The unlikely scene at the Douglas Community Center in the low-income Linden neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio yesterday saw a mix of VIPs that included a U.S. Cabinet member, the area’s U.S. Representative, the city’s mayor, the president of one of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations and dozens of kids running around in shorts and sneakers. The local children and teens were undoubtedly wondering why these well-dressed dignitaries had descended upon their gymnasium, but were happy to roam among the dozen or so booths set up to show the latest connected mobility technology and grab tchotchkes, free drinks and doughnuts.
The occasion was the official announcement by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx of the winner of the U.S. DOT’s $40-million Smart City Challenge. The venue was not your typical hotel ballroom where events like this usually occur. But then the Smart City Challenge hasn’t been your typical government grant project.
In a sit-down interview with Foxx following the awards ceremony, the Secretary noted that the Smart City Challenge is unprecedented for several reasons. “We’ve never done anything like this,” he said. “We usually spread this kind of funding across several different cities.”
But the large chunk of cash isn’t the only thing that makes the Smart City Challenge unique. Another is that it creates a model for private-public funding of transportation projects, especially as technology is set to transform how people and goods move through existing and rapidly aging infrastructure.
In addition to the $40 million that the DOT awarded to Columbus, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures kicked in an additional $10 million, while companies including NXP Semiconductors, Amazon Web Services, Alphabet Sidewalk Labs, Continental, Mobileye, Car2Go and others contributed additional funds and other resources, including technology and services.
“One way this is innovative is we see this evolution happening in the private sector,” Foxx said. “It’s a different way of thinking about transportation. I think there’s a message that we’re giving to the technology community through this Challenge. Getting their technology deployed is a huge challenge,” he added, “and we can gauge the appetite among America’s cities for these innovation. “
“We can create the technology, but it’s hard for us to get it deployed,” Rick Clemmer, CEO and president of NXP, told me in Columbus. “This is a perfect example of how to prove the technology, and then insurance companies, municipalities, and others can understand the impact of it from a very live and real example.”
In addition to the $50 million Smart City Challenge grant, Columbus secured an additional $90 million in funding from private partners such Honda, Battelle and HERE. In fact, Foxx acknowledged that the effort by Columbus to raise these extra funds was part of the reason that the city clinched the prize over the six other finalists: Austin, TX; Columbus, OH; Denver, CO; Kansas City, MO; Pittsburgh, PA; Portland, OR; and San Francisco, CA.
“We predicted that the cities would formulate partnerships and that proved to be true,” Foxx said. “When you aggregate all the matching funds that all the cities came up with, it was in excess of $500 million,” he noted. “In Columbus’s case, they have very strong private-public partnerships and were able to put together $90 million from various parts of their business and civic community.”
As part of one of 11 “megaregions” that include 75 percent of the U.S. population and are expected to grow dramatically in coming years, another advantage for Columbus is it fit the original intent of the Smart City Challenge – to help these regions develop innovative solutions. And as home to Honda’s massive Marysville manufacturing facility that produces 99 percent of the Honda and Acura vehicles sold in the U.S., and because DHL Supply Chain and the United Postal Service are among the top 25 employers, Columbus is also a major transportation hub.
“Some of the business that stepped up with matching funds are companies that ship things and see the benefits of moving goods faster,” Foxx noted. “Like a lot of parts of the county, they’re trying to figure out how to move freight faster. They see that as a competitive advantage for Columbus. They also see a rising population and the challenges of moving people around the city and the possibility that travel times will continue going upwards,” Foxx added. “And that’s not just an efficiency problem but also a quality of life problem.”
Foxx said in a blog post yesterday that “Columbus’ proposal puts people first. They plan to install street-side mobility kiosks, a new bus-rapid transit system, and smart lighting to increase safety for pedestrians and improve access to healthcare for traditionally underserved areas and neighborhoods.” Which brings us to why the U.S. DOT’s announcement took place at the Douglas Community Center.
“What we saw here was a strong connection between what they want to achieve as a community and what technology can do to help advance that vision,” Foxx said. “Where I think they really did an extraordinarily good job is that, like in a lot of cities across the country, there are opportunity gaps in Columbus.”
Foxx noted in his remarks to the crowd at the Douglas Community Center that Columbus has an infant mortality rate four times the national average. As part of its transportation plan the city wants to link expectant mothers in low-income areas with a connected transportation network that can get them to medical facilities for timely prenatal care to help alleviate this problem.
“We felt issues like the unique challenges of infant mortality and the opportunity in a neighborhood like this connected well to the mobility solutions the city was proposing.” Foxx said. “That’s not to say that the other six cities didn’t have good ideas on how to solve their problems. But connection here was very clear and was really a differentiator for Columbus.”
And that’s hopefully something that will impact the denizens of the Douglas Community Center, the residents of the surrounding Linden neighborhood and all citizens of Columbus – long after politicians and tech demos had cleared out and all the donuts were gone.
Originally posted by Forbes.com