Smart City Plan: Columbus, Ohio

US DOT’s Smart City Challenge aims to help cities begin to address the challenges the trends identified in the Beyond Traffic report published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. Department of Transportation, n.d.). As part of the challenge, 78 medium-sized cities shared their best and most creative ideas for innovatively addressing the challenges they face. USDOT committed $40 million for one city to demonstrate how advanced data and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies and applications can be used to reduce congestion, keep travellers safe, protect the environment, respond to climate change, connect underserved communities, and support economic vitality (U.S. Department of Transportation, n.d.). In June 2016, Columbus was selected as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. Columbus proposed to reshape its transportation system to become part of a fully integrated city that leverages data and technology with an aim of efficiently moving people and good (U.S. Department of Transportation, n.d.). The 77 cities that did not win the Smart City Challenge benefited from the challenge as well, as the competition gave them an opportunity for creation of detailed applications that spurred additional interest in smart city technology with respect to the challenges the cities are facing (Maddox, 2016)

The Winner – Columbus, Ohio
Ohio’s capital Columbus is the largest city in the state and the 15th largest city in the country with a population of 8,60,090 (US Census, 2016). It is relatively dense for a mid-sized American city. It has a density of about 3800 inhabitants per square mile (around 1500 persons per square km). It serves as a strong regional anchor with 39% of the Metropolitan Area population living in the city. Columbus has grown consistently over time and it continues to become more diverse with growing African-American, Latino and Asian populations. The city has a young working population with a median age of 32 years which is lower than the state (39) and the nation (37) (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017) and has a lower unemployment rate of 3.4% (U.S. Census, 2015). Columbus has a strong and diverse economy, driven by education, healthcare and social assistance services. It is also the fastest growing metro area in the Midwest, the top metro for job growth in the Midwest, and the top metro for wage growth in the U.S. The city recognises these credentials and aims to leverage them to make the City of Columbus- A city of opportunities (Ginther, 2016).

“Columbus won the Smart City Challenge because of Mayor Ginther’s leadership and because the central Ohio community united to develop innovative solutions to address community challenges.” – Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Skyline of Columbus (Source: https://www.columbus.gov)

Columbus Smart City Vision
With its immense potential and resources, Columbus is striving to become a successful smart city by responding to four primary issues:

  • An aging population;
  • A growing younger population that is moving to the dense urban areas;
  • Mobility challenges in select neighbourhoods; and
  • A growing economy and population with related housing and commercial, passenger and freight, and environmental issues.

Its vision is to become a community that provides beauty, prosperity and health for all of its citizens (Ginther, 2016). It plans to achieve its vision by:

  1. Leveraging a new central connected traffic signal and integrated transportation data system to develop a suite of applications to deliver enhanced human services to residents and visitors.
  2. Integrating electronic appointments and scheduling platform for doctor visits with transit tracking so that rescheduling becomes automated and expecting mothers do not gave to wait weeks to reschedule appointments. These applications include a multi-modal trip planning application, a common payment system for all transportation modes, a smartphone application for assistance to persons with disabilities, and integration of travel options at key locations for visitors.
  3. Establishing a smart corridor connecting underserved neighbourhoods to jobs and services. The smart corridor will enhance Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service by installing smart traffic signals, smart street lighting, traveller information and payment kiosks, and free public Wi-Fi along the route. Further, six electric, accessible, autonomous vehicles will be deployed to expand the reach of the BRT system to additional retail and employment centres (U.S. Department of Transportation, n.d.).

Smart City plan for Columbus adopts Transit Oriented Development (TOD) as an approach for managing city’s transportation. Mayor Andrew J. Ginther understands the connection between city’s transportation and the livelihood of the people. He believes that “Transportation is not just about roads, transit and ride sharing. It is about how people access opportunity. And how they live”. (Smart Columbus, n.d.) Globally, many cities are appreciating and adopting TOD approach to build more liveable cities. In fact, after focused efforts to dovetail infrastructure and technology through its AMRUT and Smart Cities programs, the Government of India is now turning its attention Transit-Oriented Development  (TOD). It has also recently adopted a national TOD policy that will support the transformation process already underway in most of the Indian cities. This transformation will attract lot of  investments to the respective cities, and vastly increase their ‘liveability’ in a sustainable manner.

