Aug 11 2020

How Columbus Is Evolving Its Smart Mobility Program

The Ohio city is launching new pilot projects aimed at enhancing mobility near bus stops, driver safety and access to food during the pandemic.

For the past several years, Columbus, Ohio, has been on the leading edge of smart city technology as it has worked to turn its vision into reality since winning the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge in 2016. Now, those efforts are moving into a new phase with the launch of several new pilots as the city and its partners assess what has worked so far — and what has not.

In late July, Columbus announced three new smart mobility pilot projects that will be funded by the $40 million grant the city received from the U.S. DOT. The pilots focus on different aspects of mobility, helping residents to and from bus stops, using connected vehicle technology and wireless networking to provide real-time safety alerts to drivers, and using a self-driving shuttle to deliver prepackaged food boxes to residents.

The pilot projects will run through March 2021 and the results will be reported to the U.S. DOT and published on the Smart Columbus website in May 2021. The pilots’ success will be judged on a variety of factors, including technical data and survey feedback provided by residents, according to the city’s announcement.

“Data captured by the pilots will be free of personally identifiable information and will be ingested into the Smart Columbus Operating System to inform future Smart City work locally and beyond,” the city notes. The Smart Columbus OS serves as an open data platform that combines public- and private-sector mobility data.

“Columbus won the Smart City Challenge because we had the vision and ambition to try new mobility technologies in a neighborhood to address the daily challenges residents face,” Mayor Andrew Ginther said in a statement. “Today, that vision comes to life.”

As StateScoop reports, all three pilots “will be assisted by Smart Columbus, a regional partnership between the City of Columbus and Columbus Partnership, a regional business coalition, that has helped the region expand mobility efforts with electric vehicle and micro-transit initiatives.”

New Smart Mobility Pilots Get Off the Ground

The first new pilot, known as the Smart Mobility Hub, is designed to help address the problem of bus stops being too far away for some residents.

“While micro forms of transportation to address this issue exist, they are not centralized at convenient access points,” the city notes in its release. “Smart Mobility Hubs were created to aggregate multi-modal first mile/last mile solutions at accessible locations throughout the community to make traveling easier and more affordable.”

Smart Mobility Hubs will provide residents with a number of different transportation options in one place and give users, via an interactive digital kiosk, access to Wi-Fi, emergency calling, social services maps and a comprehensive trip planning and payment service. Those transportation options include CoGo conventional and e-bikes, scooter charging docks and parking, electric vehicle charging, ride-hailing pickup and drop-off points, and dockless scooter, bike and car-sharing parking.

Smart Mobility Hubs are now open at several locations in the city, including Columbus State Community College, Linden Transit Center, St. Stephen’s Community House, the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Linden Branch, COTA’s Northern Lights Park & Ride and Easton Transit Center.

In another pilot project, Smart Columbus is seeking 500 community volunteers to have connected vehicle technology placed in their personal cars. “The equipment will provide real-time safety alerts intended to help drivers make more informed decisions while en-route to their destination,” the city notes.

The city will conduct a seven-month study to look specifically at anonymous data collected from vehicles traveling along Cleveland Avenue between 2nd Avenue and Morse Road, High Street between 5th Avenue and Morse Road, and Morse Road between High Street and Stygler Avenue.

The project, which uses technology from Siemens Mobility, uses roadside units to provide vehicles with time-critical data, such as signal phases and timing. Additional information is transmitted from a traffic management center via 4G LTE wireless networks to the cars.

The new pilots are part of an evolving smart mobility program in Columbus that is still trying to determine what works best for residents. “Have we figured out how all these technologies actually impact peoples’ quality of life on a day-to-day basis? I think we’re still figuring that out,” Jordan Davis, Smart Columbus director for the Columbus Partnership, tells Route 50.

“I think we’ve kind of gotten through the hype curve on some of this and now we’re iterating to think, okay, ‘The technology is good, the promise is right, we’re not there yet, but how else can we use it to bring about incremental change,’” she adds.

MORE FROM STATETECH: See how edge computing helps smart cities with data collection and processing.

Columbus Reassigns Autonomous Shuttle to Deliver Groceries 

Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager with the city, told Route 50 in July that most of the city’s smart mobility projects in the South Linden neighborhood had yet to deploy. The city has emphasized that it wants “emerging transportation technology to solve some of the problems faced by lower-income residents,” in the neighborhood, Route 50 reports.

Earlier this year, Columbus planned to launch another 2.7-mile shuttle route in the Linden neighborhood to help connect citizens to the area’s transit center and a community center that offers healthcare and other services.

Linden Leap

Columbus has tasked its autonomous shuttle with delivering groceries to residents amid the pandemic. Source: City of Columbus, Ohio

Now, the LEAP shuttle is being recommissioned to transport prepackaged food boxes from St. Stephen’s Food and Nutrition Center to the Rosewind Community Center in the neighborhood. A trained operator will be on board, but riders will not be permitted due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

Since the pandemic started, St. Stephen’s Community House in Linden has seen requests for food support skyrocket. In April alone, its food pantry served 959 new households, a 461 percent increase over the same time last year, according to the city. Families can meet the LEAP to receive a full box of food containing grains, meat, shelf-stable foods, fresh vegetables, fruit and dairy.

“These mobility pilots in Linden will bring food to neighbors in need, connect residents to reliable and affordable mobility options, and help vehicles travel through the neighborhood more safely,” Ginther said in a statement. “I invite Linden to try the services we’ve designed for and with you, and to share your experiences, so that these technologies can help neighborhoods like yours throughout our community and the country.”

The city does not have data to show that its mobility programs have had a measurable impact on the Linden neighborhood or that it has improved residents’ ability to get to and from work, Route 50 notes.

“Because that’s not true,” Bishop says. “What we really focused on was deploying technology to get a sense of how it could impact people’s lives, and then ultimately help shape policy and investment down the road.”

READ MORE: Dive deeper into Columbus's smart city journey. 

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