The key to being a Smart City

Hint: It’s all about the data

Jim Barbaresso / May 31, 2017
Jim B

The Smart City movement is a growing trend among metropolitan governments to rethink, redefine and reinvigorate the role that transportation plays in the health and vitality of a community.

The large numbers of people migrating from rural to urban areas and straining existing transportation infrastructure to an unsustainable degree is driving this. In many cases this urbanization is happening faster than municipalities can respond to it, creating transportation-deprived pockets of residents who are isolated from important quality-of-life resources.

One viable solution to the challenges brought about by increasing urban populations is integrating innovative technologies such as self-driving cars, solar power and smart sensors into transportation networks of the future. But being a Smart City means more than putting innovative and emerging technology on the road.

At its heart, being a Smart City is about utilizing new technology to collect, analyze and share vehicle- and infrastructure-based data from multiple sources, and converting that data into actionable information that residents and visitors can use to make informed transportation decisions.

Naturally, transforming our cities into Smart Cities will be disruptive. Existing systems—governmental, security, communications, data management and more—are not always set up for the free and easy exchange of information. That is why the key to facilitating the sharing of data and information is to break down the communication silos that typically exist between various public and private agencies involved in any given transportation project.

It is critical, for example, for transit authorities, municipal departments and jurisdictions, ride-share companies, bus and rail systems, cloud-computing companies, payment platforms, and parking-management companies—basically any entity that plays a role in a city’s mobility—to be committed to creating the kind of robust communications network and data-sharing arrangements that will promote collaborative relationships and seamless intermodal travel solutions.

Many cities are already embracing this approach in order to create the groundwork for Smart City initiatives. Columbus, Ohio, is an excellent case study. In June 2016, Columbus won the U.S. DOT $40 million Smart City Challenge after competing against 77 cities nationwide. The city’s winning proposal was a holistic vision for how transportation infrastructure could reconnect neighborhoods and unlock opportunities for residents so they would have better access to jobs, fresh food, services, education, health care and recreation.

The Columbus plan, in addition to offering an innovative vision of how to leverage emerging technology to develop sustainable, environmentally friendly, efficient ways of moving people and goods through the city, also demonstrated a unique and thorough understanding of the role data would play in its success. The city clearly laid out its intended data-management approach, including types of data to be produced, policies for data access and sharing, archiving data and preserving future access, using current and newly collected data to address the city’s challenges, integrating transportation data with other functions or services to improve city management and operations, and to empower users with better information. The Smart Columbus Program Office was created to provide program management, deployment of advanced transportation technologies, and collection and dissemination of project data. Through an “unprecedented culture of collaboration,” the city’s leadership also created the Smart Columbus Executive Committee, with representation from the region’s largest employers and most significant institutions. This group focuses on how to accelerate advances in transportation technology for the region.

This is a different way of thinking for many of us. It is disruptive and causes challenges, but creates opportunities to take our cities to new and better places. If we have the vision and work to break down silos, and if we approach the challenges not by happenstance but by intention and through careful planning, our industry is poised to make this future happen.


Barbaresso is national ITS practice leader for HNTB Corp.

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