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What Small Cities Should Know About Getting Smarter

Oakley, Calif., is one small city trying to cash in on the explosion of smart city technology. Here's how they're doing it.

by / October 28, 2016

Much has been said about the impending reality of smart cities. Pictures of futuristic metropolises equipped with self-driving (even flying) cars, citywide high-speed Internet and sensors constantly gathering an endless flow of data come to mind. But what role do smaller cities play in this landscape? Oakley, Calif., is working to answer that question.

Just 50 miles east of San Francisco, Oakley is home to roughly 35,000 residents. In partnership with civil design firm Stantec, the city hopes to bring about a coalition of Contra Costa County cities to reap the benefits of a fully smart city. Within the last two months, the city has proposed a Smart City Project (PDF) and issued a proclamation encouraging the testing of autonomous vehicles (PDF) on city streets.

Mayor Kevin Romick acknowledged that the most immediate concern and potential lies within a smarter transportation network. By outfitting city streets with sensors and introducing autonomous cars, the city could reduce the commute time with which so many residents are familiar.

“Oakley has one of the longest commutes in Contra Costa,” said Romick, adding that with a smarter transportation network, “We can improve the commute for everybody, starting in Oakley and expanding that out in the future to other communities.”

Stantec already has roots in Contra Costa's GoMentum Station, which is generating considerable buzz surrounding its testing of autonomous vehicles.

Public Works Director and City Engineer Kevin Rohani echoed Romick's sentiments that there is considerable potential as far as traffic operations and linking up security cameras to aid police dispatches, and the city is excited to see where it can go.

“There are hundreds of different initiatives,” said Rohani, but it all comes down to having, “a strong IT infrastructure backbone.”

Arya Rohani, senior principal of Stantec’s transportation technologies division (who is of no relation to Kevin Rohani), has been a driving force behind the partnership. He stressed that this program will not completely transform the city, but will make its city services more efficient and better for residents.

“What is smart to a small city can be very different to other small or mid-size cities,” said Arya Rohani. "The same goes for large cities ... At its core it comes down to using sensors, smart software and communication technologies in order to cut costs … and [provide] better services to the citizenry.”

Both Romick and Kevin Rohani stressed that the program is still in its preliminary stages. Public meetings will be held in November to field public input and gauge interest a process that Romick is eager to begin.

“This is exciting for all of us, it is all brand new,” he said. “We are venturing into areas we haven’t been before. How can we take the available technology and make life better for all of us?”

That question will hopefully be answered in the upcoming months through public input and insight from Stantec about what is available and how implementation would look.

Funding for the project is currently contingent on the passage of Measure X, a comprehensive transportation ballot measure for Contra Costa County that calls for a half-cent sales tax increase for 30 years. It would raise nearly $100 million for transportation improvements annually.

If the measure fails, however, that doesn't mean it's the end of the plan.

“There are a lot of other funding sources,” said Arya Rohani, pointing to such federal resources as the Smart Cities program. "It's not one big shiny project that gets implemented and you're done — it's a journey.”

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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