Why the Feds and Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen Are Betting on Columbus, OH

Columbus downtown
View of downtown Columbus in the evening from a bridge across the Scioto River.
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Columbus, OH.—like so many U.S. urban areas—is a city of paradoxical statistics.

It’s the fastest growing Midwest city in both population and job growth; it was a leader in startup activity last year. It’s also home to Linden, a poor neighborhood where unemployment is nearly three times higher compared to the rest of Columbus while incarceration rates are more than six times higher, and children are four times more likely to die before their first birthday.

Columbus has a plan to change that. And the federal government, Vulcan Inc.—a private company that pursues the projects and investments of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—along with other companies like Sidewalk Labs, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet’s Google, software firm Autodesk, advanced driver assistance tech firm Mobileye, and NXP Semiconductors plan to help by injecting dollars, resources, and technology.

On Thursday, Columbus was named the winner of the Smart City Challenge, a $50 million federal competition created to encourage medium-sized cities to use technology, data, and creativity to reduce traffic and emissions, boost productivity, and provide residents with greater access to public transportation as well as newer private forms of transit like ride-sharing services. The competition attracted 78 cities. Seven finalists—Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco—were named earlier this year.

As winner of the Smart City Challenge, Columbus will receive $40 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. The funds will supplement the $90 million that the city has already raised from other public and private partners to carry out its plan.

Columbus’ plan promises a number of futuristic additions to the city, including electric self-driving shuttles, traffic signals that communicate with vehicles so the signal adjusts in real-time to reduce congestion, and a new transit card that gives anyone, including those who don’t have credit cards or bank accounts, access to transportation. The city plans to increase electric vehicle charging infrastructure and encourage electric vehicle ownership.

Fifty of the city’s top CEOs have personally committed to buying and driving electric vehicles, and installing charging stations for their employees, according to Barbara Bennett, president of Vulcan Inc.

“That’s called walking the talk,” Bennett said during a conference call with DOT Sec. Anthony Foxx, National Economic Council Director Jeff Zients, and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.

A critical piece of the plan will focus on the Linden area to “change the life trajectory of those underserved neighborhoods,” Ginther said, adding that access to safe, reliable transportation is critical for overcoming and improving quality of life.

Linden, like so many poor U.S. neighborhoods, doesn’t enjoy the same kind of access to transportation as other parts of the city. To city planners, access to transportation doesn’t just mean helping to connect its poorest residents with jobs. The city is also focused on getting poor mothers better access to pre-natal care, which in the case of Linden, is out of reach.

Columbus will build a new bus-rapid transit system. The electric self-driving shuttles, which will be on three fixed routes, will connect the new bus rapid transit center to a retail district to help more residents reach jobs. One of the routes will go to Linden.

The city will also work with ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft and car-sharing services like car2go to better serve Linden and other underserved neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most interesting solution for poor residents—or anyone for that matter—is the city’s idea of a universal transit card that can be used for all modes of transportation and can easily be reloaded using cash at a kiosk. No credit cards or bank account required.

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Other corporate partners are contributing their tech to Columbus. For instance, Mobileye will equip every city bus with its advanced collision warning and pedestrian detection technology to help bus drivers avoid traffic collisions. Autodesk will provide access to and training for its virtual design and modeling platform that uses 3-D visualizations and real-world data to help Columbus plan the significant engineering and infrastructure projects needed to carry out its plan. And NXP is providing the city with vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communication modules that allow cars to securely exchange data, such as warnings traffic hazards over distances of more than a mile to prevent accidents and improve traffic flow.

The remaining finalists don’t really lose, the DOT, Vulcan and other companies involved in the competition have stressed. The DOT says it will continue to help the cities forward with their own ideas.

For instance, the DOT is providing technical assistance to the 78 cities that submitted applications to help them identify and apply for about $6 billion in federal funding that could be used for transportation projects.

We’re in the middle of a new urban revolution:

Vulcan and the DOT announced earlier this week that they are launching a coalition to support all of the seven finalist cities achieve their plans. Dozens of companies and organizations have signed on to support the so-called Smart City Collaborative and provide additional funding and resources, including General Motors, Nissan, Lyft, and AAA. All of the original Smart City Challenge partners—NXP Semiconductors, Amazon Web Services, Mobileye, Autodesk, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, AT&T, and DC Solar—say they will continue to help the other finalist cities.

Rewarding just one city was never really the aim of the competition. The Obama Administration is hoping to create a groundswell of action to help the U.S. once again have a transportation system that leads, not lags behind, the rest of the world.

“For awhile, we’ve been wandering in the wilderness, struggling over how to pay for infrastructure, spending more of our time stuck in traffic, and watching as the world builds for the future like we used to,” Foxx said. “And unfortunately our transportation system bears some responsibility for some of the opportunity gaps that exist. Sometimes those physical divisions played a part due to a bus stop that wasn’t there.”

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