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Columbus' Smart City Challenge Ends With Successes And Shortfalls

Smart Columbus self-driving vehicles were used in Linden.
Smart Columbus
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Smart Columbus planned to use self-driving shuttles in Linden but the plan was halted after two weeks when a passenger was injured. The shuttles were then used to transport meals and face masks during the pandemic.

Columbus city leaders and local researchers are touting the benefits of the Smart City Challenge, an effort to make technological advances in transportation.

While there were some gains made in the now-expired five-year effort, there were also some failures.

“Every technology demonstration that Smart Columbus pursued, whether it was autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, electric vehicles, charging infrastructure or share mobility navigation tools, it was deployed with the prosperity of our city in mind, and equity in particular in mind,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.

Columbus’ Smart City initiative started in 2016, after the city won a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and a $10 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. City, county and state contributions totaled $19 million.

Among the successes touted in a new report on Smart City include:

  • The Linden LEAP -- the nation’s first daily-operating public self-driving shuttle in a residential area, which transported nearly 130,000 meals and 15,000 masks from St. Stephen’s Community House to neighbors in need during the pandemic.

  • Pregnant individuals in the Smart Columbus prenatal trip assistance evaluation project who were randomly assigned to receive enhanced smart transportation services took more trips to medical appointments compared to those randomly assigned to continue to receive standard transportation benefits provided by Medicaid managed care organizations.

  • More than 1,000 vehicles participated in a “connected vehicle environment” where vehicles could “talk” to each other and to 85 intersections, seven of them with the highest crash rates in central Ohio. More than 200 of those vehicle owners have since removed the equipment.

  • The Ohio State University calculated that investments from the implementation of the USDOT award generated an estimated gross metropolitan product of $173.39 million and generated or induced 2,366 jobs.

But there were some shortfalls. Only a little over 1,000 people downloaded the Pivot mobile app, which sought to integrate the schedules and payment systems of public transportation methods like buses, scooters and taxis. Fewer than 500 trips were scheduled on the app.

The project also had to scrap plans for a self-driving shuttle linking Linden with the Easton area. It was determined to be too slow to safely cross Morse Road.

The Linden LEAP shuttle, which briefly ferried passengers around the north Columbus neighborhood, was halted in February 2020 two weeks after its launch when a sudden unexpected stop tossed passengers around the vehicle. When the shuttle resumed, it carried only meals and not people.

Smart Columbus also saw little interest in and eventually pivoted away from efforts to increase “platoon trucking,” which links two or more trucks using connective technology.

“What we committed to do was become the country’s laboratory for mobility and mobility options, particularly with an equity lens,” Ginther said. “So we knew we were going to try lots of things that were not going to work. Our goal and mission and vision was to fail fast, learn and improve and enhance mobility options for folks throughout the community.”

While the Smart City Challenge is over, Ginther said Smart Columbus will live on “as an agile, collaborative innovation lab that benefits the Columbus Region by anticipating and advancing what is new and next at the intersection of technology and community good.”