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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

One way the mayor will judge the success of the efforts in Linden is whether median income grows, he said. The median income is now $12,000 below that of residents in the surrounding county.

Columbus will tap into the expertise of its largest employers, such as Honda, America Electric Power and IBM, and transportation researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) and Battelle Memorial Institute in setting up new technologies.

In addition to autonomous shuttles, plans for the DOT grant include charging stations for electric vehicles, broadband to support traveler information kiosks, development of real-time traffic and parking apps, and creation of a single pass or smartphone app to pay for all transportation modes.

One particular new bus-related technology that is being tested in New York City and elsewhere could help Columbus, said Carla Bailo, assistant vice president of mobility research and business development at OSU. That "mobile eye" concept would provide technology to track the GPS location of buses to be coordinated with traffic lights on bus corridors, letting the green light shine longer to let a bus pass, for example.

"Right now, our buses are our only rapid transit service and the buses take a long time to get anywhere since there are no straight routes," Bailo said. "The purpose would be to get the jobs downtown. The mobile eye would tell a smart signal where the bus is" to help cut commute times.

Apps may also be designed to give transportation users choices. "The app could say this is the most healthy route, this is the cheapest, the fastest, or produces the least carbon footprint," she said. "People won't get out of their single-occupant cars unless it is as simple to use a mobility service as it is to use their own car. We have to provide options."

As in many cities, the challenge of reducing single-occupant cars on busy streets reigns supreme. Columbus has the distinction of being one of the largest U.S. cities without a light or heavy commuter rail or subway system.

Right now, that's not a big problem, since Columbus is often listed among the top cities in the nation for easy commutes, the mayor said. But down the road, the need for transit improvements will increase.

"The city is going to grow by up to 1 million more people by 2030 and we will have a crisis by then if we haven't figured out how to move people in a safe and reliable way," Ginther said. Winning the DOT grant and setting up pilots of autonomous shuttles that can carry several people on a trip "helps set the stage for the larger conversation" on whether the city wants mass transit.


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