How 'Smart City' Columbus plans to tackle inequality with technology

City leaders in Columbus, Ohio, are hoping high-tech transportation can help address the city's social issues.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters
The first autonomous and electric shuttle of PostAuto Schweiz in Switzerland. Autonomous vehicles may become a part of the transportation system in Columbus, Ohio, after the city won the Department of Transportation's Smart City competition Thursday.

Columbus, a city of around 825,000 located smack-dab in the middle of Ohio, has beat out seven competing finalists across the nation from San Francisco to Austin to Pittsburgh, to win the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge.

The award, which comes with $40 million from the DOT and an additional $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company Vulcan, is given to a city with plans to “fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.”

Columbus won out with a proposal that includes numerous concepts for integrating technology with city infrastructure. Some of the plans on the drawing board include autonomous shuttles, electric vehicle charging stations, and traffic signals that communicate with cars, as well as an app that advises truck drivers on the best routes to navigate city streets.

A key part of the city's proposal focused on how transportation technology could decrease inequality in Columbus. The city, which is the fastest-growing in the mid-West and has a metro area population of 2 million, has a low overall unemployment rate of 3.8 percent.

However, in the city’s poorer neighborhoods that rate increases five fold, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Infant mortality rates in Franklin County, which encompasses the city, are stunningly high. The city’s website reports that two to three babies under the age of one die every week.

“This grant will help meet the transportation needs of Ohioans who live in the low-income neighborhoods in and around Columbus to ensure they can get to their job, or receive a good education,” US Sen. Rob Portman (R) said in a statement.

Mayor Andrew J. Ginther and city and state officials welcomed the official announcement this afternoon in the neighborhood of Linden, an impoverished part of the city where much of the Smart City proposal’s focus was directed.

"We are thrilled to be America’s first Smart City. Our collaboration between public, private, and nonprofit sectors is the perfect example of how we lift up our residents and connect all communities,” he said in a statement. 

In the the initial proposal, officials noted that Linden has “a high proportion of carless households, unreliable access to employment and health services, a lack of access to digital information, and a high portion of cash-based households.”

Each of those is a barrier to moving the neighborhood out of a decline that was augmented by numerous foreclosures of investor-owned properties during the financial crisis 10 years ago, says donna Hicho (who spells her name with a lower-case "d"), executive director of the nonprofit Greater Linden Development Corporation.

“We currently don’t have a lot of job opportunities within the boundaries of Linden,” Ms. Hicho tells The Christian Science Monitor. “We don’t have an OSU or a nationwide children’s hospital or something within our boundaries that can employ a large part of the population.”

Hicho says she and other Linden community leaders feel that better transportation is a crucial way to alleviate this issue, because the jobs are out there, but Linden tends to be a self-enclosed zone; for many residents “going outside the neighborhood is like going to a whole different city.”

She hopes that the city administration will think broadly about where those job opportunities are, such as at the sprawling Rickenbacker Global Logistics Park in nearby Dublin, which takes about 20 minutes in a car from Columbus, but would take a Linden resident over an hour and a half to reach on public transportation and would require a transfer in the city’s center, she says.

“We need to look at how we match things together, because we have an obvious need and an obvious opportunity,” she says.

The city plans to increase the mobility of low-income residents by creating a digitized transit pass, accessible to those without access to credit or banking. The pass could be used for mass transit as well as ride-share apps.

Another concept in the proposal includes autonomous buses that would transport people from Linden and other low-income neighborhoods to areas where there are more job opportunities. Free access to wifi, another proposed amenity, would allow residents who can’t afford their own connections to access online job and education applications.

The governing idea is to strengthen the connection between residents in these neighborhoods and resources elsewhere, like training and post-secondary education centers, health care, and job opportunities.

Laura Dresser, a labor economist at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, notes the importance of transportation in connecting labor opportunities and work force, especially as jobs began shifting outside of urban centers at the end of the twentieth century.

“The 1980s is the first time that people started talking about spatial mismatch – that jobs were in the suburbs and people were in the cities,” Dr. Dresser told The Christian Science Monitor. It was essential for the transportation to shift to a more difficult model of moving commuters from a dense site to dispersed areas, as opposed to vice-versa, she says.

While mass transit has been working toward this shift, “it still needs solving,” she says, and new technologies could be key.

On a more granular level, the concept of using transportation to decrease unemployment and social disparity in a city is not new, but it can bring unintended consequences, research suggests.

Researchers at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy found that in cities as diverse as Atlanta, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Houston increasing transportation in underserved neighborhoods has created changes to neighborhood make-up. And while these effects were often amplifications of city-wide trends, improved transit created gentrification, with rising rent prices that created higher cost burdens for residents.

“The research reveals how a new transit station can set in motion a cycle of unintended consequences in which core transit users – such as renters and low income households – are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents,” the 2010 study says.

However Columbus’s plan may circumvent these issues by not just increasing actual vehicles of transportation, but by improving access to existing ones through non-credit card linked transit cards and apps.

With the $50-million award fresh in the grasp of the town, $90 million in additional funding pledged to the city from outside sources, and a bevy of ideas for tech-driven change, it remains to be seen how Columbus will transform, but in Hicho's words: "The future is really bright."

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