April Tech Updates
- Author: Kevin Chambers
- Date: April 27, 2023
It’s been a busy month in the world of mobility and technology: several big transit agencies announcing big plans on…
by Chris Zeilinger, Community Transportation Assn. of America
"Smart cities” seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s because no one wants to risk being labeled as having a “dumb city,” or maybe it’s because a number of large technology-sector firms are helping show that cities can do great things by harnessing technological innovation to the wagon of civic success. In any case, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has inserted itself into this movement, through such things as the Smart City Challenge initiative, the Accessible Transportation Technologies Research Initiative (ATTRI), and the Federal Transit Administration’s recent call for projects through its Mobility on Demand “Sandbox”.
In May 2016, the DOT and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America held a workshop on “The Impact of Technology on Demand-Responsive Transportation in the era of Smart Cities.” If you’ve been wondering about the future of mobility management, many of the signposts became evident in this two-day workshop.
Let’s create a frame of reference for this discussion. While there’s not yet a universally accepted definition of smart cities, it seems reasonable to say that a smart city aims for improved quality of life through the use of technology to address the efficiency of city services and to address the responsiveness of the city to its residents’ needs. If you’ve taken a look at the things cities are doing to make themselves seem “smart,” you’ll see a number of efforts, including real-time information and feedback loops around a number of topics, including transit, traffic, parking, and related aspects of infrastructure; you’ll also see dynamic approaches for the city to interact with its residents across many other topics.
Some of these efforts are carried out by cities in partnership with technology firms. One example is SAP’s Innovation Network, which focuses primarily on technological solutions to traffic management. A second example is IBM’s Smarter Cities program, which emphasizes “big data” analytics and constituency interaction across the range of civic functions. Xerox’s Transportation Solutions group is touting a number of transportation-specific partnerships with cities and metropolitan areas, including their app-based trip-arranging “Go LA” and “Go Denver” platforms in southern California and the Denver area, which Xerox surely will seek to deploy in other places, once the Los Angeles and Denver sites prove their success.
These initiatives that are driven by technology firms’ innovative business lines are starting to show some impressive results, but what about public- and philanthropic-sector initiatives, and what about mobility on demand, the personalization of transportation, and other aspects of mobility management? In these, there are nuggets of promise, but also a number of cautionary notes from lessons learned along the way.
In the past decade, there have been two federal government initiatives with the specific aim of using technological innovation to spur advancement of mobility management solutions. One of these was the Mobility Services for All Americans (MSAA) initiative, which was carried out through the DOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (JPO), and the other was the Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative (VTCLI), which essentially was a program carried out by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Of course, there have been quite a few other federal efforts to promote and improve mobility management and related activities, but MSAA and VTCLI were the only such efforts aiming their sights at technological solutions.
MSAA was designed around developing, testing and refining the concept of a Travel Management Coordination Center (TMCC), envisioned as a technologically based center for connecting transportation system users with the most appropriate, available and accessible transportation options in a more streamlined, efficient manner than traditional, telephone-based call centers and information and referral services. In the first phase of MSAA, eight communities were selected to participate in the collaborative planning and design of potential TMCCs. One of these (Atlanta) withdrew from the initiative, but the other seven (Aiken SC, Camden NJ, Fitchburg MA, Kent OH, Louisville KY, Orlando FL and Paducah KY) all participated in this conceptualization effort. For the second phase of MSAA, those seven sites competed to be selected for the actual implementation and deployment of the TMCCs they’d designed. Three communities were selected for these deployments: Aiken, Camden and Paducah; the Aiken site, through which the Lower Savannah Council of Governments used MSAA to expand the scope and capacity of its aging and disabilities resource center, continues in operation to this day as its region’s Aging, Disability and Transportation Resource Center.
More recently, FTA launched a new round of MSAA project sites, with planning grants awarded to projects in Atlanta, San Luis Obispo CA, southern Wisconsin, Denver, and Long Island. Inasmuch as these grants were just announced a few months ago, it’s too soon to tell what results will arise, although the funded projects certainly have a lot of practical ingenuity to offer.
With VTCLI on the other hand, FTA took a broad-brush approach. A total of nearly 90 projects were funded, with only a few requirements, chiefly that the grants could not be used to buy vehicles or pay for the provision of transportation services, and they had to address improved transportation for veterans or military families. VTCLI grantees were encouraged to work collaboratively with local facilities of the Veterans Health Administration, to include veterans, military families and related stakeholders in the planning and development of these projects, and to identify opportunities for the employment of veterans, but these were not programmatic requirements. Although the VTCLI grant awards were made in 2011 and 2012, it wasn’t until 2015 that most of these projects became operational. On the other hand, only two of the VTCLI awards failed to be completed, which is an interesting statistical comparison to MSAA.
All of the VTCLI projects tackled real issues in improving transportation and mobility options for veterans and military families, mostly using proven strategies and off-the-shelf solutions. Some VTCLI grants, for instance, were for the construction and building-out of bricks-and-mortar facilities for housing call centers or information and referral services. The majority of VTCLI grants were used to buy on-vehicle communications equipment, hardware, software, or to upgrade existing software, or to build out websites for better informing customers of the available transportation options in their area.
However, several VTCLI projects did go the extra mile, technologically speaking, developing and deploying open-source software that not only could provide information about multiple transportation providers in a given area, but also could provide trip-arranging across these multiple providers. That may sound dull and geeky, but it’s pretty cool, and actually hard to do. Most of these more ground-breaking VTCLI projects were touched, in varying degrees, by the technology team at Cambridge Systematics . For those who want to dive directly into code, Cambridge Systematics’ work is available for free access at GitHub, but you should feel forewarned that GitHub is a location that is completely unfriendly to the casual internet user.
In the private- and philanthropic sectors of the smart cities movement, there’s not much that directly touches on anything related to mobility management. Aside from the multi-modal customer-oriented mobile data interfaces being piloted by Xerox in Los Angeles and Denver, the kinds of traveler information and trip-arranging services that would help mobility management succeed are barely at the margins of the technology sector’s interest.
In the nonprofit sector, a leading force for smart cities has been the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “Innovation Teams” program, in which 17 cities in the United States, plus two cities in Israel, are receiving multi-year, multi-million dollar grants to make themselves better through smarter infrastructure. Among all these cities, only one – Centennial CO, in the Denver suburbs – is working on traveler information choices to help its residents better understand and find the best modal choices for reaching their destinations. They’re just getting started, but as their Innovation Team’s website says, they “will initially focus on improving mobility across all modes of transportation throughout the City. Some goals the City will address include applying new technologies and creative concepts to help improve traffic flow, reduce motor vehicle traffic congestion hours and related costs, improve pedestrian and bicycle safety – such as safe routes to schools – and so much more.”
As for the public sector, all eyes are on the prize of the DOT’s Smart Cities Challenge, which was recently awarded to the city of Columbus, OH. Columbus will receive $40 million of federal funding, plus $10 million in private sector funding, to carry out its winning vision of how to fully integrate a range of technologies into a multimodal modal of future mobility. As for the 77 cities that won’t get this big prize, their hopes are not to be dashed. Not only did the seven finalists (Portland, Austin, San Francisco, Denver, Columbus, Pittsburgh) receive small grants from DOT to help them flesh out the unique visions of how to make their own cities smarter, but Sidewalk Labs, an affiliate of Google, has recently teamed up with Transportation for America to help all the Smart Cities applicants develop and implement portions of their own Smart City visions.
Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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