Highlights of the proposal
There are four foundational plans, which will allow the city to identify and overcome the challenges for achieving its desired goals (Ginther, 2016).

  1. Connect Columbus: Connect Columbus is the City’s Multimodal Thoroughfare Plan which provides a long-range vision and priority investments for transportation plan in the City. The plan aims designed to improve safety, reduce congestion, assist children, the elderly, and people with ADA needs and promote economic development, fitness and environmental responsibility.
  2. Insight 2050: Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), the metropolitan planning organisation for Columbus, leads Insight 2050. It is a collaborative initiative among public and private partners designed to help Central Ohio proactively plan for growth and development. Insight 2050 provides scenario testing tools and data to help decision makers understand the impact of future land use policies and the transportation investments.
  3. 2016-2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan: As the region continues to grow and funding availability becomes scarce, the region is prepared with innovative transportation solutions to address grown infrastructure demand. The Metropolitan Transportation Plan is the federally mandated long-range planning document led   by MORPC that brings together local governments from around Central Ohio and other local, state, and federal agencies to identify and coordinate transportation goals, policies, strategies and projects over the next two decades.
  4. NextGen Plan: The NextGen Plan is the Central Ohio Transit Authority’s (COTA) long-range planning effort to identify transit needs and opportunities for 2025, 2040 and 2050. The initiative will recommend system enhancements, including a prioritised list of bus and rail projects along with what technology to employ. COTA will comprehensively realign its network to better fulfil the needs of the growing community.

Columbus has outperformed a number of other deserving cities, which were far more technologically advanced and financially stronger, because:

  1. The proposal provided a path for growth beyond the initial applications through its clearly defined vision and goals (McGregor, 2016).
  2. Its focus on improving the health and lives of the community by reducing poverty and infant mortality with the application of technology (Hawkins, 2016).
  3. The ability of the city to rope in local partners as well as prominent tech-based companies to help in achieving the goals set for smarter Columbus (Chieppo, 2016).

Key points of comparison with Indian Smart Cities
The greatest difference between cities participating in the Smart City Challenge in the United States and those participating in the Indian Smart Cities Mission is the level of existing infrastructure. Columbus additionally illustrates a strong commitment to the sharing economy and has a foundation for providing open, accessible data that enables other stakeholders to develop solutions for the greater good. This is also evident from the city’s investment in policy and regulatory changes that encourage bike sharing (CoGo) and car sharing (Car2Go, Uber) services. The city also has a working MyColumbus app that enables citizens to access (Ginther, 2016):

  • City services
  • Publicly accessible transit routes, schedules, and stop data
  • MORPC Regional Data Lab portal that provides access to transportation, housing, and other public information available around the region
  • State-wide accessible travel-time data Indian cities, on the other hand, have taken up a bigger challenge of leap-frogging development. As seen through the new urban agenda and its initiatives, Indian Smart Cities are bridging the existing service delivery gaps while embedding “smartness” into the system in the process.

Columbus’ Smart City Plan also successfully leverages about 10 times the initial government grant by building partnership with the private sector. A review of the finances from the first 33 cities shows an average funding leverage of 1.18, with a maximum of 5.29 in case of Indore and a value less than 1 for more than half the cities. However, with the growing focus on engaging with private partners (as seen under the smart cities mission) and the adoption of the country’s first value capture finance policy framework in February 2017, Indian cities are now set to find more opportunities for leveraging finances from alternative sources.

Some of the Indian cities are already demonstrating steps in this direction through the implementation of global best practices. An example of this is the city of Pune. Under the Smart Cities Mission, it is collaborating with Google, L&T and other technology firms to provide Wi-Fi connectivity at around 200 strategic locations in the city (Press Trust of India, 2017). Under the contract, Google will help monetise the city Wi-Fi network, and will deploy Google Station platform, which has Wi-Fi network management capability, and focuses on monetisation to make Wi-Fi self-sustainable. RailTel, on the other hand, will provide lat-mile fibre connectivity on need basis to enable Wi-Fi hotspots at around 200 strategic locations across the city (Khan, 2017).

With the support of national level initiatives such as the Smart City Mission, AMRUT among others, cities are working towards efficient and fast project through a collaboration of urban local bodies, state agencies, and local partners including NGOs, educational institutions and community. As Ohio implements its Smart City Plan, there is an opportunity to observe and benefit from the challenges they face and to aid leap-frogging the development in Indian cities.