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Columbus, Ohio focuses $40M DOT prize on transportation tech

Matt Hamblen | July 25, 2016
Some pilots, including autonomous shuttles, will affect Linden neighborhood to improve access to jobs

dot smart city challenge

Columbus, Ohio recently snagged a $40 million prize from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for a series of proposals to use data and technology to reshape the city's transportation system.

The city of 850,000 beat out six other finalists in the DOT's Smart City Challenge; the money will be matched by $10 million from Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. and $90 million the city raised from private partners. In all, 78 cities applied for the grant, including nearly all of the nation's mid-sized cities.

A directive of the DOT challenge was for each city to think about transportation as cross-functional, working in an ecosystem that focuses on safety and efficiency but also on using advanced tools to improve lives -- especially those in underserved neighborhoods.

Columbus latched onto that focus to help underserved neighborhoods and named its older Linden neighborhood as a prime recipient. The city and its partners plan to pilot smart transportation tech, including autonomous shuttles. They would be used to help working Linden residents reach city buses from the their homes and then from the bus stops to their jobs.

Linden, a neighborhood in northeastern Columbus, is about six square miles and bounded on three sides by railroad tracks. About 30,000 residents live in about 13,000 homes, according to recent census data.

"Columbus overall is doing well...but Linden is one our biggest challenges, " Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said in an interview. While the city is growing quickly and has an AAA bond rating with the lowest unemployment rate in 25 years, Linden has high infant mortality, high unemployment and a low high school graduation rate, he said.

One challenge of creating an autonomous shuttle for Linden residents, he said, will be finding a way to load cash onto a smart transit card, since few Linden residents have a credit or debit card to load onto a phone to order an Uber or Lyft shuttle. "They need a shuttle to get to the [buses] or to the front door of their job, child care or an institution of higher learning," Ginther said. Many Linden residents have a cell phone, if not a smartphone.

"This is about how we leverage what we have in research and development of a sustainable transportation system, particularly connecting the disconnected and the neighborhoods that don't have easy or little access to jobs, higher ed and affordable child care," Ginther added. "Linden is called a food desert and a healthcare desert because they don't have access to fresh fruits and eggs and doctors."

While Linden is a relatively small older neighborhood in Columbus, the lessons learned there over the next four years will benefit similar neighborhoods in other cities, he predicted. "This is a laboratory for cities across the share resources and connect."


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