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Columbus has been dubbed ‘America’s Smart City’ because of its unique way of getting things done. It prides itself on its ability to bring together public, private, academic and non-profit stakeholders to solve tough challenges. This spirit of collaboration has given Columbus an advantage in economic development and advancing the quality of life for all of its residents.

This came to life through a $50 million Smart City Challenge sponsored by the U.S Department of Transportation. Columbus emerged victorious after securing $90 million in investments from the private sector for smart city initiatives.

This ‘Acceleration Fund’ was the key reason behind Columbus’ success which, today, stands at nearly $600 million in committed investments, with a goal of $1 billion investment from private and public sectors by 2020.

Auto Futures spoke to Jordan Davis, Smart Columbus’ Director representing the private sector side of this public/private partnership, to understand how the region is transforming into an epicentre for smart mobility research, testing, startup activity and business growth – thanks to what she calls “the Columbus way.”

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Columbus is one of the fastest growing cities in the Midwest, with its population inside city limits now larger than that of San Francisco. And, with one million more expected by 2050, population growth could exhaust transportation and infrastructure unless something is done.

“We know that in Columbus we can get things done and winning the Smart City Challenge is just one example of this,” says Davis. “We’ve been able to operationalise ‘the Columbus Way’ to drive forward our smart city initiatives.”

The goal of the Challenge was to invest in a midsize city that would demonstrate how an urban area could be redeveloped through new technology within its transport network.

“We hope to facilitate continued economic growth and be a catalyst for improving the quality of life for our residents.”

Davis explains that, from the Smart City Challenge, Columbus received a $40 million grant from the U.S Department of Transportation and a $10 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The grants will fund a portfolio of projects intended to improve economic growth, quality of life, sustainability and safety. Projects seek to overcome challenges faced by cities and help to lower dangerous emissions through such things as the adoption of multi-modal transit and electric vehicles.

Incentives for Change

Davis and her team aim to increase electric vehicle adoption to 1.8% by 2020, from a baseline of 0.37% in 2015. This is a huge goal to set which, if achieved, would represent a 500% increase over the next three years. But how do they approach this mountain of a task?

When it comes to EV adoption, governments around the world have favoured incentives which have been the main driver of the growing global market. Research from Smart Columbus already shows that federal tax credit remains an important factor in making EVs more cost effective for customers. Its Ignite Action Fund is used by the Acceleration Partner program to create new incentives and projects to motivate central residents to go electric.

“The purpose of the fund is to help Smart Columbus’ employer partners accelerate the timeline for launching new mobility benefits by reducing a barrier-cost,” says Davis.

“Alliance Data and AEP Ohio were the first in the region to complete an EV rebate program as a participant in the Ignite Action Fund. Each company was awarded $15,000 in match funding to launch an EV purchase or lease rebate program for new or used plug-in EVs.”

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According to Davis, Alliance Data is leading the region through a holistic approach to driving less and driving electric. It launched a $2,000 EV rebate for all associates in the Columbus region and a $1,000 rebate for associates nationwide. Launched in July 2018, the program is accredited to the immediate purchase of at least 15 EVs, showing the importance of incentives like this. 

“We have also used EV incentives as a way to help heavy car users switch over to electric,” continues Davis. “In July 2018, Smart Columbus issued 10 incentives worth $30,000 to Columbus Yellow Cab through the Transportation Service Provider Battery Electric Vehicle Rebate Program.”

Through this, Smart Columbus expects to eliminate 135 to 269 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, for the service life of the 40 vehicles funded.

The Future is Autonomous

In December, Smart Columbus launched Ohio’s first self-driving shuttle, Smart Circuit, operated by Detroit-based startup May Mobility. The service provides many people’s first-time experience with an autonomous vehicle, which is a key factor when rolling out the technology for the first time in cities. It also allows the region to understand what actions it needs to take to support this complex innovation.

“The shuttle helps to educate local innovators on the capabilities and potential of autonomous vehicle technology, so they may start to plan future pilots of the technology in our city,” adds Davis.

This was made possible thanks to a partnership with the Ohio Department of Transportation’s DriveOhio, an initiative that aims to accelerate smart and connected vehicle projects in the State.

The project has been a success, recently achieving its 10,000th passenger on one of the autonomous shuttles. There is still a long way to go, but this project alone has helped provide important data that can be used in other areas around the US.

“Our learnings from Smart Circuit helped to inform a second route planned for Columbus’ Linden neighbourhood. Two level-four autonomous vehicles will service a 2.7-mile route that will serve to solve ‘first-mile / last-mile’ mobility challenges by connecting passengers from a large bus terminal to community centers and service organisations that offer affordable housing, foodbank resources, pre-education, senior services, recreation and more.”

8. Smart Circuit Smart Columbus Experience Center Stop 1

The Greatest Challenge

Ultimately, the future of mobility will require a highly-efficient and multi-modal transit system. To achieve this, cities like Columbus must introduce new mobility solutions that make it easier and cheaper for residents to take alternative transportation to work.

This includes platform and cloud technology, improving accessibility for people in the city looking to travel by different modes of transport with a single mobile application. In this case, Smart Columbus has developed an app that allows users to book, plan and pay on a single interface.

But, perhaps most of all, authorities must support this change and help to develop the region by implementing a new way of thinking. The next few years will be the most difficult, as cities attempt to work alongside the private sector to develop combined transport networks, change the perception of inner-city travel and significantly cut emissions.

“To me, the greatest challenge over the next five years will be ensuring the advancements of smart city technologies solve societal problems and not exacerbate them or create new ones. Driving culture change in a community or organisation is hard!” warns Davis.

“Will we have the fortitude to change the course? Can we double down on renewable energy to meet the inevitable increase in electricity demand? Will we take the right steps to protect and secure data, and to ensure our governments have the analytic capabilities to drive value from the immense data collection they will have? Will we ensure equity in the introduction of new technologies so our most vulnerable neighbours are not left behind? The future requires all of us to think and act smart.”

From e-scooters to EVs, the next five years will see unpredictable change, as people make the switch over to cleaner, smarter and safer forms of transport. Electrification and mobility services will continue to take more of the market share, killing off conventional comforts, but it is cities that hold the key to a brighter future. Collaboration, understanding and planning is the only way these urban ecosystems can realise their vision. 

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