Can Cutting Edge Technology and Expert Collaboration End Car Accidents and Road Congestion?

  • Columbus, Ohio residents know the problems: Too many accidents and too much congestion.
  • The old solutions, widening roads and building new ones no longer serves a growing population.
  • Columbus is combining the efforts of the government, businesses, and residents to deliver a new tech solution to road congestion and safety.
  • Community participation will ultimately determine whether the solution works.

Can a mid-sized American city cobble together business expertise and public support to make streets safer and move more people to their destinations? Can technology put a dent in the amount of carbon a city pours into its air? Can a collaboration create a new street environment that stands the tests of time, geographic expansion, and population growth?

These are the questions Columbus, Ohio is answering with its connected vehicle environment project. Imagine a busy street where cars never crash. Where pedestrians walk safely. Where buses and emergency vehicles always get green lights.

That’s the Columbus dream. Their solution? A connected vehicle environment built in high traffic corridors throughout the city. Their first step: build an $11 million demonstration project along several busy and dangerous streets.

Ohio Pedestrian Fatalities 2009-2018.

Accidents and Congestion

The problems are clear: Too many accidents and too many slow-moving streets to efficiently move a growing population.

Want to enrage residents? Make it hard for them to get to work or the doctors or the supermarket, and they’ll find an easier city to drive in.

Mobility matters.

In the old days, cities increased capacity by widening roads and building new ones. The focus was on moving as many single-occupancy cars as possible. The results; limited access highways obliterated neighborhoods; wide roads destroyed city-life; car-dominance pushed pedestrians and cyclists off the streets. Congestion increased and air quality decreased. Workers and residents complained.

SmartPhones appeared and with them, a new level of driver distraction. Even when drivers pay attention, they can’t see everything that’s going on around them.

Still, the safest, fastest, most comfortable way to travel is by car. According to Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, “Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities increased by 32 percent (nationwide) in the ten year period between 2008 and 2017”.

Meanwhile, city buses get stuck in the same traffic car drivers experience. Columbus public transit buses frequently run behind schedule, delivering workers late to their jobs.  In 2014, the Columbus Dispatch reported that COTA buses ran late 16% of the time. Since then, COTA has revamped its routes. Even with route improvements, potential bus riders view public buses unfavorably. One commuter who didn’t want to be identified scoffed at the idea of riding COTA to work. “Are you kidding? It would take me forever.” Instead, she drives a gas vehicle alone and complains about the traffic.

Columbus Takes Action

Columbus wants to solve these problems. The city learned from Tampa, Wyoming and New York. Now, they’re creating a model for other cities to follow. Their goal: use connected vehicle technology to prevent crashes, decrease emergency vehicle response time, and improve bus service.

The approach includes four main components:

  • Data-fed traffic control center where city engineers can monitor and adjust traffic flows.
  • An on-board device installed in cars, buses, and other vehicles. This device monitors and communicates a driver’s activity to the system and tells a driver what’s going on around them.
  • Road-side communication devices that connect vehicles to one another, the street environment, and the traffic control center.
  • A fiber-optic network to move all the data quickly.

Mandy Bishop, Program Manager for Smart Columbus said, “We’re on the cutting edge of introducing new technologies. With introducing new technologies, there are always unforeseen challenges that arise.”

As of the writing of this article; the traffic control center lab isn’t ready for its planned test; the on-board device isn’t communicating properly, and; the road-side device installation is pushed off to early next year.

Bishop said, “Our team of experienced project managers are committed to dealing with those challenges to the best our abilities to deliver a program that will improve the lives of our residents and be a model for other cities.”

Danlaw Road-Side Unit connects cars to one another and the city traffic control center.

The project team chose to use open-source software and communications protocol. This decision frees the city to contract with any capable vendor rather than depending exclusively on one company. Columbus also requires that the local solution be able to integrate with other connected projects across Ohio. For example, Sue Bai, Chief Engineer, Manager in the Automobile Technology Research Division at Honda R&D Americas confirmed that the Columbus CVE devices will work with the Smart Intersection project in Marysville, OH.

