The U.S. Department of Transportation last year selected Columbus, Ohio, to be the poster child for the first smart city in the country. Although the city’s pitch was impressive (check it out here), it raises the question: Does smart transportation by itself make a city smart?
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The answer depends on your measurement of scale. For me, that measurement is how a city utilizes the data it has access to. While simply capturing and possessing data to inform future decisions — like Chicago’s Digital Portal — is a start, the real goal is creating interconnected ecosystems where each facet, whether person or machine, can freely access and react to information in real time.
It’s easier to think of the difference between a connected city and a smart city as a static big data set versus a conscious organism.
On a daily basis, we live between the fight for accessibility and privacy. As a result, it reinforces the need to ensure that the rise of smart cities remain a catalyst for opportunity — and not an inhibitor. It’s about finding the balance between commerce and municipality, and there are a few hurdles to overcome before we reach autonomous utopia.
To frame an example, it is thought that the current decline in U.S. auto sales will mean less traffic on the road, but that’s a misconception. By and large, traffic is at an all-time high due to ride-share services like Uber Pool and Lyft Line. The reason being is individual drivers are still commuting in droves, while regular mass transit users continue to ditch rail and bus for low-cost rides. This creates an increased demand for more cars that is compounded by the fact that municipalities don’t have the resources to meet the infrastructure demands of modern services, not to mention a growing population — so commerce is left to adapt.
Thankfully the solution is conceptually simple: In the future, autonomous cars will be capable of making split-second decisions through technology, like edge computing, and instantly relay those actions to all via telematics. But that’s an ideal case; in the not-so-distant future, adjustments to infrastructure will be made to compensate for the inefficiency of human drivers until autonomous is mainstream.
To answer my initial question, does smart transportation by itself qualify a city as being smart? I believe it’s a strong start, because it single-handedly has the largest impact on our daily lives beyond agriculture, healthcare and energy. Its indirect impacts will create ripple effects across other sectors. Take real estate: Property value has historically been based on the golden rule of location, location, location — and the proximity to mass transit being a major factor. This is likely to change.
From connected to smart
What does it take to go from a connected city to a smart city? It requires rethinking the planning and development of urban landscapes and the services utilizing them in order to avoid the inefficiencies of today’s problems — like double-parked Ubers disrupting the flow of traffic. It means that all adjustments can be made at the speed of life on a metropolitan scale. What it isn’t is a single unit acting on its own.
Take the Port of Los Angeles, for example. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t call it a microcosm, but it’s a good litmus test for scale. The port’s entire supply chain is actively utilizing data across its environment to improve the distribution of goods. That means importers, truckers, terminals, shipping lines, chaise providers and more are all sharing data with the goal of improving their own operations. Needless to say, the impacts spread beyond the port.
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