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How Are Cities Tackling Transportation and Civic Innovation?

With systemic problems to the nation’s transportation infrastructure and cities needing to do more with less, speakers at the 2014 CityLab event highlighted projects that are making a difference and ideas that may have a large impact.

In only its second year, the 2014 Atlantic CityLab summit brought hundreds of civic leaders from across globe and more than 30 mayors to collaborate and ideate on cities’ most prolific challenges. Among topics discussed, emphasis concentrated on use-cases for innovation and insights into transit solutions.

Setting the tone for the gathering, held Sept. 29 and 30 in Los Angeles, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a co-sponsor through Bloomberg Philanthropies, called on leadership to take innovative risks and challenge assumptions of what’s possible in cities.

“The right combination of creativity and resources can make a really big difference in city government," he said, "but only if city leaders are willing to stick out their necks and try untested ideas."

Bloomberg praised achievements from city innovation teams supported by his philanthropy's civic investment work: In Memphis, Tenn., officials reduced retail vacancy rates by one-third in key commercial corridors; in Atlanta, a project found housing for 1,000 homeless residents; and Chicago, slashed restaurant and business license application times by one-third.

He also congratulated the city of Louisville, Ky., for improvements to its 911 system that reduced unnecessary emergency services by 25 percent; and New Orleans, a city ranked eighth nationally for its high murder rates, for shrinking homicides to 156 in 2013 -- the lowest for the city since 1985.

Launching a new competition on road safety, Bloomberg Philanthropies committed $125 million to fund global traffic safety --  that will be directed into a yet-to-be-announced competition among 20 cities. The nonprofit will ultimately award 10 jurisdictions funding for implementation.

“Traffic crashes take more than 1 million lives each year and injure tens of millions of people. In addition, 90 percent of those deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, and every one of them is a tragedy,” Bloomberg said.”We’re looking for proposals that are creative, that are bold, that are collaborative and are data driven.”

The funding signifies a renewed interest in traffic safety that, according to The Wall Street Journal, was previously funded with another $125 million since 2010 to reduce drunk driving through legislation, improve seat-belt use and train law enforcement in 10 countries that have high rates of traffic-related deaths.

Defining Future of Transit

Transit continued to be a pertinent issue echoed throughout the two days, whether it was within sessions, through commentary or in public interviews like those of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Foxx spelled out systemic problems to the nation’s transportation infrastructure Tuesday, Sept. 30, with the most daunting problem attributed to population growth. Currently the federal transportation revenues are billions shy from expenditures, a disparity he attributed to longer-lasting fuel-efficient cars that put more people on the roads without federal tax revenues to meet needs.

“We still have gas tax revenues that are coming in, it’s just that on an annual basis, it’s about $15 billion short of what we need just to keep the system afloat,” Foxx said.

The deficit is coupled with growth in manufacturing that will require greater efficiency and access to freight lines, and an estimated population growth of more than 100 million citizens in the next 35 years -- demand translating to longer travel times and influxes in traffic gridlock.

If nothing is done today, it was stated that coming years will see the midwest and northeast of the country buckle under old infrastructure -- highways, bridges and rail -- and in the west, urban cities gradually drown in traffic congestion.

“It will be death by a thousands cuts,” said Foxx.

To remedy and prepare, he said the White House hopes to craft legislation that channels and diverts tax revenue from companies evading taxes through headquarter relocation overseas --  an initiative represented by President Obama’s recent executive order hindering corporate inversions, the popular term for the practice.

Critical investment in cities and nationwide will include four major areas: transit, an expanded highway system, new technology and passenger rail -- a solution Foxx saw as likely for future generations.
“As we look forward into the future of transportation, we know that technology's going to play a role, that investment is going to play a role -- be it public or private," he said. "But right now in the U.S., we’ve got a major, major piece of  business in front of us, which is creating a long-term, predictable, sustainable surface transportation bill that will move this country forward.”

In a precursor to Foxx’s assessment, Monday saw many presentations on innovative remedies to the national transportation crisis, from utilizing simple methods -- like repainting streets to include bike lanes -- to Garcetti’s ambition to leverage city bus lanes and fill neighborhoods with self-driving vehicles.

Not meant to be dismissed as mere future fodder, Garcetti said he and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation are serious about the technology, even considering it in expansion plans for rail lines that will connect city goers with the Los Angeles International Airport.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to be here, and how do you spend billions of dollars on fixed rail when [many] might not own cars in this city in a decade or a decade and a half,” said Garcetti.

The city is collaborating in an endeavor with the University of California, Los Angeles, to identify a pilot neighborhood for testing. As the technology is gradually adopted, the mayor said he foresees all varieties of adaption, from autonomous buses to ride-sharing platforms like those Lyft and Uber capitalizing on the advancement.

“We’re working with UCLA to look at the area around UCLA and Westwood to see if this could be the first place -- really in an urban center -- where we have autonomous vehicles that are able to be ordered up like a shared car or car service,” Garcetti said.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.
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