Smart City (rendering)

Smart Cities Q and A

Defining What Makes Smart Cities "Smart."

Would a $40 million grant make a big difference for your city? One of the key architects of the city of Columbus, Ohio's winning Smart Cities Challenge application, Ben Pierce, wrote an article for the Florida Engineering Society Journal. We’ve turned that article into an easy to read Q and A about smart cities. Ben is one of HDR's experts in research, conceptual design, prototyping and deployment of autonomous and connected vehicle (AV/CV) technologies and dynamic mobility applications. Something you learn here could help with your own application someday — and someday may not be very far away!

In the fall of 2016, the White House Smart Cities Initiative announced more than $80 million in new federal investment and a doubling of participating communities, and at the year's end several congress members were working on a Smart Cities and Communities Act. In addition, the Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment Program was planning on funding $60 million in transportation technology grants annually through 2020. The point being, it is definitely worth a mayor's time to learn more about smart cities.

Q. Ben, in your experience, what makes a city "smart"?

A. You can ask 10 people that question and you'll get 10 different answers, but I believe there are four hallmarks of a smart city:

  1. Passionate and Engaged Leaders
  2. Public-Private Partnerships (P3s)
  3. Technology Readiness Analysis, Policy, Process and Planning
  4. Connectivity through Technology and Innovation

Q. Let's go through those four hallmarks. First, how do passionate and engaged leaders make a city "smart"?

A. Elected officials are at the core of a city's leadership. Certainly these public servants have already demonstrated their leadership abilities simply by committing to serve the public's interest. At the same time, a trademark of smart city elected officials is that they are both knowledgeable about and have a willingness to employ new technologies to approach issues and challenges facing their cities in a different way.

Q. Do smart city officials need to be IT experts?

A. No. There will need to be tech experts on staff to employ and maintain new technology, but smart city officials don't have to be IT experts to be passionate about using technology to solve issues. They have to be open to considering technology as a solution and willing to adopt new ideas. These leaders should not be intimidated by being one of the first to try a new innovation.

Q. How do smart cities take advantage of Public-Private Partnerships (P3s)?

A. In today's constrained resources environment, cities have to seek alternative sources of revenue to maintain and improve transportation infrastructure. Smart cities actively involve both transportation and non-transportation-related private industries. Working together, they can identify societal issues and community challenges that transportation solutions can address — in addition to solving transportation issues and challenges.

Q. Can transportation solutions solve more than just transportation problems?

A. Yes. Smart cities recognize that transportation is the means to solve societal problems and not just a problem in itself that needs to be solved.

Q. What did you mean when you said that smart cities need to employ technology policy and a process?


A. Some cities deploy technology in an effort to “do something.” Doing something with technology accompanied by a large press release does raise awareness and can give the perception that a city is advancing. But over-hyping the benefits of technology can result in a backlash when the benefits are not realized. 

Smart Cities use a comprehensive, systematic planning process that analyzes the city’s readiness for investing in technology and incorporates changes to public policy, processes and improvements along with technology adoption. 

Q. How do Smart Cities incorporate technology and innovation to improve connectivity? 

A. Technology was relatively slow coming to the transportation industry, but has exponentially accelerated within the past five years. Today, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the evolution of cellular technology, along with Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) and other wireless communication protocols, have enabled people and their vehicles to be “connected” in new ways. 

Vehicles can now “talk” to other vehicles (V2V) and to infrastructure components like traffic signals (V2I). Real-time crash and incident reporting is available virtually upon demand. A Smart City leverages this connectivity to improve transportation system management and mobility for its citizens, and then utilizes that connectivity to help its citizens climb what the USDOT refers to as Ladders of Opportunity.

Q. What kinds of technology solutions are Smart Cities using?


A. When looking at the 78 different USDOT Smart City Challenge applications from across the U.S., there are clear trends. Autonomous and Connected Vehicle technologies, smart parking, adaptive traffic signal controls, car/ridesharing and ridesourcing were commonly proposed technology elements. A majority also proposed interactive kiosks and multi-modal, mobile phone trip planning applications. 

Q. Did any of the Smart City Challenge applications say they’d like to do more than solve transportation issues?

A. A central component of the Columbus, Ohio, bid that I worked on was making transportation system technology deployments a means for solving infant mortality. This allowed the larger community outside of the transportation segment to rally around the idea, get involved and pledge support and resources to the project. 

Q. How is the Mid-Ohio Region solving societal issues via its Smart City vision?

A. Columbus divided their Smart City Challenge project into four “enabling” components to address change in four deployment districts or neighborhoods. 

  1. Residential District — The focus of the technology deployments is on reducing infant mortality. 
  2. Downtown District — The attention is on the environment and preventing unwanted emissions in this dense urban zone. 
  3. Commercial District — Connecting employers to employees is the driver. This promotes both opportunity for employment as well as further economic development options. 
  4. Freight District — The goal is on safety and economic development. Moving freight goods from the airport to a distribution center quickly and efficiently will revitalize economic growth within the distribution service industry.

In addition, Columbus plans to enhance the lives of low-income, cash-based households by deploying dual-chip card technologies to give these households access to car and ridesharing services as well as traditional transit systems. They will also be able to use the card to pay health care providers, and it will link to other City of Columbus services.

Q. What kinds of technology will Columbus, Ohio deploy?

A. To provide the overall connectivity — connecting traffic signals to a common Traffic Management Center (TMC) and using the fiber backbone to capture and connect vehicles via V2I to the TMC — Columbus will deploy: 

  • Connected Vehicle technologies
  • Wi-Fi access points 
  • Smart street lights
  • Smart parking system
  • Autonomous Vehicle shuttles
  • Integrated multi-modal fare cards and smartphone applications
  • Truck platooning, routing and parking solutions 
  • Integrated data exchange 

Across the four districts, Columbus is planning on 11 unique technology deployments ranging from smart street lights that provide free Wi-Fi to fully autonomous transit vehicles that are providing first-mile/last-mile connectivity to an existing Bus Rapid Transit line. 

More than 170 signalized intersections and 3,000 vehicles will be equipped with Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) equipment enabling both V2V and V2I communications. 

Truck platooning is being deployed to improve the movement of goods from a regional freight airport to distribution centers, while parking systems are being deployed to assist both visitors and residents in finding parking spaces in the downtown area.

Q. How do cities start to make the necessary changes?

A. As I mentioned originally, smart cities need to elect passionate and engaged leaders; start establishing public and private partnerships; analyze technology readiness and develop a technology policy, process and planning; and incorporate technology and innovation to improve connectivity.

Then, to be truly smart, you need to stop working on problems in isolation and begin to strategize how transportation assets and technologies can help solve societal issues. This will lead to engagement outside of the transportation sector, bringing additional resources and innovation to the challenge. Now that’s smart.

Transportation Technology Program Lead