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How do cities pick where to get smarter?

Transformational mobility technologies are being increasingly discussed as part of the smart cities movement rather than as standalone transportation components.

Perhaps the first major linkage of smart mobility and smart cities was the USDOT Smart City competition in 2016, resulting in a US$50m grant award to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is conducting a wide range of projects, from integrated data exchange and connected vehicles, to delivery zone availability systems and interstate truck parking.

Fast-forward a year-and-a-half since the USDOT grant award and in early January 2018, Ford CEO Jim Hackett delivered a keynote vision at CES in Las Vegas that ranged well beyond what might be expected from an auto maker’s chief. Hackett talked about not just Ford’s transition to mobility services, but also its plan to develop a connected vehicle/connected city platform, reaching residents in, and managers of, the urban environment in order to improve safety and efficiency of transportation. Hackett even set an objective to take back urban streets for livability. That’s a bold vision for Ford, a company whose major profit center is selling F-150 pickup trucks.

Whether it’s the medley of Columbus projects or Hackett’s vision for Ford, it’s hard to see through the futuristic clutter to understand how vehicle automation and connected cities will make our lives better. The Internet of Things, robotics and AI are combining to make the unimaginable possible, and city and state governments will have multiple opportunities to take advantage – but they might not always have the money.

Several regions are working on these challenges, and my home metro area of Denver is one. It has put together a public-private partnership called the Mobility Choice Initiative. The initiative has brought together the business community, the metropolitan planning organization, the metro transit agency and the Colorado Department of Transportation to identify how the Denver area can best guide public investments and incorporate new technology to produce benefits for all residents. The partners have engaged a technical team to develop likely scenarios, identify agency actions to improve mobility, determine how to best engage the private sector, and avoid any negative outcomes of new mobility.

The task at hand is daunting. Doing nothing could result in slow adoption of new mobility benefits, or alternatively allow private mobility services to emerge with negative impacts on public transit, congestion or social equity. However, trying to quickly adopt smart city opportunities could waste resources and yield little to improve quality of life.

All of this is even more confusing for government because the private sector will largely control ride-hailing services, data connectivity and data insights.

And although the private sector will collaborate with government, at the end of the day, companies need to sell products and services. A major task for the Mobility Choice Initiative will be to sift through the most productive areas for government to engage with business to begin to shape the trajectory of the mobility transformation, and at the same time, make sure there are real net benefits to urban quality of life.

 

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