Flickr/MSpearman

The city’s unique proposal aims to keep vulnerable moms and babies healthy and safe.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced Columbus, Ohio, as the winner of its Smart Cities Challenge, rounding out an exciting week for the Buckeye state and marking a meaningful step toward defining “smart” transportation in urban America.

Columbus is the fastest growing city in the Midwest. Chosen by the DOT among seven finalists, it will receive $40 million in federal seed money and a supplemental $10 million from Vulcan, Inc. With that money, $90 million more in matching funds from private and institutional partners, and add-on technology from the likes of Sidewalk Labs and Mobileye, the city plans to gradually roll out autonomous shuttles, universal transit cards, and electric-vehicle infrastructure to improve congestion, safety, and mobility, equitably.

What set it apart from the other finalists—Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco? Columbus put forward an especially “impressive, holistic vision for how technology can help all residents move around better and access opportunity,” the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx explained on a conference call Thursday afternoon. He had just come from announcing the victory in the severely disadvantaged Columbus neighborhood of Linden, one of the focal points of the city’s plan. There, infant mortality is three times higher than in the surrounding county, and nearly four times higher than the national average.

As I reported in April, that tragic statistic is connected to other grim realities that the neighborhood faces: High rates of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration; low educational attainment; and significant gaps in the city’s transit network. That last piece is key for expectant mothers. Without reliable transportation, it’s hard to make it to the pre- and post-natal medical appointments that are essential to infant health.

The city is already routing a brand-new BRT line directly through Linden, connecting the neighborhood to employment and health centers in downtown Columbus and into the suburbs. With the Smart Cities money, Columbus plans to introduce special universal fare cards, allowing riders to pay for public transit as well as taxis, ride-hailing, and car-sharing options through a single format. Kiosks installed in certain locations will allow riders who use cash (and may not have a credit card) to summon and pay for all three modes. It’s also possible that users will be able to book medical appointments using the card, Foxx mentioned on the conference call. “I think that idea really sends a signal to rest of the country that there are creative ways to use transportation to address unique issues,” he said.  

Which touches on another factor that may have led to Columbus’s victory: Perhaps more than any of the other finalists, it feels like a blueprint mid-sized U.S. city, one that other such cities can model themselves after. That counts for a lot in a challenge like this, which is as much about addressing one city’s mobility challenges as it is teasing out the meaning of “smart” transportation in urban America. “If we can do it in Columbus, we can do it anywhere,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther at a Smart Cities Challenge event earlier this month.

There seems to be an expectation at the DOT that Columbus will pass on to other cities whatever it learns as it delivers on its proposal. Meanwhile, DOT and Vulcan Inc. have formed an initiative to raise money and support for the other six finalists to realize their smart-city visions. So no one is a true loser here. Still, if all goes to plan, the moms and babies of Columbus, Ohio, will come out as the true winners.  

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