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Next-Gen Cities: 3 Jurisdictions Get Smarter

From transportation to digital equity, connected communities like Albuquerque, Columbus and Las Vegas keep citizen needs at the forefront.

Technology is no longer confined to PCs or even smartphones. It’s everywhere, in everything, and it aims to make life as easy as possible. Running into unexpected traffic on the way to work is fast becoming a thing of the past — your traffic app already warned you and rerouted you. Juggling numerous apps or credit cards to pay for rides on a bus, train, ferry or even bike could soon be as nostalgic a part of city life as fare boxes and subway tokens.

City leaders across the country have taken a number of steps — in some cases leaps — to steer their communities toward a course of improved efficiencies and smoother connections. They’ve done this by introducing an array of new equipment and software as part of a wholesale rollout of connected devices — think of the Internet-connected parking meter that lets you pay with an app on your smartphone.

It’s a path many, but not all, leading jurisdictions are considering. The drive toward smart is gaining so much momentum that some leaders see less of a need for the term “smart” itself. “As ‘smart cities’ goes away and it just becomes ‘cities,’ much of that technology will just be applied,” said Kansas City Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett. But we’re not there yet. While some jurisdictions were early adopters of connected tech, several more represent the next wave of cities working to become smarter, more efficient and more accessible. GT looked at Albuquerque, N.M.; Columbus, Ohio; and Las Vegas to learn about their journeys to becoming smarter communities.

Columbus, Ohio

An over-riding vision for smart technologies in Columbus revolves around the concept of “equity” — where technology serves to better the lives of not only the young professional class, but also those residents pushed further to the margins: the elderly, poor or minorities. 

“Our mayor considers equitable access to mobility to be the great equalizer of the 21st century,” said Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer of Columbus.

“Open access to transportation can put people onto ladders of opportunity, where they then have the ability to empower and improve their own lives,” she explained.

So what does a more equitable transportation system look like?

In one case it means upgrading the bus system to create “smart mobility hubs” where riders can access features that make trip-planning easier. When the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) launches its first bus-rapid-transit line early next year, it will include smart mobility hubs, essentially Wi-Fi-enabled stops with kiosks that can help point users (with or without smartphones) to the transit options that get them all the way to their destination. “There would be a rack of bike-sharing,” Braun said. “And then there would be reserved parking for the car-sharing system.


In Columbus, smart mobility hubs will help connect bus riders with another mode of transportation to finish their trip.

“The thinking is that when you get off the bus at the bus stop, you have easy access to other forms of transportation,” she added.

This brings up another avenue to increase equitability — closing in on what transit officials deride as the “first-mile, last-mile” problem: that gap between a rider’s home and a transit station; as well as the gap between the transit station and the final destination.

“Part of being a smart city is embracing multi-modal transportation, especially as a way to help solve for that first-mile, last-mile challenge,” said Braun, explaining an approach that views public transit as more than just one system, but one that seamlessly overlaps and connects with a car-sharing service like Uber or even a public bike-share.

“If we can create an application that lets people seamlessly plan a route from point A to point B, allowing easy access to multiple forms of transportation — whether it’s our bike-sharing system, car-sharing system, Uber, Lyft, a couple of transit systems, and then whatever the next new innovative transportation system is — we believe that will be a system for that first-mile, last-mile challenge,” said Braun.

Columbus is also working toward developing a common payment system where one transaction could cover the fare for a bus, train, bike-share or even car-share service. Currently, someone riding the bus, using bike-share and hailing a Lyft would pay for three separate transactions.

“We’re working on a system where you could use three, four or more forms of transportation, but pay for them with one account,” she added. A similar concept is cropping up in other major cities, like with Portland’s Hop Fastpass.

Many of the ideas around transit options being pursued in Columbus stem from a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant the city won for Smart Columbus, a partnership between local private-sector leaders and city government. The initiative went on to attract additional private funding for smart city experiments ranging from public transit to faster adoption of electric vehicles.

Las Vegas, Nev.

Technology innovation projects in Las Vegas have to consider more than just visitors — tourism is the city’s No. 1 economic driver — but also residents and business operators, said Michael Sherwood, CIO of Las Vegas.

“We want to ensure that all the technology we put in place works for everyone,” he said.


In November, the first autonomous shuttle in the U.S. hit the streets of Las Vegas, carrying passengers in a 0.6-mile loop around the Fremont Street Entertainment District.

