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Smart Transportation Can't Repeat Yesterday's Mistakes, Says U.S. Transportation Secretary

Emerging technology could mean many things for mobility. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation wants to make sure that technology serves to bring people together rather than push them apart.

At the very least, transportation is poised to become a lot more tech-heavy in the near future. As an upper bound, technology that’s in the test phase today could fundamentally disrupt the way people get around tomorrow.

And that’s why it’s critical, according to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, that the people driving innovation don’t make the same mistakes as the people before them.

What does that mean? It means taking the lessons that Columbus, Ohio, learned from the Long Street Bridge and applying them over and over again across the U.S.

Division in Columbus

The west side of the Long Street Bridge is the beginning of downtown Columbus. From the bridge, one can already see the city’s tallest buildings poking up toward the sky. Over there are colleges, parks, theaters, restaurants and the state’s capitol building.

To the east is the King-Lincoln District, a historically black part of town that was cut off from downtown in the 1960s when Interstate 71 cut a gouge in the ground between the two areas. Since then, residents have noted a growing isolation in King-Lincoln, along with a growing attrition of people.

So when the city unveiled the Long Street Bridge in 2014, reconnecting the district with downtown, it wasn’t like most ribbon-cutting ceremonies. There was live music, a culture wall featuring murals of people important to the area’s history — and more than 1,000 attendees.

“We had people that hadn’t seen each other in years,” recalled Rory McGuiness, deputy director of administration for the Columbus Department of Development.

The bridge has become something of a symbol for Foxx as he embarks on a crusade to get U.S. transportation leaders to, in the future, better keep in mind the idea of community. A picture of the bridge sits on the cover of the Department of Transportation’s proposed Fiscal Year 2017 budget right above quotes from Foxx and President Barack Obama. And Foxx brought up Columbus again on March 30 as he told reporters that the idea of community as a steering wheel for transportation projects is gaining ground.

“While we can’t change decisions made in the past, we sure can ensure that future transportation projects connect and strengthen communities,” Foxx said during a call with reporters.

The routing of freeways through poor, minority-filled neighborhoods is just one example of what Foxx is talking about. The larger concept he’s pushing is that when elected leaders and transportation officials make decisions, they need to do it while considering how their actions will affect everyone they’re serving.

In other words, they can’t just look west when standing on Long Street. They also have to look east, north and south.

Past meets future

The idea has shown through in the department’s funding choices in a big way. There’s the Ladders of Opportunity program, which seeks to shunt federal money toward programs that promote access to jobs for low-income people. There’s the Smart City Challenge, which is putting up a grand prize of $50 million for cities to test out emerging transportation technologies — including many proposed projects targeting poor neighborhoods.

There’s also a coalition of Democratic and Republican mayors and governors from across the country who have expressed support for Foxx’s ideas.

Emerging technology such as connected vehicles, alternative fuels and self-driving cars simultaneously present a future where transportation serves Foxx’s ideals and helps connect disadvantaged people with opportunity. On-demand shuttles might make it easier for people to get to light rail that can take them to work or school. Autonomous vehicles might make it easier for the blind to get around. Smart ramp meters and adaptive traffic signals might help prevent the congestion that adds lung-damaging smog to the air.

Data alone presents a trove of opportunities.

“In other communities you have very complex bus systems, very robust public transit systems," Foxx said, "and the use of analytics could tell us more about how to optimize those services for people."

But there’s no telling how those technologies will ultimately roll out. Is it possible that they might take the same route that highway planners did in the past, benefiting the people who already have opportunity while leaving the disadvantaged behind?

Automated features are already working their way into cars — things like emergency braking and lane assist. Battery-powered and hydrogen fuel cell cars are slowly penetrating the showroom floor. Cities are testing out smart transportation technology, often in downtown settings.

But like a lot of emerging technology, these things are expensive. They’re predominantly made for people with money and tested in places where opportunity already exists.

That’s partly why Foxx said he wants to start the conversation now. New technology might transform tomorrow’s transportation system, and if that transformation happens with community in mind, then the country might just avoid its past mistakes.

“Let’s build it for an America where every zip code matters, every person matters,” he said. “And this is going to have to happen one project at a time, one city at a time, one state at a time.”

For an easy example of how the idea might play out on the ground, just look back to Columbus. The city is one of seven finalists in the Smart City Challenge, and it wants to use some of the money to help out another one of its isolated neighborhoods: South Linden. That neighborhood isn’t isolated by a bridge, but rather by socioeconomic factors. South Linden faces a dearth of degrees, an abundance of incarceration and an atypically high rate of infant mortality.

Instead of a bridge, McGuiness and the Department of Development want to build a “smart corridor” through South Linden. Doing so would route a bus rapid transit line through the area, connected with traffic signals that help speed the buses along and make it more valuable to people who might use it to access the rest of the city. And because the people in South Linden often use cash — which isn’t a great system for services like Lyft and Uber — the city wants to work on finding ways to help people in the neighborhood pay for mobility.

The hope, McGuiness said, is that they would be able to access work, education, entertainment, health care and all the things they need to make life better.

“Transportation is not just an engineering-type thing and moving vehicles,” McGuiness said. Transportation is about improving people’s lives.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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