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Midsize Cities Hold the Key to Innovations in Smart Mobility

As the experts see it, midsize cities are the ideal places to test and develop new ways of getting around. During a symposium in California’s capital city, thought leaders discussed the issue and where strides could be made.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — According to the experts, midsize U.S. metropolitan areas have the potential to be test beds and leaders in innovation around mobility and other smart city areas.

Thought leaders in smart cities and mobility gathered in Sacramento Thursday for a symposium titled The Next Urban Future, hosted by the nonprofit Meeting of the Minds.

“I think the opportunity here is for those medium-sized cities to kind of get ahead of the curve,” said Shaun Fernando, director of the Future Cities division at Guidehouse, a public policy consulting firm.

The event explored the various issues around mobility, focusing on midsize cities — like Sacramento — and how they may be particularly poised to experiment in the rapidly shifting landscape driven by innovation, technology, population growth and calls for greater equity.

“The mobility world has changed more in the last five years than in the last 50,” said Rachel Zack, a policy strategist at Remix, a tech startup that offers data and planning tools for public transportation officials.

“And we are in this combination of a really difficult service to provide — transportation — with technology. And we’re trying to figure out what that future looks like, and we can’t lose sight of the fact that it has inspired an entire industry to think about what great mobility looks like, and how do we harness that momentum,” Zack added.

Midsize cities stand to see some of the most significant population gains in the coming years, with transportation likely to be one of the more formidable challenges, as well as an area for innovation.

Already, drivers in a number of midsize cities such as Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Denver spend more than 60 hours a year in congestion, nearly rivaling a large metro like Seattle and Chicago, according to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report recently released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Transportation and transit stands to be a chief policy discussion in midsize cities, which are often heavily car-dependent, experts say.

However, midsize metros may be best poised to take on transportation as a function of other policy goals, said Bob Bennett, former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo., who now serves as the principal and founder of B Squared Civic Solutions.

“The thing about midsize cities that makes them the best place to test this type of theory is, they don’t think about transportation in a silo. Because if you are a midsize city, you do not have the luxury of thinking in silos. You have to think horizontally across the silos,” Bennett told Government Technology

And touching on an area like transit and transportation could then impact other strategies around initiatives like workforce development or education, he said.

“You take from the education department, and what their goals are, and tie that to transportation, and tie that, maybe to public safety,” he explained. “For some cities, the transportation piece will take the prime role. Those are probably your larger and physically challenging, geographically, cities.”

In a denser cites, public safety may take the prime policy spot, he added. While in an arid city like Phoenix with a growing population, water management may become the No. 1 policy issue.

But transportation, “does have to be part of the discussion,” said Bennett. “And it has to be part of a holistic approach.” 

Cities should also not overlook their policy-making role, and how this can shape access to mobility. Zack, from Remix, remarked how intrigued she's been by the numerous ways cities can use their permitting processes to nudge private mobility providers toward helping cities achieve their own mobility goals, especially in areas related to expanding equity and access.

“That, to me, is pushing policy where it needs to be, where the outcome is really about people served,” offered Zack.

“If you are a city, your job is to make sure that you are getting the best outcomes in your mobility systems for people, for their life experience,” she continued.

Innovation that threads together micro- and other forms of mobility into a cohesive ecosystem is often touted as the nirvana of urban transportation. However, even those wedded to some of the newest and increasingly most ubiquitous transportation options warn that public transit should not be overlooked.

Transit has to be a “fast, reliable and convenient option,” said Lilly Shoup, senior director of policy and partnerships at Lyft. “And that is so fundamental to all that we’re talking about. Transit is, and must be, the foundation for how you move in cities.

“If you don’t know when the bus is arriving, and if it takes you five to 30 minutes to get there, or it doesn’t show up, that is not a great customer experience and people will not ride it,” she added, citing an all-too-familiar transit woe.

“The No. 1 thing cities need to focus on is building great transit systems,” she continued.

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.