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Pittsburgh Selected To Nerd Out On Transportation With 22 Other Smart Cities

Keith Srakocic
The Smart Cities Collaborative helps cities use technology to address transportation issues. In Pittsburgh, officials say it could be used to better manage the maintenance of critical assets. Two men work on the Andy Warhol Bridge in this July 2017 photo.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh was one of 10 new cities chosen to join the Smart Cities Collaborative, part of the nonprofit group Transportation For America. 

The initiative aims to help city leaders put their heads together to tackle shared challenges surrounding transportation. For instance, as the technologies that support ride-hailing and self-driving cars become more common, cities are working to figure out how they might complement existing transit systems instead of cannibalizing them.

The 22 participating cities—there were 12 returning from the inaugural cohort—have to be ready to share what they learn, said the collaborative’s director, Russ Brooks. 

“I like to joke that we’re a working group and not a talking group,” he said. “We want tangible progress from the cities. We ask them to develop a policy that’s ready to implement in their council or their agency, we ask them to become pilot-ready, so get ready to test something on the ground in their community, or last, launch a pilot.”

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is testing an on-demand shuttle system that’s designed to serve neighborhoods that lack transit options. The city of Lone Tree, CO has partneredwith Uber to get people from their houses to the light rail line.

The Smart Cities Collaborative grew out of the response to the federal Smart City Challenge, launched in December 2015. Nearly 80 cities applied for the $40 million U.S. DOT grant that called on cities to use data and technology to improve how goods and people move. Columbus, OH was announced as the grant winner in June 2016. 

The Smart Cities Collaborative follows a similar idea: helping cities to think through the best applications of technology while resisting what Brooks calls “the shiny object syndrome,” in which people push for a new brand or a new technology simply because it’s new and cool.

“The cities in the collaborative are proactively trying to address that by clearly understanding what their problems are, then figuring out the outcomes they’d like to see from their efforts,” he said. “And then attaching a solution to it or a tool.”

In Pittsburgh, officials are trying to ensure that any project really addresses the city’s core transportation needs, said Alex Pazuchanics with the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

“Because while the tech is exciting, it all comes back to how human beings in our cities experience the transportation network,” he said.

The collaborative’s participating cities are expected to have a workable project or policy within a year.

Pazuchancis said Pittsburgh hopes to work on its data standards: how the department shares information before and after a project to look at how well it worked, and why.

The Smart Cities Collaborative meets four times a year, and will convene in Pittsburgh in September.