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Public Roads - November/December 2016

November/December 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 3
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Hot Topic

Smart City Challenge Promotes Innovation in Government

by Brian Cronin

The Smart City Challenge generated a significant amount of interest among U.S. cities. The U.S. Department of Transportation received 78 applications--one from nearly every midsized city in the country.

The challenge required the cities to boldly envision new solutions that would change the face of transportation in U.S. cities by closing the gap between rich and poor, capturing the needs of both young and old, and bridging the digital divide through smart design so that future transportation meets the needs of all city residents.


How Did the Challenge Come About?

The Nation is at a turning point. The transportation system requires major investments to keep up with the needs of the traveling public and freight carriers. At the same time, technology is evolving rapidly, leading new private sector parties to enter the transportation ecosystem in innovative ways, such as offering app-based ride-hailing services.

In October 2015, USDOT officials started an internal discussion on how to build on what was learned from preparing the report Beyond Traffic 2045: Trends and Choices. Department officials decided to leverage resources from research on intelligent transportation systems and use the leadership of the Office of the Secretary to initiate a Smart City Challenge. The goal was to move fast, be bold, and unleash the innovative ideas resident in U.S. cities.

On December 7, 2015, USDOT announced the Smart City Challenge. Each city that wished to compete could submit a proposal of up to 30 pages outlining a high-level vision for the opportunity to win $100,000 to further develop its concept, and ultimately to become the $40 million winner.

The goal was to make it simple to apply for the grant and to reward innovation. The solicitation did not require a local match, but required cities to move fast. With proposals due in 60 days, USDOT provided technical assistance through an inperson workshop and a series of webinars on 12 key vision elements.

A panel of agency experts reviewed the proposals, and, in March 2016, the Secretary of Transportation announced seven finalists: Austin, TX; Columbus, OH; Denver, CO; Kansas City, MO; Pittsburgh, PA; Portland, OR; and San Francisco, CA.

Each finalist had either proposed to create new first-of-a-kind corridors for autonomous vehicles to move city residents, or to electrify city fleets, or to collectively equip more than 13,000 buses, taxis, and cars with vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

Cities were the target audience, but public-private partnerships were essential to success. The Department announced partnerships that add $13.5 million plus additional goods and services from some of the most innovative companies in the private sector, including launch partner Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., cloud partner Amazon Web Services, NXP® Semiconductors, Mobileye, Autodesk, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, AT&T, DC Solar, and Continental Automotive.

In addition, the seven Smart City finalists were able to leverage the possibility of winning USDOT’s $40million grant to raise a potential additional $500 million in total. The vast majority of these funds came from a diverse group of more than 150 partners. These partnerships illustrate the private sector’s enthusiasm to help build an inclusive transportation system of the future.

The Winner

On June 23, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced the selection of Columbus, OH, as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. As winner, Columbus will receive up to $40 million from USDOT and up to $10 million from Vulcan to supplement the $90 million that the city has already raised from other private partners to carry out its plan. Using these resources, Columbus will work to reshape its transportation network to become part of a fully integrated system that harnesses the power and potential of data, technology, and creativity to reimagine how people and goods move throughout the city.

“The Smart City Challenge required each city to think about transportation as cross-functional, not in silos, but as a transportation ecosystem.”

--U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx

“Each of the seven finalists put forward an array of thoughtful, intelligent, and innovative ideas that defined a vision for the future of the American city and formed a blueprint to show the world what a fully integrated, forward-looking transportation network looks like,” said Secretary Foxx in a press release.

Secretary Foxx continued, “The Smart City Challenge required each city to think about transportation as cross-functional, not in silos, but as a transportation ecosystem. The bold initiatives they proposed demonstrated that the future of transportation is not just about using technology to make our systems safer and more efficient--it’s about using these advanced tools to make life better for all people, especially those living in underserved communities. While Columbus is the winner of the challenge, we believe each city has come out of this process with a stronger sense of how to address transportation challenges with technology and innovation.”

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther added, “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. Smart Columbus will deliver an unprecedented multimodal transportation system that will not only benefit the people of central Ohio, but potentially all midsized cities. I am grateful to President Obama, Secretary Foxx, the U.S. Department of Transportation, all of our partners, and especially the Smart Columbus team.”


Columbus put forward a holistic vision deploying three electric self-driving shuttles to link a new bus rapid transit center to a retail district, connecting more residents to jobs. Columbus also plans to use data analytics to help improve health care access for a neighborhood that currently has an infant mortality rate four times the national average.

This artist’s rendering shows Columbus’ smart shuttle service to a new transit center.

USDOT and its Federal partners, including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, have committed to continue working collaboratively with all seven finalist cities to identify potential Federal, State, local, and private resources to help carry out their Smart City plans. In addition, Vulcan has announced a new commitment to provide additional funding to support the climate and electrification efforts of all seven cities.

What Was Learned?

From these applications, the key takeaways are that nearly half of the cities proposed an autonomous low-speed shuttle or pod-car system, shared-use solutions, the use of data to improve freight operations, and the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles. They also proposed new sensors to monitor vehicle traffic, parking availability, and even pedestrian and bicyclist counts.

Currently, USDOT is analyzing the seven finalists’ applications in order to release additional lessons learned. For more information, visit

Brian Cronin is director of FHWA’s Office of Operations Research and Development.

Note: A multimodal team organized from the Office of the Secretary, headed by Mark Dowd, senior advisor to the Secretary, led the Challenge process.