Backers say Smart City Challenge has put Columbus ahead of its peers

Mark Williams Mark Ferenchik
The Columbus Dispatch
Sherri Rowell, left, and Donna Brittman organize food bags for Linden residents. A self-driving shuttle delivers food from the St. Stephen's Community Center to the Rosewind Community Center, about a mile away.

The $50 million Smart City Challenge has come to an end and with it, say backers, is a city ahead of its peers when it comes to being ready for the deployment of electric vehicles, self-driving vehicles, addressing climate change and bridging the digital divide.

"We've got a long way to go, but it’s worth the fight," said Jordan Davis, the newly named executive director of Smart Columbus. She was previously director.

In 2016, Columbus won the Smart City competition and with it a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for research on what a smart transportation system could look like. The city also received a $10 million grant from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mostly by encouraging more consumer and fleet adoption of electric vehicles.

The city, Franklin County and the state also contributed $19 million toward the work.

Now, five years later, Smart Columbus is releasing a more than 600-page report documenting its work and what lies ahead.

"It raised the expectations in the region we should be leading in innovation and mobility," said William Murdock, the executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. 

Electric future

Davis said the biggest accomplishment is the comprehensive nature of the work that's been deployed, noting the partnerships that have been struck with companies throughout the region.

The report comes as General Motors, Ford and other automakers are going all-in on electric vehicles, driving big shifts in transportation and supply chains.

As a result of the work, American Electric Power, for example, has worked with businesses, communities, apartment complexes, local governments and others to spend $10 million on rebates and other incentives to deploy hundreds of charging stations throughout the region, backed by a small fee on electric bills.

Other aspects of the Smart Columbus work include such as adoption of electric vehicles, self-driving shuttles, an app that helps drivers find places to park and a pilot project along North High Street, Morse Road and Cleveland Avenue that alert drivers to red lights ahead while detecting potential collisions with other connected vehicles, and when they enter school zones.

In that program, more than 1,000 vehicles were fitted with equipment. Most were city of Columbus and Central Ohio Transit Authority vehicles, said Mandy Bishop, the Smart Columbus program manager for the city of Columbus. Another 300 were privately-owned vehicles, but the owners of 210 of them have already uninstalled the equipment, she said.

Going forward, Davis said Smart Columbus is especially focused on helping meet the city's goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 and providing affordable access to high-speed internet.

Meanwhile, companies considering Columbus are asking for renewable energy to run their operations, she said.

"We've got to find a pathway as a state" to get more renewable power, she said. "More businesses are asking for renewable energy. The longer we wait ... the further behind we will be."

Economic impact

Smart Columbus says that Ohio State University research showed that the $40 million award program generated an estimated gross metropolitan product of $173.39 million and led to 2,366 jobs.

Zhenhua Chen, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State's Knowlton School of Architecture, said he looked at expenditures the city provided to come up with those numbers.

Economist Bill LaFayette, owner of economic consulting firm Regionomics, said he couldn't specifically comment on how Smart Columbus came to those conclusions on jobs and economic benefits.

"The point is without that spending, without the new money coming into the economy, those additional jobs and that additional spending would not have occurred," he said.

"These kind of investments in new technologies do have a positive impact on the economy," Chen said.

But there has to be careful planning in the future to ensure that systems are developed that truly impact people's lives, he said.

The Pivot transportation planning app was developed through Smart Columbus. Travelers can plan and pay for bus, ride-hailing, carpool, bicycle, scooter, and taxi trips through one app. It has been downloaded more than 1,000 times.

The program also included autonomous shuttles, including the Linden LEAP, where two shuttles ferried nearly 130,000 meals and 15,000 masks from St. Stephen's Community House on East 17th Avenue to other parts of the neighborhood.

The two 12-passenger shuttles initially had passengers. But a deviation in the steering system caused a shuttle to quickly stop in February 2020, just weeks after it launched. The shuttles were temporarily halted. When the shuttles started up again, they didn't carry passengers, just meals.

Harvey Miller, a professor of geographic information science and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University, said it was unrealistic if people thought there'd be autonomous vehicles shuttling people around Columbus by the end of the program.

"People have realized that driving is a lot harder problem than they thought," he said. For example, a pilot shuttle that traveled the Scioto Mile in 2017 and 2018 didn't run during snow emergencies because, it couldn't.

What was accomplished?

As for the $50 million Smart City program overall? 

"Was it money well spent? That’s a really tricky question," Miller said.

Miller spoke of other priorities already in place that can be questioned. 

"We spend billions on roads," he said, mentioning the Ohio Department of Transportation's $2 billion construction program this year.

"Fifty million over five years really isn't that much," he said.

"I do think a lot of things were learned," Miller said. "I think it did move things forward in terms of mobility discussions."

Bishop said, "We worked very hard in not demonstrating tech for tech's sake. It's about resolving challenges in our community."

The Columbus Department of Public Service will continue five of the Smart Columbus programs: the Pivot app; the connected vehicle system; the smart mobility hubs, six locations with kiosks with Wi-Fi also serve as hubs for CoGo bikes, scooter parking and charging docks, electric vehicle charging, and ride/hail pickup and drop-off points; the Smart Columbus operating system, which provides public access to mobility data; and food delivery from St. Stephen's, but with conventional vans.

Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, said the Smart City Challenge captured the attention of the country in a way Columbus never has.

"People never put Columbus on the list to win something like this," Fischer said.