Competing for Smarter, Sustainable Commuting
By Ellen Ray, Urban Land Institute & Master’s Candidate in City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech
Imagine if your commute home began on a bus that miraculously never hit a single red light. You wrap up your last e-mails on the vehicle’s complimentary Wi-Fi, then arrive at the station, where a fleet of self-driving cars wait ready to whisk you home for dinner.
These technologies are no Jetsons futurism. Google’s autonomous vehicles – though “robot cars” to some – are expected for public consumption by 2020. Meanwhile, transit agencies nationwide already utilize Signal Light Priority, a technology which allows buses to extend or request green lights to ensure on-time arrival. On the backend, transportation planners grapple with how smartphone and sensor data can improve information about everything from traffic flows to safety, as well as inform better decisions about where to wisely invest in additional infrastructure.
At Austin’s South by Southwest earlier this month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced 7 finalists in a $40 million dollar Smart City Challenge. With additional private pledges from Microsoft and Amazon subsidiaries, the challenge will ultimately award over $50 million to the municipality with the best pitch to integrate innovative technologies with their existing transportation networks.
Proposed finalist plans range widely but demonstrate a few common themes. The seven cities all benefit from the momentum of public-private partnerships, especially with universities and tech firms. For example, Google tests its driverless cars on the streets of Austin, while Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon anchors a civic-scale laboratory to expand wireless sensors.
Elsewhere, these local governments benefit from open data policies that encourage third-party developers to transform dense information about traffic patterns or bus arrivals into user-friendly apps and sites, fit for public consumption.
The message here is clear: advances in transit technologies are swiftly outpacing the growth of our transportation systems. Current public funding streams cannot support the demand for more sophisticated, data-driven growth management strategies. To keep up, municipalities must pair planning efforts with corresponding private sector momentum. Cities should also look across the digital divide in exploring these solutions to ensure their inclusivity and accessibility for all residents.
Luckily, Atlanta is already thinking in this direction. MARTA’s current partnership with Uber promises to improve the availability of first and last-mile connections (the distance between a transit stop and final destination). Last year, the City of Atlanta launched 3 open data portals, granting extensive public access to information about city services and finances. Finally, Georgia Tech’s Tech Square is the epicenter of Atlanta’s innovation activity, with new headquarters for NCR underway and planned 21-stories of John Portman Associates designed High Performance Computing Center.
Above all, sustainable growth contemplates how an efficient use of our resources can improve our quality of life. Though Atlanta’s population size precluded its participation in the Smart Cities Challenge, our willingness to undertake similar planning will continue to shape how we compete as an emerging tech city. To maximize the value of new transportation technologies, planning should consider these advances as intrinsic to our urban infrastructure, not supplemental or exclusive to private sector realms.
Rapid innovation is undeniably underway; how we plan to integrate and grow with these changes is what remains to be seen. For a sustainable future, we must look towards technological advances as the forefront of a smarter, more connected Atlanta.