash rates.

Onboard units are scheduled to be installed in 1,800 private, emergency and freight vehicles owned by the city. Those units contain components such as GNSS receivers to collect data on the vehicles’ position, speed and direction; a vehicle data bus, which will capture information about vehicle acceleration and angular rotation; and a moving map display.

The onboard devices, traffic signals and roadside units will communicate over a secure connected vehicle network via wireless dedicated short-range communications radio technology — relaying real-time information such as alerts about potential rear-end collisions or approaching emergency vehicles that could be given priority at stoplights.

A connected vehicle environment can offer a number of safety advantages for both the city and motorists, according to Ryan Bollo, Smart Columbus project manager for the city of Columbus.

“In this age of ever-increasing distracted driving, the ability to notify a driver of an impending incident before the driver senses it is a great opportunity to reduce the number of incidents,” Bollo says. “The efficiency of roads can also improve. By implementing new strategies enabled by this connectivity, such as optimizing signal timing, cities can work to reduce congestion, allowing drivers to experience shorter drive times.”

Travelers Benefit from Autonomous Vehicles and Wi-Fi

Columbus is also testing autonomous transportation as part of its smart tech exploration. From December 2018 to fall 2019, a self-driving shuttle carted passengers between the city’s Center of Science and Industry, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Bicentennial Park and the Smart Columbus Experience Center, where visitors can learn about smart technology and test-drive electric cars. The shuttle eventually logged more than 7,500 miles.

A positioning system was used to help premap all routes; the shuttle — which Bishop describes as tall, angular and looking somewhat like “a spaceship bus” — held 10 to 12 people and utilized lidar and radar sensors to gather information, such as curb presence, which was processed via algorithms to help guide the vehicle through its course. 

Columbus will soon launch a new autonomous shuttle route to connect residents to a transit center and community center. 

Columbus plans to launch another 2.7-mile shuttle route in its Linden neighborhood in the next several weeks to help connect citizens to the area’s transit center and a community center that offers healthcare and other services.

“The first deployment was really to demonstrate the technology so more people would become familiar with it,” Bishop says, “For the second, we worked with the transit authority, the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department and the Department of Public Safety to look at where the technology could operate safely and be connected to something that was important.”

The city plans to install interactive kiosks in a half-dozen facilities in the city, including at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Linden branch and the Linden Transit Center, with testing starting in February and full deployment by April 2020

The kiosks will provide transit information and trip planning capabilities that are similar to the multimodal app Columbus released in early 2019, involving several transportation providers — including the Central Ohio Transit Authority system, scooter-sharing companies and national ride-hailing providers, in addition to free Wi-Fi access to help address the digital divide that exists in areas within the city.

“When we learned a lot of people in the neighborhoods that were low-income have a smartphone but don’t have a great data plan, we saw an opportunity to include Wi-Fi there so folks could access the internet and plan on their phones through the trip planning app or via an interactive kiosk,” Bishop says.

Integrated Data Exchange Showcases Effectiveness

In addition to producing positive effects like increased efficiency, smart cities can also create vast amounts of data — which allow municipalities to analyze and assess how their new technologies are performing.

To accommodate the large amount of information a smart city conversion can generate, Columbus built and launched a proprietary tool, the Smart Columbus Operating System integrated data exchange, in 2017.

The Smart Columbus Operating System serves as an integrated data exchange for the city.

“Smart cities are rich with data,” Bishop says. “We knew we needed to have an integrated exchange to accommodate all the data we needed to evaluate programs. That’s the backbone of an American smart city.”

The state capital plans to make its findings publicly available via the platform so other areas can also obtain insights. Columbus wants other cities to be able to learn from its smart tech implementation experiences, Davis says.

“It’s a playbook we hope other cities check out,” Davis says. “We’re being as transparent and open as possible so they can plug and play what we’re doing. It’s a level of commitment we’re making to bring the entire ecosystem of smart cities forward.”