What’s so Smart about Smart Cities?
The idea of “smart” technology has been around for a while — as far back as the early 1980s an Internet-connected Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University was able to report on its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold or not (smart, right?). In the years since, we’ve seen smart phones and smart TVs and smart cars (that continue to get even smarter) and, increasingly, smart cities. So, what exactly is a smart city, especially as it relates to the parking and greater transportation industry?
Defining a Smart City
The first thing you learn when talking to people about smart cities is that everybody has a slightly different take. “Smart City has a lot of definitions based on who you talk to,” said Devin Patel, vice president of business development for Passport, which provides a comprehensive software platform for the parking and transportation industry. “My opinion is that at its core it’s a large movement within cities to create their digital infrastructure in a way that is proactive to transportation needs instead of reactive.”
Some don’t even like the word. “I don’t like the term ‘smart’ anything,” said Akshay Pottathil, co-director of the Center of Information Convergence and Strategy (CICS) at San Diego State University. “It doesn’t have a metric to measure it. Really, it’s about self-aware cities and what is integrated within a self-aware city, which is where you get my definition and that is ‘self-aware cities with connected technology,’” said Pottathil.
Emmanuel Lereno, senior vice-president of digital strategy for Flowbird, which helps cities measure, monitor and manage their mobility, points out that although transportation is one of the key components, the concept also encompasses issues like health management and energy management. “Basically, to me, it’s the notion of implementing connected objects around the city, so you can gather information on things that you don’t have insights on,” said Lereno.
Gathering information, then, is one of the ways cities start to become smarter. “Through integration, we help cities design educated transportation systems,” said Lereno, who uses the example of New York City and its massive transportation system. The city works with Flowbird to help them gain insights on how to ease congestion while taking into account the variety of transportation elements available, including cars (both ride-share and personal vehicles), taxis, fast-track bus system and subways. “They wanted us to look at how to go from Point A to Point B using more than one means of transportation,” said Lereno.
Lereno noted that while transportation systems have been collecting and analyzing usage information for a long time, the parking analytics trend is more recent and underexploited. “Many cities are missing ‘last mile management systems’ that include parking availability,” said Lereno. “People looking for parking spots generate congestion, and Ubers and Lyfts generate congestion, so we want to be able to relay as much information as we can to make it easier for visitors and residents to get from Point A to Point B, recognizing that this might involve going from Point A to Point X to park their car and then taking a bike or a bus to get to Point B.”
Lereno pointed out that while capturing the data is something that’s available today, it’s the next step that’s a challenge. “What we are lacking is a convergence where all the systems come together,” he said. “Once the premises are created to interconnect city mobility systems, we will have a real educated system that people can easily use.”
Bringing systems together is one of the reasons Passport has been using its software platform to integrate multiple parking and transportation elements, including payments, permits, enforcement, transit and tolling. The company recently announced a partnership with the city of Fort Lauderdale, where not only would previously unconnected systems be consolidated, but other parking and mobility providers would be able to plug in their systems to create a more streamlined approach.
With so much data and information out there — and so few at the city level able to handle it all — streamlining processes and narrowing goals becomes increasingly important. “Many times, we sit in a meeting and a city says ‘we want xyz feature,’” said Patel. “We try to narrow that down by asking them: What problem do you want to solve?”
That might mean breaking down projects into smaller pieces. For instance, Patel reports that in conversations with Charlotte, North Carolina, city leaders realized one project they needed to tackle should be how to make micro-mobility more equitable and accessible for their citizens. Once they narrowed the problem, they were able to bring together a number of the various entities involved — including Lime, the scooter company — to create a viable micro-mobility pilot plan. “It comes back to finding out what is truly important to them and creating something based on that,” said Patel. “Then we can break it down into quick pilot projects — as we like to say, crawl, walk and then run.”
Educating the Players
Bringing the various entities — in the form of actual people — together, then, is the final step. No matter how intelligent the technology is, it still requires people to manage it. Put another way: All the data in the world isn’t worth anything without people to make sense of it and implement the policies required to really make a city truly “smart.”
This is one of the reasons that one of Pottathil’s goals with CICS is to make sure that everyone is involved in the discussion — including private operators, government, technology providers and even the next generation, like the students Pottathil teaches in his Geospatial Intelligence Course at San Diego State University.
“My mission is to create awareness and a platform where we can conduct in-depth research and innovative solutions. Anybody in the world who wants to make a positive impact can collaborate with us,” said Pottathil. “Although we’re talking about technology, the human mind is really much more complex and creative than any machine. If we can remember that, we can create better societies and with better societies better technology.” Now that’s smart.
Ann Shepphird is a technical writer for Parking Today. She can be reached at email@example.com
America’s Smart City
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Paul G. Allen Philanthropies offered a “Smart City Challenge,” where mid-size cities across the United States were asked to develop ideas for an integrated smart transportation system. Out of the 78 cities that applied, Columbus, Ohio, was named the winner and in 2017 received $50 million in grant money and the moniker of “America’s Smart City.”
Mandy K. Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager, said she thinks their application was chosen because the city was upfront in sharing the “things that weren’t so great about Columbus” and identifying the technology solutions that might help address those challenges. It was also important that the whole community was brought on board — including civic, business, government and community organizers. “We were leveraging relationships within our community for common purposes,” said Bishop.
One goal they focused on was providing solutions that addressed equity, and transportation plays a big part in that. “Mayor Andrew Ginther firmly believes that mobility is the great equalizer,” said Bishop.
In the two years since Columbus received the grant money, the Smart Columbus team has been developing programs, equipment and technical applications to address regional transportation challenges, help establish consistency in the parking experience and promote C.A.S.E. (connected, autonomous, shared and electric).
But while a lot of thought is going into the technology being developed, Bishop feels it’s the people behind it that make it special. “All that hard work is driven by an amazing team of people that have invested their hearts and souls into delivering solutions to our residents,” said Bishop.