Nov 02 2022

Street Smarts: Jacksonville Forges a High-Tech Future in Mass Transit

The Florida city’s public transportation plans include a cutting-edge autonomous vehicle system.

Roughly two years after Nathaniel Ford became Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO in 2012, JTA launched what Ford refers to as “a very aggressive approach related to technology.”

The effort, part of a widespread route optimization initiative, corresponded to a separate challenge Ford was facing — encouraging ridership in a city where, unlike some of the other municipalities he’d worked in, public transit wasn’t always residents’ top choice.

“We have a very well-developed highway network here; commuting to and from work is rather easy and comfortable,” he says. “There's also the cultural issue of, historically, people would feel a certain amount of life achievement by owning a car versus using public transportation. My focus here is growing a system, pulling in stakeholders who may not support public transportation in the same way they do in San Francisco or New York — helping them understand the value.”

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JTA Implemented Fleet Management and Public Wi-Fi

The independent state agency has made a number of technological and other changes to enhance its transit options in recent years, including removing nearly 20 percent of its bus stops, which Ford says were making trips lag. JTA also launched the First Coast Flyer rapid transit bus network in 2015, which spans 58 miles and connects with traffic signals via fiber-optic cable.

“The bus has signal priority technology that actually tells the traffic signal to remain green,” Ford says. “So, we get an advantage going through the intersection. We have dedicated lanes that allow us to travel around traffic.”

JTA has outfitted its bus fleet with GPS devices and Wi-Fi, which lets riders connect to the internet and allows the agency to send vehicle condition data to its maintenance facility. Passengers can access real-time bus arrival information through an application, website or via digital signage at stops.

The agency is also considering adding Wi-Fi hotspots to some of its bus stops and larger transportation hubs, Ford says, as a further incentive to use the system.

“Passengers really need to know exactly when that bus is leaving and when it's going to arrive at that bus stop for them to utilize it,” he says. “They’re not going to stand and look down the street, waiting for a bus to come.”

Jacksonville has otherwise augmented its fleet of transit vehicles by adding zero-emission electric golf carts, which Ford says can navigate the city’s beachfront area more easily than a 40-foot bus, and ReadiRide, an on-call service provided by a private vendor that takes passengers from their doorstep to their destination within 15 zones.

EXPLORE: How Coral Gables, Florida is growing as a smart city.

Autonomous Vehicles to Link with Existing Infrastructure

Currently, Jacksonville is also updating its 2.5-mile, five-station elevated Skyway monorail system, which has been in use since 1989, as part of the city’s Ultimate Urban Circulator project, known as U2C.

In the first phase of the project, autonomous vehicles are slated to be put into use in a transit corridor that runs from the existing Skyway Central Station eastward to city’s sports and entertainment district. Phase two encompasses the Skyway’s full conversion into an elevated autonomous shuttle roadway.

“We have this monorail system in downtown Jacksonville that’s past its useful life,” Ford says. “We could have rebuilt the existing system, refurbished it, but we really looked at how we could leverage autonomous vehicles to not only upgrade the system, but expand it from 2.5 miles to a 10-mile system.”

The project is being paid for in part by a U.S. Department of Transportation grant, says Jeff Sheffield, executive director at the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, an independent regional agency that helps manage funding for such projects. TPO fills a federal government requirement that areas with a population of 50,000 or more have a metropolitan planning organization to coordinate expenditures.

“There aren't a lot of those projects yet in the country; in fact, this is likely the largest deployment,” Sheffield says. “Generally speaking, projects of that magnitude are going to need a mix of funds to make them happen. The initial phase is close to $50 million in federal funds through a grant; the Skyway component to it is predominantly through a local-option gas tax.”

Ford says JTA may eventually explore ways to help monetize the vehicles’ use.

“We are contemplating that going into the future,” he says. “Obviously, advertising is the low-hanging fruit; but there are opportunities to support special events because the programming of those vehicles allows us to be much more flexible in terms of origins and destinations.”

Clayton Levins
The smart technology space for communities — the startup sector, in particular — is becoming more robust,” Levins says. “It's allowing them to tackle problems in new, cost-effective ways that let smaller cities participate in the smart city movement.”

Clayton Levins Executive Director, Smart North Florida

Jacksonville to Extend Lessons Learned to Local Districts 

JTA has been testing autonomous options for several years, including in a 2020 initiative that involved several self-driving vehicles used to transport COVID-19 testing materials from a drive-thru site to a laboratory for processing about a half mile away on the Mayo Clinic’s campus. The vehicles were monitored by external support staff with access to a wireless stop function.

“The autonomous vehicle technology is still growing,” Sheffield says. “The JTA has been very active in that space, very successful in securing funding to become one of the faces of the modernization of that technology. The partnerships that exist — public sector, private sector, chamber and others — are what allow a lot of these types of projects to move forward.”

Transportation and transit are, in fact, top tech deployment priorities within Jacksonville’s general area, according to Clayton Levins, executive director of Smart North Florida, a nonprofit organization that works to enable data sharing and smart tech implementation.

“The smart technology space for communities — the startup sector, in particular — is becoming more robust,” Levins says. “It's allowing them to tackle problems in new, cost-effective ways that let smaller cities participate in the smart city movement.”

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To help facilitate more widespread tech implementation and use, Jacksonville’s transit system hopes to work with neighboring counties more often in the future. Its five-year strategic Move2027 plan, approved by its board of directors in July, outlines the agency’s intent to evolve into a truly regional transportation authority, Ford says.

Currently, JTA offers transit assistance and options in some adjacent areas, including Clay County, Fla., where it provides, through a partnership, shuttles and a service that will pick people up who are three-fourths of a mile or more away from a stop.

“If there's an opportunity for us to also build infrastructure for our neighbors, we will consider that,” Ford says. “We are looking at commuter rails from St. Augustine to downtown Jacksonville. We are also looking at how we can utilize the St. Johns River for passenger service and commuter ferries — an electric ferry that may also be autonomous is not off the table.”

“We’re looking to grow and expand throughout Northeast Florida,” he adds. “We’ve started that journey over the past few years.”

Susanne Neumann/Getty Images

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