Our Journey



June 14th, 2024

Post by Donna Marbury, Smart Columbus Storyteller

Empowering residents to live their best lives through equitable, affordable, reliable transportation is a key tenant of the Smart Columbus initiative. Columbus won the U.S. Smart City Challenge in 2016 because the city wasn’t interested in “technology for technology’s sake,” but rather, using emerging technologies to improve mobility for Columbus residents, focusing on residents in need.

Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin is a partner to the Smart Columbus program who is invested in ensuring the initiative reflect the needs of communities that need it the most.

“We made several promises,” says Hardin of the Challenge. “We said that we would explore how innovation will change transportation and help people in the future. We wanted to be the test case for how that would operationalize,” Hardin says, adding that creating smart initiatives impacting the diverse communities of Columbus was a priority of the grant funding. “It was really important, since we made that promise and we won, to keep that a part of the big picture. Other cities applied with other cool projects, but our efforts are not just a panacea of cool projects.”

For Hardin, keeping that promise means that Smart Columbus programs have practical and tangible connections to the community. “That's hard to do truthfully on something that is so intricate in some places and so nebulous in others,” Hardin says. “Because of the breadth of the program, if you ask 10 people what Smart Columbus is, you'll get 10 different answers. My goal is that a grandmother in Linden will be able to say that she knew somebody who got a good job because of Smart Columbus.”


Connecting residents & businesses to technology

Hardin has been hands on with the Connected Vehicle Environment project, which aims to install 1,800 on-board units on passenger, heavy-duty, emergency and transit vehicles in the city of Columbus through 2020 through a series of planning, education, testing and procurement cycles. The on-board units will be able to communicate with traffic signals, and vehicle-to-vehicle to alerts drivers of emergency vehicles, speed limit changes, red light violations and other possible hazards while driving. When complete, the Columbus Traffic Signal System will interconnect the region’s 1,250 traffic signals and provide uniform signal coordination capability throughout the system.

The program is seeking more than 1,000 citizens to volunteer to install on-board units in their cars, mostly residents, who regularly traverse North High Street, Cleveland Avenue, Morse Road and the Easton area. These corridors include 17 of the top 100 high-crash intersections in the region.

The project area includes the Linden community, which has been the focus of revitalization efforts by the City of Columbus. Upon passing legislation to approve dispersing Smart Columbus grant funds for the Connected Vehicle Environment project in July 2019, Hardin saw an opportunity to engage businesses in Linden. Smart Columbus is engaging auto repair shops in the Linden, University District and Easton areas to install on-board units. The shops will be contracted to help install the units, given equipment and assist in the installation of units for volunteers and receive ongoing business to maintain the equipment throughout the project.

Once finalized, at least two auto shops in the Linden community will be approved to offer services for the Connected Vehicle Environment project. Auto shops receive approximately $175,000 over the course of the two-year project and training on installing the technology. Installations will also be available at The Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College. Units will be installed in residents’ vehicles starting in January 2020 and the pilot will launch in July 2020 and continue through March 2021.

An additional $60,000 will be invested in Linden residents who work at auto shops and Columbus State students who are interested in receiving Connected Vehicle Environment equipment training. The opportunity will include a week-long, paid training with classroom and lab time at Columbus State over spring break in 2020. After the training, the students will be placed in one of the auto shops to complete 160 hours of a paid internship at $14 an hour. After completing 200 hours of training, students will have a solid foundation in this emerging technology.

There is also a secondary workforce development program for technicians who are experienced but don’t have a certification. As a part of the program, technicians will receive funding to take the Mobile Electronic Certified Professional certification exam. As vehicles become more and more electronics-based, this certification is valuable.

“We need to do more in terms of the contracting and making sure that city dollars are involved in diverse communities,” Hardin says. “What residents are asking is about the economic benefit. The workforce component is the biggest piece of the puzzle.”

Additionally, the opportunity to use technology to solve for a public safety issue makes the project even more significant, Hardin says.

“The folks in Linden deserve to have the greatest safety technology that's out there. We are the test case for how we deploy these smart initiatives in communities and in neighborhoods that are struggling,” Hardin says.

