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Smart Columbus Experiment Comes to a Close, Taking New Form

As the Smart Columbus project closes out its five-year run, the city is preparing for a new smart city future, building on the projects, successes and lessons learned to begin exploring innovations around renewable energy and closing the digital divide.

Smart Columbus AV Shuttle.jpg
Image Courtesy Smart Columbus (Facebook)
A five-year project to grow mobility innovation in Columbus, Ohio, may have come to an end, but the spirit and work remains.

Back in 2016, Columbus was selected as the winner of a $50 million Smart City Challenge grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), which includes $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The city began moving forward with numerous projects centered on transportation innovations.

“Now that the grant projects are over, the city and other partners will continue to live on the legacy of the initial portfolio. We’re going to build off of the successes,” said Jordan Davis, executive director of Smart Columbus at the Columbus Partnership.

The initiative will continue as an innovation lab, taking on new challenges like expanding the use of renewable energy and closing the digital divide.

Smart Columbus — the banner under which the projects were shepherded — took the lead in growing the adoption of electric vehicles, both among the driving public and the city’s fleet. A new smart parking system was launched, along with a mobility-as-a-service app called Pivot that puts various public- and private-sector modes within one app. An autonomous shuttle program was launched, among other projects. All of these functioned within the newly designed Smart City Operating System.

The operating system, the Pivot app, new mobility hubs, the connected vehicle environment and the smart parking system will continue in much the same form they currently take. Other projects like the autonomous shuttle program have concluded, say officials.

“We want to focus on ensuring that the infrastructure that we have will be AV ready,” said Andrew Wolpert, deputy program manager for the city of Columbus. “But we will help support an AV deployment in the future if somebody wants to.”

Other projects, like the Pivot app, has not yet lived up to the city’s aspirations of putting multimodal trip-planning and comprehensive fare payment within one app. Currently, users can plan trips with the app, while leaving the app to pay, and then are redirected.

“I think it reinforces where the whole system wants to go,” said Jordan, on the concept of mobility as a service. “We’re not the only community trying to figure this out. Everyone is. We went about it in an open-source way that I think benefited multiple cities at once.”

Jordan envisions a future where riders are so seamlessly integrated across modes, making the traditional “transit pass” a relic.

“You’re just paying for a mobility pass, like an 'all mobility pass,' and you can use it ubiquitously with scooters, and shared rides … however you need to, to get where you want to go,” she explained.

A central physical feature of Smart Columbus is the Experience Center, opened in July 2018 in downtown on the banks of the Scioto River, as a showcase for electric vehicles, as well as a place to feature innovations in areas like the Internet of Things, autonomous and other connected vehicle technologies and other smart city innovations.

The Experience Center will continue to serve as the nexus for Smart Columbus, as the movement moves into its next chapter. For example, the city will continue efforts to expand EV adoption.

“But naturally, expand more into renewable energy adoption as well,” said Davis. “That’s the next big needle we can move here to reduce emissions.”

And it’s not just reducing emissions and exploring renewable energy models that are on the docket. Equity and closing the digital divide remain both a challenge and an opportunity, said Jordan.

“How do we get more individualized in supporting residents in their needs?” she offered. “As we go broader than mobility, and more holistic into smart cities, we will naturally just be transitioning that Experience Center to a broader story.”

To date, Columbus has spent about $46.4 million on Smart Columbus, leaving about $8.2 million of the nearly $55 million in funding, unspent. The funding mix was made up of public and private sources. Some of this money will be allocated during the final two months of the project, and the remainder returned to the program sponsor, according to the project’s final report.

The Smart Columbus initiative helped to spur regional investments with an economic impact of nearly $720 million, and created or gave rise to 3,870 jobs, according to the Columbus Partnership.

However, one of the lasting legacies of Smart Columbus may be the culture of stakeholder engagement the process fostered.

“You want to get a wide spectrum of views about what problems exist,” said Wolpert. “And so I really do think that truly the grassroots effort to connect with people, groups and individually, was really helpful.”

That engagement has helped to grow trust and relationships across the community, setting the stage for future projects and growth in the smart city space.

“When we won [the 2016 Smart City Challenge] I think a lot of people thought, ‘oh, we won a trophy.’ Like we won this award for being a smart city,” reflected Davis. “But in fact, we didn’t. We won a job to do."

“And even now, after we’ve done it, we’re not yet a smart city,” she added. “This is a decade-long journey. But we’re on it in a really robust way, and we have a long road ahead, but a really exciting one.”


Smart Columbus Operating System:
Cost — $15.9 million
People Served — 58,000+
Data Sets Ingested — 2,000+

Connected Vehicle Environment:
Cost — $11.3 million
Vehicle Participating — 1,000+
Intersections Participating — 85

Multimodal Trip-Planning App (Pivot):
Cost — $2.3 million
Downloads — 1,103
Trips Taken — 447
Mobility Providers — 8

Smart Mobility Hubs:
Cost — $1.3 million
Kiosk Interactions — 65,000+
Hub Locations — 6

Smart Parking:
Cost — $1.3 million
Parking Spaces — 4,300
Loading Zones — 130
Transactions — 1 million+

Source: Smart Columbus

Editor's note: Jordan Davis' official title was updated and the economic impact of the program was adjusted for clarity and accuracy.
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 Yreka, Calif.