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The City Of The Future Is In Ohio

Self-driving shuttles, super-smart buses, an independent payment network, and more: Welcome to the Great Columbus Experiment.

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In some ways, Columbus is the every-city. It’s at the very center of a state known as the "heart" of America. It is not home to the country’s technological nexus, like San Francisco. It’s not a creative hub the way Portland is. It’s not hosting a thriving experiment in the marijuana industry, like Denver.

Yet Columbus managed to beat out all of these cities—and some 80 others—to win an enormous amount of money that will help it shape itself into something else: the first truly "smart" city. After more than a year of work, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Columbus would receive $140 million in cash, resources, and research to develop a series of transportation technologies.

The idea? Turn Columbus into a living laboratory, establishing a set of "best practices" that any other city could look at and learn from. Refreshingly, that doesn’t mean installing surveillance tech in every street lamp or giving every resident a self-driving car. Instead, Columbus proposed a series of surgical interventions aimed at improving how the city serves impoverished or disconnected neighborhoods over the next four years, which is the official length of the DOT grant.

For example, take the neighborhood Linden: In addition to high incarceration rates, low employment rates, and extraordinarily high infant mortality rates, it’s also cut off from good public transportation. It’s an area where not having a car—many Linden residents don’t—is a major deterrent to employment and medical care. What about Uber, you ask? Many drivers avoid the area. And besides, many residents don’t use debit or credit cards, which makes many modern ride-sharing services irrelevant.

So Columbus proposes creating either a card or an app that will allow anyone to call a ride-share service or get on the bus by adding cash to their account at one of many kiosks. Information about these kiosks, and the system, are still sparse, but at least one partner company in the challenge has experience with these systems. (Google’s Sidewalk Labs is part of a group of investors that own Intersection, the company that developed the Link NYC Wi-Fi and information kiosks that are now being installed around New York City. That said, Sidewalk Labs declined to comment on the specifics of its involvement in the challenge.)

For the many Linden residents who don’t live close enough to a bus stop, the city wants to use autonomous vehicles to complete the "last mile" of their commute. Get off the bus, and get on an autonomous shuttle that gets you closer to your actual home. Local Motors, the open-source vehicle design company, has reportedly offered to supply the shuttles; just last week it debuted Olli, a self-driving electric shuttle powered by IBM’s Watson. Columbus has said it will establish three fixed routes in the city using these self-driving shuttles, too.

The city also plans to start testing "platooning" technology for its freight industry—after all, this is the heartland—where trucks drive in closely choreographed groups to reduce drag and emissions. Columbus additionally wants to dramatically reduce accidents and drop the crash rate by 15% in the next 20 years. It will install city buses with a technology called Mobileye Shield +, a camera and screen interface that helps detect pedestrians and cyclists who might not be visible to bus drivers. The city has also rounded up agreements from many CEOs in the region who have agreed to switch to electric vehicles and install charging stations at their locations.

"For a while, we’ve been wandering in the wilderness" when it comes to transportation infrastructure in America, said U.S. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx on a call yesterday, referencing crumbling infrastructure and the struggle to bring transportation equity to those in need. President Obama has made moves to change that—and with competitions like the challenge, could leave a lasting mark on American cities.

Still, none of this really explains why Columbus won out over its competition. But look at the numbers: The DOT was originally offering $40 million to the winner. Paul Allen’s sustainability focused company Vulcan pledged another $10 million. But as part of its proposal, Columbus raised $90 million from businesses, local agencies, and investors for the project. During a briefing, Mayor Andrew Ginther pointed out that their approach to public-private partnerships is already an example of best practices for other cities.

Columbus's list of partners is extraordinarily long—both from local businesses and national companies such as Amazon Web Services, Lyft, GM, the chipmaker NXP, Sidewalk Labs, and AT&T. It’s a sign both that the city of the future will be underwritten by an array of diverse commercial interests—and that tech companies are well on their way to becoming stakeholders in the urban planning process.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t the first time Columbus has become a testing ground for radical urban engineering, either. In the 1900s, it was here that a group of MIT engineers developed the first modern water treatment plant, stamping out typhoid and other diseases. It was quickly adopted around the world—and became known as "the Great Columbus Experiment." One hundred years later, it's getting a redux.

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