Las Vegas has at least 85 active technology projects in the pipeline throughout its Innovation District, an area dedicated to serving as a test site for dozens of pilot programs to study potential impacts of smart technologies. Those projects are focused on several key pillars: economic growth, education, social issues such as homelessness, mobility and public safety.

Data serves as the building block for these projects, and Sherwood is always looking for new and creative approaches to gather, analyze and distribute this data.

Here’s one example of how Las Vegas is putting data to work, making the city smarter in the process.

New business operators want to know precisely how much foot traffic happens on a street, and they could soon have that question answered with the click of a mouse.

“We can show businesses or prospective businesses, ‘If you relocated, this is a great street for you to be on. It’s got lots of vehicle traffic. It’s got lots of pedestrian traffic. It’s got a lot of cyclists,’” said Sherwood, explaining a pilot that tracks street activity — and distinguishes among users. It’s a particularly useful tool for economic development because it offers a comprehensive set of empirical data.

To get this data, most cities “hire a person, or they have people on staff that sit in a lawn chair and count the vehicles that go by in a day,” said Sherwood. “And they might do that once a year. The sensors I have are counting this every day. … So I’m able to get a lot more robust information that we feel is very valuable as part of our economic growth strategy.”

The data can also help inform decisions related to managing the flow of traffic by conveying when it is busiest.

“It’s been extremely positive,” Sherwood remarked on the feedback he’s received. “They’ve never had this data before.”

Albuquerque, N.M.

Smart cities technologies should be about engaging residents, getting them to more fully participate in the city and making their lives easier, said Peter Ambs, CIO of Albuquerque.

“How are we increasing citizen engagement with the city, whether that’s the provisioning of city services or making our city more livable through increasing the quality of life?” he offered. 

Central Avenue, the fabled Route 66 in Albuquerque, N.M., and perhaps a one-time backdrop for gas-guzzling car culture, will soon be ground-zero for smart mass transit. The city is set to launch a new bus rapid-transit system along Central Avenue using battery-powered electric buses. The $130 million project will use dedicated lanes so the buses will avoid traffic snarls. 

“With that, we are implementing technology along that corridor with video cameras for public safety,” said Ambs, as he explained how this commercial spine — home to major businesses and large employers like the University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Health Care — is getting numerous smart city upgrades.

“Essentially we’re putting in broadband — a digital backbone — down Central Avenue. And that’s an eight-mile stretch. That’s going to be used for open-access, so it’s not going to have the restrictions and the things that would go along with a private-sector offering,” said Ambs.

Albuquerque Rapid Transit is also set to launch a mobile-ticketing platform, allowing riders to use their smartphones to purchase rides anytime and anywhere.


Peter Ambs, CIO of Albuqurque, N.M.

In this way, Central Avenue is becoming Albuquerque’s “Innovation District,” an initiative led by the city, University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Technology Council and others, to grow the downtown as a hub for technology-based business development. It has resulted in new building development and has breathed a new brand and identity into the now diverse, mixed-use area.

In addition to broadband and transit, downtown is connecting with the public on all fronts. The basis of smart cities, said Ambs, is about creating data — sometimes through crowdsourcing methods or with connected devices. “Taking that data and then synthesizing it into knowledgeable information is where we really start to see the benefit of systems and data and so on, so that we can become that smarter city,” he added.

Ambs pointed to the city’s Real Time Crime Center, where video from public safety cameras will go for analysis.

“These cameras are really a very key tool to have for the crime-fighting efforts in the city,” he said. “We see the public safety component along with the public transit along Central as being really important.” 

Downtown is also getting “smart parking,” and the city will begin replacing some 30,000 streetlights and upgrading them to LED lights with the ability to also house sensors, Wi-Fi and cameras. This project is currently in progress and will take about 18 months to complete.

Much of the philosophy behind Albuquerque’s smart city thinking is simply how to make life easier for residents and for them to engage with the city. That’s why more and more services can be accessed online or through an app, such as business licenses and permitting, and non-emergency police reports.

“The information you enter into that app goes right into the police report, into the record,” Ambs said. 

Features like these reduce calls into the police department and cut the time police officers have to devote to filling out paperwork.

“We want to be citizen-centric,” Ambs explained. “As opposed to the past, we had 19 different departments doing 19 different things. And guess what? We interacted with a citizen 19 different ways.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.