Smart Columbus Getting Closer to Roll Out

     It’s been nearly two years since Columbus won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge, beating out some 77 other cities across the U.S. to win $40 million in federal funding to create a smart transportation system, and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. to reduce carbon fuel consumption and greenhouse gases.  Additional private investment has increased the project’s total funding to some $500 million.

     The goal is a smart transportation system that will not only transform Columbus itself but thrust the city into the limelight and serve as a model for other smart cities across the United States.

     About a dozen Central Ohio IFMA Chapter members turned out on Tuesday, May 7, 2018, to get an update on the project.  Mandy Bishop, Program Director for Smart Columbus, spoke to members about the focus of the project, its goals, and what development has been completed to date. 

     “I thought I was coming into a transportation program,” said Bishop who joined Smart Columbus almost a year ago.  “But I was really coming into a technology program.”

     In December of 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched its first-ever Smart City Challenge, asking mid-sized cities across America to develop ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.  Some 78 cities across the U.S. submitted applications – Columbus among them.  On March 12, 2016, seven finalists were announced.  Columbus was joined by Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco in vying for the award. 

     In June, Columbus learned it was chosen as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. Columbus was selected as the sole recipient of the funding windfall “because it put forward an impressive holistic vision for how technology can help all of the city’s residents to move more easily and to access opportunity,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation media release at the time.

     With the deployment of its plan, the City of Columbus hopes to provide increased safety, easier access to mobility options, ladders of opportunity, and a decrease in impact on the climate.  Through enabling technologies, its vision is to allow for greater access to jobs, provide smarter logistics, connect residents in Columbus, connect visitors to Columbus, and pave the way to sustainable transportation with little to no impact on the environment. 

     Projects included in the deployment are upgraded traffic signals that are both integrated and smart; an integrated data exchange that will help people find parking spaces easier and measure the effectiveness of traffic changes on traffic flow; provide for enhanced human services through new apps for smartphone users; and build an electrical vehicle infrastructure for easier and more convenient charging of electric cars. 

     Smart Columbus has been busy. 

     The project first focused on a total of three areas.  But since a reevaluation in 2017, Smart Columbus has now expanded its focus to nine projects in three areas – all built on an open-source platform designed to be both scalable and transferable.

      Considerable progress has been made in the development of connected vehicle technology, which will aid in reducing accidents in corridors that have been identified as problematic.  Safety applications will be installed in a number of vehicles including busses, emergency vehicles, city and partner fleet vehicles, and more in order to ensure safe and efficient passage through 17 identified high crash intersections. 

     Smart Columbus also continues work on a multimodal trip planning application meant to give residents and visitors sort of “one-stop-shopping” when planning for a seamless trip involving multiple modes of transportation – and even paying for it.  Imagine leaving home via an “Uber-esque” type of transportation, hopping on a bus, and finally finishing up with a short bike ride to your destination.  All modes of transportation including planning and payment would be available to the public through a smartphone application, making scheduling a trip downtown easy and accessible. 

     “It’s viewing mobility as a service,” said Bishop. 

     Smart Columbus plans also include traveling kiosks with maps and payment options in order to easily plan for and pay for trips at any point along the way.  Construction is slated for next year.

     Mobility assistance is also a very important part of the Smart Columbus plan, providing independence to residents with cognitive disabilities.  Currently, handicapped travelers must qualify for special services in accordance with federal law, or they must be sufficiently independent to use current public transportation without any additional services or assistance.  Smart Columbus is working to empower residents with cognitive disabilities to be able to plan for their own transportation more independently. 

     One of the original focuses of the plan (in its application to the U.S. Department of Transportation) was to give pregnant women better access to prenatal care, women who might otherwise not have sufficient transportation to reach that care whether its paid or free.  This was a major focus in Columbus’ application for the funding because the city has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the U.S.  In fact, it is four times the national average, said Bishop.  Current non-emergency medical transportation provided in Columbus is not always reliable – particularly in the Linden area.  Because prenatal medical visits have a significant impact on the health of an unborn baby and its ability to thrive outside the womb, Smart Columbus has had a particular focus to improve this type of transportation. 

     Event parking is yet another focus of the Smart Columbus plan.  Anyone who has ever attended an event in Downtown Columbus knows that parking quickly and efficiently can be a challenge.  The City of Columbus lacks an integrated system for residents and visitors to view available parking spaces in garages, services lots, or on-street at parking meters – especially for large events.  Smart Columbus is developing a system to do just that with real-time maps that allow for research, planning and parking space reservation.  Not only will it make finding a parking space for an event easier and more efficient, it will help to cut down on excessive vehicle emissions often produced while looking for that perfect parking spot. 

     A number of very innovative ideas have also resulted during the Smart Columbus project.  A plan for connected electric autonomous vehicles could help alleviate congestion in areas like Easton, and provide for more accessibility for those who rely on public transportation to get there.  Most buses that travel to Easton do not reach all areas leaving passengers with long walking distances once there.  Autonomous electric vehicles could provide that transportation once a rider gets off the bus, making Easton more accessible to those relying on public transportation.  The goal is also to encourage traveling visitors to “park once” thus reducing traffic congestion. 

     Truck platooning is a phrase new to the transportation arena.  The practice uses wireless communication between two transportation vehicles allowing for one truck to closely (30-feet), but safely, travel behind another truck thus reducing wind drag, fuel consumption, and vehicle emissions.  The innovative practice became a focus of Smart Columbus because the area ranks as the 10th most active logistics hub in the U.S. due to activity at Rickenbacker International Airport, the Rickenbacker Intermodal Terminal, and Rickenbacker Logistics Park.  The practice was demo’d in Denver, Colorado, with sizable success. 

     Considerable effort is also being made to increase electric vehicle recharging stations, making personal electric transportation easier and more accessible throughout the Columbus Metro area.

     Since August of 2016, Smart Columbus has been in planning mode, but is currently transitioning into development and demonstration (by 2020).  Everyone is ready to see some real results.  But Bishop was quick to point out that the documentation, although not as glamorous, is equally important -- and maybe even more so.

     “The documentation is very important so that others can do what we are doing too,” Bishop told Central Ohio IFMA Chapter members attending the update.  “We need to justify development and functionality through documentation,” she continued, in order to prove that these innovative systems will work in other areas across the U.S. 

     And that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Transportation was looking for when it named the City of Columbus as the sole winner of the Smart Cities Challenge. 

     For more information and to stay informed about Smart City Columbus, you can subscribe to its newsletter by emailing 


(Note – Central Ohio’s IFMA May event was held at Fintech71, a non-profit startup accelerator and innovative outpost for the top financial services companies in the U.S.  Located in Downtown Columbus, the accelerator focuses on growing entrepreneurial activity, attracting more Fintech companies to Ohio, and expanding the innovation pipeline for current private-sector stakeholders including Ohio’s strong financial services base and Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies headquartered in the state.  Power Connect provided refreshments afterward.)