From self driving cars to streetlight sensors, we highlight some of the grand ideas for urban transportation from cities across the US
Columbus, Ohio, is a mid-size city known primarily as the home of Ohio State University, not as a hub of cutting edge technology for public transportation. But that is exactly what this city of 790,000 people ≈ population of Riga, capital city of Latvia
“>[≈ population of Djibouti, nation] plans to be.
By 2019, residents of Columbus could see autonomous shuttles cruising the Easton commercial district, motion-sensitive LED streetlights that also provide free Wi-Fi internet to the residential neighborhood of Linden, and 175 smart traffic signals that aim to ease traffic jams and speed first-responders’ paths through the city. Residents will also be able to use one app to plan and pay for trips that require multiple types of public transportation.
Columbus’s smart city evolution is taking shape thanks to $40m ≈ Health industry 2011 political donations”>[≈ Electronics/communication industry 2011 political donations] in federal funds the city recently won as part of the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. The challenge drew applications from 78 cities.
The competition pushed cities to consider transforming their entire transit system, instead of doing so in the piecemeal fashion that typically characterizes city planning. It also provided an opportunity for city officials to see the technology that is available or under development, and share obstacles they face with their fellow urban planners.
Mark Dowd, a deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Transportation, said that the competition gave city planners an opportunity to work with technology developers and figure out a blend of technologies that suit their specific needs.
“Automated vehicles are often described as linear projects,” Dowd said. “[But] how does automation work with the sharing economy, [or] with low carbon alternatives?”
The applications say a lot about the key trends and challenges for smart transportation. Here, we explore four leading technologies that could radically change our daily commute.
Robots on wheels
The world is waiting eagerly for the arrival of autonomous cars – and with good reason. Self-driving vehicles, from standard four-passenger cars to shuttles to jitneys, could reinvent how people live and travel around cities. They could also prompt cities to reconsider whether they even need parking spots.
San Francisco, one of the seven Smart City Challenge finalists, proposes running a fleet of autonomous vehicles to carry people between their homes and transit hubs. Across the bay, the Contra Costa Transit Authority in Contra Costa County, California, has begun testing what it calls Shared Driverless Vehicles, which are six-seat autonomous buses that chart their routes with GPS and mapping software and avoid collisions by using data from sensors embedded in the buses.
But, while autonomous vehicles offer great public benefits, they could also create unintended consequences, warned Amanda Eaken, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s transportation and climate program. People could end up preferring self-driving cars over buses and trains, leading to more cars clogging the city streets, she said.
Research suggests autonomous vehicles – if city transit agencies implement them thoughtfully – could reduce the number of miles vehicles travel by as much as 90%, Eaken said. But the US Department of Energy warns it could also lead to a 200% increase in miles traveled as people take advantage of the convenience by traveling farther and more frequently. And those vehicles would need to travel somewhere to park after depositing their passengers.
“You thought it couldn’t get worse than single-occupancy vehicles,” Eaken said. “But imagine zero-occupancy vehicles circling the streets.”
High price and safety concerns are among the biggest roadblocks holding back the use of autonomous cars. Tyler Duvall, a partner at analyst firm McKinsey & Company, explained that while enclosed, low-density places such as mining operations are already using huge, fully autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars are unlikely to hit city streets en masse until government regulations are in place to answer thorny questions, like who is responsible for collisions – humans, or the cars? Reports of collisions involving autonomous cars by Google and the fatal crash of a Tesla car using its autopilot feature earlier this year are raising fresh concerns about whether ceding driving to computers is safe.
Autonomous technology isn’t the only good option for improving public transportation. Smart can also be simple: cities can do significantly more to encourage non-car transportation, particularly through easy bike sharing, more connected transit hubs and even working with existing ride-hailing services such as Uber or Lyft.
Electronic eyes: a network of sensors
There is no technology more critical to smart cities than sensors. Autonomous vehicles won’t work without sensors, particularly ones that monitor and track a vehicle’s position relative to other vehicles on the road. Sensors also allow autonomous cars to spot humans and other hazards.
Sensors embedded into roads, traffic signs and other places throughout a city can collect massive amounts of data and provide information that can be used to allow people to plan their trips. For example, a network of sensors can tell riders when their next bus is coming, or keep track of the number of shared bikes at any docking station. Sensors can also help manage traffic flow by adjusting the length and frequency of traffic signals, or dim streetlights when no one is around. Sensors can even pick up acoustic signals and triangulate the location of gunfire.
Some cities already put sensors to good use, tracking public buses as they move between stops. In cities such as Las Vegas and Farmington Hills, Michigan, sensors built into streetlights allow them to brighten or dim and monitor air quality.
Sensors are expensive, but their prices will fall when demand for them increases. Traffic signals with built-in sensors can reduce congestion by as much as 20%, according to McKinsey, but they also can cost as much as $100,000 ≈ cost of Porsche 911″>[≈ Small rural house, 2011] per signal to implement. It cost Los Angeles more than $400m [≈ 2008 presidential election contributions to John McCain] to install smart signals that synchronize its 4,500 traffic lights in 2013, a time and money intensive project to tackle gridlock.
As with location services on smartphones, sensors come with privacy concerns. When Las Vegas planned to install smart LED lights downtown, privacy advocatesvoiced alarm over the lights’ potential to record audio and video despite assurances from city officials that those features weren’t included.
Making data more accessible
Analyzing and storing the enormous amount of data – and making it accessible to the public – poses a significant challenge for transportation planners, said Bettina Tratz-Ryan, a research vice president at market research firm, Gartner.
As the winner of the Smart City Challenge, Columbus will get to use 100 kiosks created by Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to manage and supply data.
The kiosks offer information about traffic and public transit services via free internet access, and they come with charging ports for USB devices. Their presence makes data accessible to those without access to mobile phones or internet at home.
New York City has already rolled out a number of similar interactive kiosks in the city as part of its LinkNYC program, which replaces phone booths. However, the program has drawn criticism over the kind of data it collects from users. (The kiosks ask users to submit their email address before connecting them to the free WiFi.)
Making payment painless
Perhaps the most mundane but critically important aspect of smart transportation technologies has to do with trip payments. Convenient payment systems help people travel without delays, especially when they embark on multi-leg trips that require different payment methods. For example, you use your phone to hail a taxi or rent a car by the hour to get to a subway station, where you will have to dig out cash or credit card to pay for the train.
San Francisco and Portland both plan to roll out transportation apps. Portland’s UBMobilePDX, for example, gives commuters a range of options, including public transit, parking lots, biking and walking routes, and services for sharing rides, cars and bikes. The app also shows the cost, speed, safety and environmental impact of each option.
Some cities like Los Angeles and London already make use of mobile apps to make trip payments easy – at least for those with smartphones. Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency created an app that allows riders to pay for bus fares using their mobile devices. The city wants to expand the app to include the ability to pay for trips on other regional public transit systems.