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Can Cities Lift the Quality of Life with Better Mobility Options? (Contributed)

Columbus, Ohio, wants to boldly change how cities integrate communities and transportation with Smart Mobility Hubs in what could be a new way forward for multimodal travel.

Editor’s note: In 2016, the city of Columbus, Ohio, received a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and an additional $10 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, to test a range of intelligent transportation technologies and strategies. This article describes one of the groundbreaking efforts underway to improve mobility, thanks to the USDOT Smart City Challenge Grant.

Columbus’ Smart Mobility Hubs project focuses on deploying a range of technologies to support better access to jobs, services and recreational amenities via an ever-growing multimodal transportation system. It also aims to fill the “first-mile/last-mile” challenge faced by many U.S. cities that has become a significant barrier for current and potential public transit users. 

Developed in conjunction with the area’s transit provider, the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), and residents of its Linden neighborhood (home to many of the hubs), the amenities of the six Smart Mobility Hubs are tailored to meet community needs. Linden is a priority neighborhood identified by Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther. The Smart Columbus team is focused on learning how mobility options can help improve the quality of life for residents in this neighborhood.

What Is a Mobility Hub?

COTA provides most of the region’s fixed-route bus service. The authority has made significant investments in the past few years, including a complete transit system redesign, new park and ride facilities and free public Wi-Fi at its transit centers and on all buses. COTA also launched the region’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) service — called CMAX — along the Cleveland Avenue corridor, which runs through the heart of Linden. 

The USDOT Smart City Challenge Grant program provided the funding to leverage and build on these foundational transit investments. By installing an interactive kiosk, car-sharing spaces, a ride-sharing pick-up and drop-off zone, bike-share docks and dockless parking zones, what was once a transit stop becomes a multimodal community amenity: A Smart Mobility Hub. 

One hub is proposed at St. Stephen’s Community House in Linden, a community center home to health care, food, educational and other community services. Features like designated car-, ride- and bike-share parking spaces as well as dockless bike-share parking zones are being planned. An interactive kiosk will also provide Wi-Fi access, emergency calling, USB charging ports and touchscreen displays with access to a Multimodal Trip Planning App and Common Payment System.

Data Powers the Hubs

At the core of the Smart Columbus program is data. Information storage and transfer needs for the hubs and other program projects are served by the Smart Columbus Operating System, which is a combination data exchange and Web-based, dynamic system built with open source tools. Data such as trips planned, origin and destination information, and use of the interactive kiosks, will inform future deployments of Smart Mobility Hubs. Data from users of the smart mobility hubs are to be anonymized since they are non-registered system users. 

The Operating System is being built to receive and house data from the eight other projects in our USDOT portfolio, which consists of nine total projects being developed and deployed citywide with USDOT Smart City Challenge Grant funds. However, it is also being designed to assist city officials, community leaders, the private sector and entrepreneurs to solve ongoing challenges. The plan calls for a holistic and integrated approach that will produce the analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence necessary to bring innovation to life.  

The Hub as a Trip Planner and Payment Platform

Smart Mobility Hubs are the intersection of community and transportation and serve as the physical embodiment of our Multimodal Trip Planning Application — an app being developed to connect a number of mobility providers in one place and allow for the creation of customized trip itineraries leveraging those providers. The vision includes connecting all modes — car-share, ride-share, bike-share, public transit, scooter-share — in one app. Similar trip planning applications have been developed elsewhere, but Smart Columbus has its sights set on bringing an additional feature — common payment — into the mix. That functionality lets users “click to pay once” across a variety of mobility options and provides a gateway for the unbanked to access mobility solutions.

As the transportation industry leans towards Mobility as a Service (MaaS), where residents shift away from personally owned vehicles toward mobility solutions that are consumed as a service, Columbus is laying our foundation with the Multimodal Trip Planning Application. A desired outcome of providing better access and convenience, Smart Columbus hopes to reduce the volume of single occupancy vehicle-miles traveled — an emerging problem in a region that’s growing at an 80-person-per-day pace.  

User Needs Drive the Hub Design

Growth provides new opportunities, but it also has the potential to exacerbate existing challenges, especially as it relates to equitable access to transportation systems. For-profit mobility providers typically require users to book via a smartphone and secure payment through a credit or debit card. Our vision is to empower our residents to live their best lives through innovative, resident-centric projects that provide equitable access to mobility. We don’t want a person’s zip code or banking status to determine his or her ability to get around the city.

The USDOT Smart City Challenge Grant program is developed through a user-based, systems engineering process where user needs drive the solution. Including the unbanked was one of several key learnings that arose from a multi-phased community engagement process. As Smart Columbus engaged the community through several rounds of refined user surveys and workshops, we identified what design features would be most useful for residents, such as kiosk functionality. 

In addition to the amenities of the hubs, the locations were coordinated with the community. As a result, hubs will reach an educational institution, a job training center, a transit center, a community resource center, and a visitor and shopping destination.

The Columbus Way

For the city that coined “The Columbus Way,” this prioritization of community interest over self-interest is nothing new. In fact, the Smart Columbus grant program is being delivered in partnership with leaders of all aspects — civic, business, government and community organizers — having a role in shaping today’s program as well as its long-term sustainability.

For the Smart Mobility Hubs project, the city’s intent is to deploy its first six hubs via the USDOT-funded demonstration grant, and document and review the process. With more hubs anticipated to be deployed, Columbus feels it’s just getting started.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.