How to Create Effective Smart Mobility Project
In November 2020, voters in Austin, Texas, approved a $7 billion bond measure to transit-growing metro region. Christina Willingham, manager of the smart mobility office for Austin, noted that the city adds an average of 184 residents per day and that the measure, which will fund light rail and rapid rail lines, is designed to make it easier to get around amid that booming growth.
Austin has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, and Willingham said the city is also working on a smart corridor project to improve its roadways.
As Austin works to bring those projects to fruition, it is turning to public-private partnerships to test out technology tools that can help meet the city’s mobility goals. Willingham noted that her office has set up a portal to invite tech companies to submit proposals and establish pilot programs to test their technologies on public infrastructure which the state government has encouraged.
The smart mobility office gives the companies the space to iterate and innovate, she said. However, she said the city also strongly encourages the private sector to look at smart mobility tools through an equity lens, so that the vendors can understand and articulate how their tech is impacting people on the ground.
“If they can understand how it benefits people and improves their quality of life, then it makes the technologies even better,” she said.
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Ryan Trujillo, director of support services for Colorado Springs, Colo. (one of StateTech’s smart cities to watch), said that the biggest challenge most cities face is engagement with the public on smart cities projects in general. The coronavirus pandemic has enabled many cities to make meetings and interactions with officials more accessible through virtual meeting and digital collaboration platforms.
“We see that as an opportunity to gain trust,” he said, adding that Colorado Springs is focused on “relentless engagement” with residents.
Colorado Springs, along with the neighboring municipality of Greenwood Village, Colo., plans to deploy autonomous shuttles in a pilot project next year. “We’re not doing it because they are new and sexy,” Trujillo said. The shuttles would truly solve a need for the city since it does not have a downtown “circulator” mode of public transit, and there are new developments, such as a new hockey stadium, that will increase traffic downtown.
Smart mobility solutions need to have a municipal benefit to be viable, Willingham said, pointing to pedestrian safety and traffic congestion management as key benefits. Such technologies also need to be affordable, resilient and upgradable, she noted.
Willingham pointed to a challenge program called City:One, which Austin launched in partnership with Ford, AT&T, Dell Technologies and Microsoft, as an example of supporting technologies that meet residents’ needs. One winner of the challenge offers an app that provides navigation guides for those with visual, auditory or mobility impairments. Another delivers local, healthy food to residents’ homes.
Willingham also stressed the importance of “reverse pitches,” in which cities go to companies to explain what their core issues are. “It’s important for communities to be able to talk to companies about what their needs are,” she said.