IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Smart Transportation Projects Can Help Solve Social Issues

A new report on the Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge finds that transit projects are managing not only commuting and congestion, but also broader social issues like job access and even infant mortality.

When the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) put out a Smart Cities Challenge, one might have expected the proposed solutions to cluster around transit issues. They did, but many went much further.

In its newly issued report on lessons learned from the challenge, which ended in June 2016, the department details a range of proposals that look to leverage transit not just as a tool for managing commuting and congestions, but also as a means for addressing a wider range of issues.

“We see transportation being used as a tool to improve social outcomes,” said Sophie Shulman, acting assistant secretary for the USDOT Research and Technology Office. “There are places where there is a problem that is not really about transportation, but where transportation can be a solution.”

Infant mortality

Among the 78 applications the contest received, one striking social solution comes from Columbus, Ohio, the winner of the $40 million prize. That money will supplement a $10 million investment from Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and $90 million that the city has already raised from other private partners, all in an effort to reduce infant mortality.

Columbus city officials report that two to three babies under the age of 1 die every week in Franklin County, “far above the national rate.” The county’s infant mortality rate is 2.5 times among African-American babies than among whites.

How is that a transit issue?

One smart city official in Columbus explains that the deaths cluster around Linden, a poor neighborhood where expectant mothers have sparse access to public transportation. Because they can’t get to the doctor, they don’t get the prenatal care they need, said Jeff Ortega, assistant director in the Department of Public Service and an official with Smart Columbus.

The city plans to implement a range of technology fixes to address the issue, starting with smart traffic controls that will allow busses to keep traffic lights green longer, ensuring buses can stay on route and on schedule.

In many cases, local residents don’t have credit cards, which means they cannot use ride share services. That’s a problem when their homes and their physicians’ offices may be located some distance away from bus lines. The city wants to develop kiosks where locals can turn cash into electronic currency, making ride share accessible.

The plan also calls for streetlight-mounted free Wi-Fi, which could help residents connect with ride share services or get information on public transportation routes and schedules.

“This wasn’t just about using technology to solve a commuting problem, getting from here to there," Ortega said. "It was about using transportation to really solve community problems."

Transit and more

While social issues percolated to the top, many proposed solutions also did aim more directly at transit-related themes. Among the challenges cities face, DOT notes, are:

  • Parking inefficiency: Some 30 percent of urban traffic is caused by cars looking for parking. 
  • Poor logistics: Trucks stuck in stop-and-go traffic cost shippers roughly $28 million a year in operating costs and wasted fuel.
  • Climate change: The 78 applicant cities represent over 1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.
While cities took a broad range of approaches in addressing these and other issues, some common strategies emerged.

Forty-four cities proposed testing automated shared-use vehicles to help travelers connect to their destinations. Eleven cities suggested using sensors and other technologies to improve curb management.

Fifty-three applicants proposed using various forms of Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) to connect vehicles to infrastructure and each other. In fact, the seven finalists proposed implementing DSRC in more than 1,000 advanced traffic signals and 13,000 vehicles.

Atlanta suggests a network of multimodal transportation centers that would serve not just as mobility hubs, but also as a focal point for economic development and community activity. Boston envisions “radically programmable” city streets, where dynamic markings could change loading zones to thoroughfares depending on need.

Detroit is looking at forging partnerships between government, industry and academia to promote electric car shares and automated shuttles. In Las Vegas, officials are pondering electric vehicle charging stations to help curb emissions.

All these ideas could eventually have a social impact. “If you improve transit and mobility, you improve access to jobs. People can get to their jobs faster and cheaper, so we looked especially at cities where they put their pilots in underserved neighborhoods, rather than in wealthier neighborhoods,” Shulman said.

DOT also looked for a degree of comprehensiveness, for example in leaning toward plans that incorporated not just smartphone apps for improving access to transit, but also public Wi-Fi to enable access to those apps. “If everyone is proposing a smartphone app to get you to transit, and you don’t have a cellphone with a data plan, that doesn’t help you very much,” she said.

Of the 78 projects submitted for consideration in the DOT contest, about 20 are moving forward in some form, Shulman said, noting that even for those who didn’t win, the contest could provide a catalyst for progress.

“The challenge clearly inspired a lot of these cities to continue work with their plans and to seek other sources of funding,” she said. “This has been an effective way to help these cities go out and look for private funds or to go to their city councils for money, because now they have these plans that really lay out a specific vision.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.