Transportation leaders from San Diego; Columbus, Ohio; and Centennial, Colo., shared how smarter transportation helps to achieve larger regional goals around sustainability, equity and greener urban development.
In various parts of the country, cities are using performance analytics and other mainstays of smart city technology to drive climate, transportation and development goals.
In San Diego, a city where roughly 80 percent of the population turns to a personal vehicle for transportation, smart city leaders have put in place climate action plans to reduce car use and incentivize high-density development.
“Nobody likes traffic. So I think if you can frame a number of the initiatives you’re taking in the mobility space, the smart city space, the climate space, as ‘this helps with traffic,’ that can get you a long way,” said Almis Udrys, chief of staff for innovation and policy in the mayor’s office in San Diego, speaking during a virtual panel discussion at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo last week.
In 2014 San Diego established a Performance and Analytics department and formed a “Complete Communities” project with an aim to increase housing density, and thereby reduce vehicle use and traffic.
“But also, try to encourage development more in the urban core,” explained Udrys. The city is in the process of drafting a development fees policy, which would levy increased fees in areas where development would lead to increased traffic.
“We’ve set the city up into four zones, and depending on which zone you’re in, you pay a higher fee, or are required to build mobility infrastructure with the project,” said Udrys.
In Columbus, Ohio — another city where personal car dependency is high — the region’s Smart Columbus initiative has been laser focused on transitioning away from gas-burning cars toward mobility that’s electric, shared and connected. It’s a goal directly tied to climate ambitions by reducing greenhouse gases, which also helps to satisfy equity goals since polluted air disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities, said Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager.
“We really wanted to make an impact in our region, and we knew that we needed to get people into shared mobility, so on the bus,” said Bishop.
This would be a significant lift, since 85 percent of residents in the Columbus region drive to work every day. Because driving is so central to transportation there, officials decided to focus much of its energy on electrifying the transportation sector and growing the adoption of electric cars.
This concept has been at the backbone of Smart Columbus, a program begun four years ago when the region was selected as the recipient of a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, which was met by millions more dollars in private and nonprofit investment.
The Columbus region anticipates an additional million residents by 2050, which means innovative transportation planning needs to start now, say officials.
“We don’t believe we can just build our way out of it using highways,” said Bishop. “We really want to get more people on high-capacity transit.”
In Centennial, Colo., a suburb of Denver with about 110,000 residents, many transportation plans are driven by economic development goals, said Melanie Ward, strategic adviser for transportation and mobility in Centennial.
“We understand that desire and demand for retail space is declining,” said Ward. “We’re really looking at how do we reimagine this shopping center of the future to be a place that is walkable, and still very suburban in character.”
“Transportation is one of the biggest frustrations people face on a daily basis. So for us, there’s a lot of support for spending on transportation projects,” she added.
In San Diego, newer forms of mobility like e-scooters arrived abruptly several years ago, prompting the city to quickly become a leader in the scooter management wars cities found themselves in nearly overnight. Since then, officials have put the significant hauls of data the devices have collected to work to get deep insights into where bike lanes and other micro-mobility infrastructure should be located.
“It either confirmed where we thought we needed to put bike lanes, or it created new places where, ‘who knew that that’s the way people choose to go,’” said Udrys. “And then we were able to pivot if we needed to on where we were installing bike lanes.”
All of these efforts circle back to a central goal around using data and analytics as part of the mechanism to move San Diego toward a more sustainable horizon.
“Much of the leadership for our smart city initiatives does come from just our desire to be mindful and helpful to mitigating all the impacts around climate change,” said Udrys. “So whether that is the advent of the scooters, and wanting to encourage as much of that as an option for folks to want to get around as possible, because of greenhouse gas emission reductions, or our housing plans, which is about creating density and trying to reduce VMTs [vehicle miles traveled], all of these things are measurable.”