Continuing smart engagement efforts

The Connected Vehicle Environment project is just one of several Smart Columbus projects that is responsive to community needs and depends on involvement to thrive.

After holding a series of community roundtables, Linden residents made it clear that they were lacking a direct connection to community resources after rerouted bus routes left a gap between the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) Linden Transit Center and St. Stephen’s Community House, a neighborhood hub that provides childcare, senior services and a food pantry among other resources.

In response to that need, self-driving shuttle service will begin in the Linden community in January 2020 to solve first-mile / last-mile mobility challenges by providing free rides that will connect passengers from the COTA Linden Transit Center to community resources at St. Stephen’s Community House, Douglas Community Recreation Center and Rosewind Resident Council. The fully-electric, ADA-accessible vehicles accommodate up to 15 passengers and travel at an electronically limited speed of 15 miles per hour. Though the shuttle will feature self-driving technology, an operator will be onboard at all times. The shuttle operators will earn a living wage and receive on-the-job training in this burgeoning mobility technology.

Smart Columbus also joined city-wide efforts to lower Columbus’ infant mortality rate, which is 2.5 time higher for black babies than white babies in Franklin County. As many factors contribute to infant mortality, more research needed to be done on how transportation to and from essential services could impact expectant mothers.  

The Prenatal Trip Assistance project will provide transportation for expectant mothers enrolled in select Medicaid plans. These trips will connect the pregnant women with prenatal and post-partum care appointments and accommodate additional needed stops/trips during the pilot as requested, including medical appointments and pharmacy stops. Researchers from The Ohio State University will monitor data from mothers before and after childbirth to understand how safe and reliable transportation has an effect on infant mortality. Findings from this project will be released in 2021 and provide evidence-based best practices to inform polices in Columbus and beyond.

Hardin adds that city revitalization efforts outside the Smart Columbus portfolio include a $20 million recreation center opening in 2020, in the heart of Linden. The City of Columbus added a community benefit agreement that requires 30 percent of workers hired to construct the center come from the city. 

“As with any recreation center that we've built before, it will spur other development in the neighborhood,” Hardin says.

The future of smart concepts in public/private partnerships

Affordable housing projects though Linden’s main artery, Cleveland Avenue, is also in the works as the City of Columbus is working with area churches and nonprofit organizations to identify the best opportunities based on need. In May 2019, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), the City of Columbus, COTA, the Columbus District Council of the Urban Land Institute, and other regional leaders released the findings of the insight2050 Corridor Concepts study, which was co-chaired by Hardin. Corridor Concepts explored how more walkable, compact neighborhoods and high-capacity transit along the routes can improve quality of life by positively impacting transportation, infrastructure, housing and the environment.

“The decisions we make now about transit, housing, and our built environment will structure our region’s growth for decades to come,” Hardin says.

The City of Columbus also partnered with Smart Columbus, United Way of Central Ohio, and the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio and The Ohio State University’s Ohio Education and Research Center for a “Future of Work” study to identify future jobs in industries related to intelligent transportation systems, electrification, internet of things, financial services and healthcare. It will also address the skills needed to fill those jobs, and gaps in current local training programs.

“Being smart is about using these new technologies and innovation to make people's lives better. That means we support businesses to figure out how technologies can make them stronger, better and more efficient,” Hardin says. It also means turning that smart cities mindset on the City of Columbus and making sure that we are providing our product to the constituency the best that we can. I don't think we're there yet. My hope is that, because we started here and learned from smart city engagements, we will create the mechanisms to economically engage the community for the good.”

Ultimately, as technology and smart initiatives are tested in Columbus, Hardin says continuing to make sure they are relevant to residents and the business community will be an important part of each development.

“We talk about like the Columbus Way like it is a truly altruistic expression of the city. We do partnerships the Columbus Way because it works,” Hardin says. “You stack hands, lean in, partner, share ideas and check egos, because it makes projects better. I think that those public/private partnerships are important if we want to continue to thrive in this community.”


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