The communication protocol chosen poses another risk. It’s based on an established standard, DSRC. DSRC is a dedicated short-range communications protocol. It’s favored by the National Highway Safety Administration, NHTSA. It’s not 5G and that may be its undoing if 5G delivers what it promises.

Another challenge is getting all the people and groups involved to work together.

The City Leads

To pursue this project, the Columbus City government is working with the public transit provider, COTA, emergency services providers, neighborhood leaders, and community members. The city also acquired technical assistance from HNTB, a national engineering consulting firm with a presence in Columbus. The city established the Smart Columbus team to deliver all the Smart projects including the CVE. The city is committed to growing the local economy, improving safety and sustainability, and creating a city where people want to live and work.

Vendors Provide Technology and Services

A variety of vendors are providing the actual hardware, software, installation, and construction services to create the connected vehicle environment.

Each vendor has something to sell. But more than that, they’re all looking ahead. The Columbus CVE is a leading-edge project. Cities across the country are watching, learning, and forming their own approaches to traffic safety and people-movement. Vendors want to demonstrate their success and continue to present themselves as valuable implementation partners to other cities.

Overall, vendors expressed optimism. Mark Rogers, Vice President of Operations at Gudenkauf Corporation, a national company that’s building the physical infrastructure in Columbus said, “There’s a lot of great things going on with the city. Technologies being poured into Central Ohio. It’s really good for everybody.”

The city needed a special group of vendors; local auto-electronics shops to install devices on private vehicles. To find these vendors, the Smart City team went shop to shop in the neighborhoods where the connected vehicle environment will be built. The city’s representatives explained the business opportunity and invited shop owners to apply. Along the way, they created goodwill in local neighborhoods.

Gregg Fisher, owner of Sound Chamber Car Audio in the Linden neighborhood said, “This is the first time I’ve had contact with the city past paying taxes.” He laughed and added, “So apparently I’ve been around long enough where somebody’s actually taking a real look at me. That makes me feel great.”

Fisher received his city contract on December 14th. He had hoped to start installing devices this winter. Instead, he’ll have to wait until March or April of next year. Still, he said, “I’m feeling good about it.”

Fisher said he might have trouble training a new worker to help with his part of the project. He’s not alone in facing staffing challenges. Mark Rogers, of Guedenkauf said, “Every contractor is under serious pressure for labor. There aren’t enough skilled folks out there to keep up with all the projects going on.” He stressed that the jobs he has to offer pay very well. These staffing needs present opportunities for city and regional workers.

The city started selecting vendors in the spring of 2019. By the end of 2019, it had not yet signed all the needed contracts. The process is slow. A city can’t just “move fast and break things”, as Mark Zuckerberg of FaceBook famously said. Instead, the city has to bring everyone along, including their residents.

Private Vehicle Owners Participate

While bus riders stand to benefit the most from the connected vehicle environment, they’re not the people who will have devices installed in their cars.

The city must convince 1,000 private car owners to participate. Their approach includes a combination of outreach and cash incentives. The assumption is that drivers will want something that improves their safety, and the cash bonuses will encourage them to participate.

The potential objections are numerous. Will private citizens trust the city with their information? Will they agree to something that could later expose them to penalties for bad driving? Will they even agree to an installation of something in the vehicles?

Finally, once the connected vehicle environment is up and running, will drivers respond to the messages their cars send them? Will a driver slow down in a school zone because the car tells them to? Will they accelerate to get through a yellow light because their car warns them that the light is about to turn red? And how will drivers react when they have to yield to a mostly empty public bus?

Community participation is the final wildcard that will ultimately determine whether the connected vehicle environment project makes Columbus streets safer and more efficient.

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Gayle McCord

Freelance Writer/JournalistCovering the nexus between urban mobility, smart cities, and community, business, and governmental stakeholders

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