Aerial view of traffic in downtown Austin, Texas

Sep 26 2022

Q&A: Transportation Official Jason JonMichael on Why Austin Is a Smart City to Watch

Intelligent transportation systems and smart mobility pave the way for the future in the capital of Texas.

In Austin, Texas, Assistant Director of Transportation Jason JonMichael has his sights set on smart mobility.

Facing rapid population growth, Austin is pursuing a range of pilot projects in support of intelligent transportation systems and infrastructure. The city is leveraging video analytics, sensors, hardware and software to address its most pressing transportation challenges.

These are some reasons why Austin was named a StateTech Smart City to Watch in 2022.

StateTech talked to JonMichael about the city’s efforts and the role that technology can play in delivering smart transit solutions.

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STATETECH: Can you give us a high-level overview of Austin's smart city initiatives?

JonMichael: Heavy civil construction projects like roadways are long-range solutions; road designs today need to be relevant and still useful in 2075. From plan to operational roadway takes a considerable amount of time, so we have to improve how we manage and operate what we have. The city’s goal now is to build it with intelligence, so it can better accommodate future disruptions.

That’s where intelligent transportation systems, intelligent infrastructure and smart mobility come in.

Austin Transportation’s work with private sector partners in our public-private partnership pilot increases the city’s knowledge and experience by working directly with new technologies. Many pilots overseen by Austin Transportation’s Smart Mobility Office since its creation in 2018 are centered on pedestrians, bicyclists and other vulnerable road users.

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Most pilots include a combination of new sensing technologies at the edge, and some are enabled with artificial intelligence to support decision-making in our traffic operations, like fixed LIDAR [light detection and ranging] at crosswalks that can measure if a person will clear the intersection in time.

The city has tested other sensing solutions to better understand how small changes — like striping or dynamic illumination — can make an intersection or area safer. Parking, wayfinding and other direct customer-focused solutions have been piloted, as well multiple autonomous vehicle pilots. Right now, you can get goods and food delivered to you by an AV, or it could be an option on your next transportation network company ride.

STATETECH: What standards do you apply in setting up smart city goals, and how do you measure success?

JonMichael: The city uses existing frameworks, such as Capability Maturity Model Integration — predominately used for software development — to map and assess our current capabilities and maturity regarding whatever public need we are looking to address. That sets the baseline, against which progress is measured along the way.

The city gains a higher perspective of which public needs could be affected — positively or negatively — and other considerations for future projects and programs. The private sector partners who pilot with the city gain a better understanding of their projects’ outcomes and how their systems affect people and communities.

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STATETECH: What technologies are involved in your smart city efforts? How does Austin coordinate and deploy technologies with partners?

JonMichael: Austin Transportation has assessed, partnered and piloted with several companies working in the smart city/smart infrastructure marketplace, from infrastructure, semiconductor and sensor manufacturers to major computing brands, automakers and cloud providers.

When we innovate together toward a common municipal goal, everyone learns, and we all gain experience in how we can do better for our community.

Dell and Microsoft enable much of the computing we have in government, and Cradlepoint enables secure wireless communications for some of our pilots or tests. NVIDIA enables some of the video analytic solutions we are piloting and assessing, and Netgear and Cisco supply some of the hardware in our existing communications system. In addition to enabling government software services and support, Austin Transportation is partnering with Microsoft in a pilot to evaluate hyperlocal air quality monitoring.

Jason JonMichael
Education and experiential learning are critical to the safe adoption of anything new.”

Jason JonMichael Assistant Director of Transportation, Austin, Texas

STATETECH: What challenges have you faced in the development of smart mobility programs, and how have you addressed those? 

JonMichael: As one of the seven finalists of the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart Cities Challenge in 2015, Austin was able to start early on its smart mobility journey. The program allowed the city to identify cultural competency challenges.

Smart mobility is relatively new. Being able to share experiences and gain insights from others is important, to compare and find ways to collectively move forward as a group. Our smart mobility team contributes to many technical communities of practice, standards development organizations and other global communities regarding smart cities.

Education and experiential learning are critical to the safe adoption of anything new. Creating events and other opportunities where our community can experience new mobility in advance of or alongside its deployment is one of the ingredients in our secret sauce of safe adoption.

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STATETECH: How will technology disrupt the transportation sector in the future?

JonMichael: Electric vehicles and other alternative fuels disrupt the way governments collect taxes for our nation’s transportation system. In the foreseeable future, as the adoption of alternative, cleaner fuels increases, the way each person pays to support that system will need to change.

Vehicles are getting smarter, and roads are getting smarter; AI and automated driving will likely transform our ground mobility system for the next 70 years. I expect more iterative uses of automated driving, with a human still in the loop, as we push toward full autonomy.

New technologies require specific care and feeding, which can have a disruptive impact on the workforce at first but are a net positive on developing new skills and roadmapping the future workforce. As a new mode enters the transportation landscape, it can impact a lot of other municipal services. You need to have cultural competency among your policymakers, city management and staff.

STATETECH: What are some future milestones for smart mobility in Austin?

JonMichael: We are at almost double the national average rate of electric vehicle adoption. This wouldn’t be possible if not for the great leadership at Austin Energy. In addition to getting the city moving on charging stations, Austin Energy goes the extra distance with incentives and is a trusted adviser to EV buyers, dealers and salespeople, for both cars and e-bikes.

Our region is about to take on some major transportation investments. Our new transit program, Project Connect, will deploy light rail and more bus rapid transit on more dedicated lanes to be more competitive, timewise, with driving. Texas Department of Transportation will redesign and reconstruct the downtown section of I-35 through Austin.

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Add in the normal building development happening because of our growth, one can infer the need for even more decision support systems, more sensing and more wayfinding solutions to help Austinites and our visitors get around.

We're seeing a trend for more electric vehicle types — like scooters, but larger. Scooters were meant to get people out of their cars, but there are more vehicle types available. All-electric micro EVs can take you, your family and friends farther, keep you comfy and dry, and four or five of them can fit in a current 40-foot parking space in downtown Austin.

The ability to utilize what limited space we have in mobility, to move more people through more modes, is the largest trend that I've ever seen in my 30 years in transportation technology. But we must keep up the momentum to have a sustainable future, a healthy planet with healthy people, something bigger than all of us that we can all be proud of.

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